Filmmaker discusses the impetus behind new film focused on Asian American women
By Joy Dietrich
Near my mother’s home in Louisiana, there’s a procession of weeping willows that shade a sleepy street. Their limbs sag as if they can barely hold their load. But when you look to see what makes the limbs droop, there is nothing but the sky and the air. It’s an unconscious, indecipherable weight.
I wanted to write and direct a film that portrayed the complexities of the lives of American women of Asian descent, mainly because I realized that there would be very few who would take on this task other than an Asian American woman filmmaker like me. If we were portrayed, it would be in a stereotypical fashion — the buck toothed servant, the kung fu sidekick, the dragon lady, the exotic flower.
So I had a mission… During the research for TIE A YELLOW RIBBON, I discovered a startling fact — that Asian American women in the age group 15-24 have one of the highest depression rates in the U.S. I thought of those silent, weeping willows.
I don’t think researchers know why a racial/gender group would suffer more depression than others — but I could surmise from my own experience growing up in the heartland of America and from gathering a sense of collective experience through conversations with other women that it is about self-worth, self-image, and self-acceptance.
I’m a Korean adoptee who grew up in a white family, and in a place where I was the only Asian in town. The East and West Coasts are islands loosely connected to the vast homogeneous Middle. I didn’t see people who looked like me on television, in magazines, in practically any media. In fact, I didn’t meet any Asians until I got to college. I remembered the isolation, the loneliness of being different, the intense longing to connect with someone, anyone. Needless to say, there were painful identity issues growing up.
The feelings of displacement, of dislocation and disorientation are universal among people living in a country where they are a minority, especially when the majority reminds them that they don’t belong. They start feeling that intangible sense of loss. Of what? Of home. What is home? Perhaps it feels like home when they have active participation in the political and cultural process. Perhaps it’s the mere connecting with someone that makes it feel like home.
Jenny’s search for home in TIE A YELLOW RIBBON is that universal desire to “fit”. When she doesn’t, the audience feels that sense of loss with her. Her statement “People connect. Disconnect” becomes a haunting mantra of her disillusionment.
TIE A YELLOW RIBBON is my attempt to place young women of Asian descent squarely into the landscape of America. One of the key metaphors for Jenny’s struggle is portrayed in the iconic American painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. The woman reaches for the home at the top of the hill–the mysterious woman whose head is to the back of the viewer. What does she look like? What if it’s an American woman of Asian descent?
The film also references the act of tying yellow ribbons to remember the loved ones that haven’t found their way home. We Americans have done this for troops, traditionally, but I do it for those weeping willows whose limbs strain to touch the earth, to get to the root from which they sprung.
Searching for Culture
I used to drift all over the place in my twenties, living, traveling in Europe and Asia — a sense of rootlessness so keen in me. I didn’t realize what I was doing until much later. I was searching for a culture that felt like home. During these wanderings the place I felt most at home was in the cinema. European and Asian auteur films left me breathless. In a way, films held the lifeline to make me stay connected to the earth.
In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. — the country where I grew up — and made a commitment to invest in the opening of this culture to diversity and ultimately, to call the U.S. — my home.
TIE A YELLOW RIBBON is my first feature film and it was the most difficult work I have ever done. I never went to film school. I studied International Relations and Politics instead and became a journalist by trade. I didn’t know anyone in the established independent film world, but I did manage to write, direct and produce it. It was backbreaking work — made more difficult when I learned that there is little commercial demand (therefore less financing) for such stories.
In my future projects, I hope to continue exploring themes of not only cultural displacement but of biological displacement as well. I would like to continue to give voice to those people invisible still in today’s media — the abandoned child, the forgotten minority — the universal outsider.
On the Web
Korean-born American filmmaker Joy Dietrich has worked in publishing as an editor and reporter for various magazines and news services in the United States and abroad. Her first critically acclaimed short film, SURPLUS, dealt with the devastating effects of poverty on the children of a Korean family. She was awarded a New York State Council on the Arts grant in 2004, and received funding from the Independent Television Service’s Open Call to write and shoot her first feature film TIE A YELLOW RIBBON. She now splits her time working forThe New York Times and on her filmmaking activities.