Interview with Debbie Lum, Director of Try Harder!

During SDAFF’s Spring Showcase, Director Debbie Lum spoke with Asia Pacific Arts on the ins and outs of her film, as well as share an update on the students from the film as they are expected to graduate from college this year.

APA: Why the focus on Lowell High School? You went to Brown in the ’90s and then SFU for your MFA in 2002. How did your experience compare to theirs?

Lum: Lowell is an iconic public institution and I’m a transplant to San Francisco. But the minute you arrive, you hear about Lowell. It’s infamous in all the good and the bad ways. Personally, as a filmmaker, what intrigued me was its archetypal “model minority” Asian American high school and there had never been a feature-length documentary about it.

It’s interesting because I think more people generally skew East Coast, so they know about high schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Actually, my mom grew up in NYC so even I knew it personally more than Lowell High School. But Stuyvesant and Lowell are quite different because while Stuyvesant is/was Asian, you know the majority Asian Americans are a minority within the school district. But in San Francisco, Asian Americans are highly represented in the area.

For me, it was interesting to consider a place where being Asian American is the norm. I will kind of joke that being Asian American is normal, whereas for the rest of the world, if you’re Asian American, most the time you’re like six percent of the population. You’re a total abnormality, you’re strange, you’re an outsider, and an outcast. Or worse invisible. That’s really how I grew up. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and you know we were one of the only ones. There was a couple of other families in my high school that were Asian American, and we, just by default, had to be best friends because there was no one else there.

APA: How did you decide to start the film with that anxiety-filled tip tapping of feet and pencils?

Lum: I really wanted to be able to draw the viewer in through the student’s perspective. We wanted to open with two kind of big emotional feelings: one was kind of anxiety and the other was humor. Actually, for the longest time, we opened in a different way. We had many different openings to the film. I actually invited the main students and a bunch of students, not just the chorus, to share their personal statements.

We tried for a while to create a sequence where the students were reading their personal statements directly to camera because I always felt that when you apply to college, you’re basically auditioning yourself for the role of yourself. It’s a lot of pressure and an unreasonable expectation. At one point, we opened with a different scene because Lowell High has this pressure that the kids feel all the time even when they’re walking around the halls.

APA: In the documentary, there’s a focus on five students. Given the population of Lowell High School, what was the process of choosing those students? Did the students come to you and ask about your background and why you went the route you did?

Lum: I feel very lucky that way because my parents were second and third generation. I’m kind of more like Ian, whose mom was the “Anti-Tiger Mom.” I showed them my last film and we had this great ambassador, Mr. Shapiro, the physics teacher. He’s a physics teacher who has a deep appreciation for the arts, so the education those students got was not just scientific. It was really life learning and he’s always framing his classes in this kind of philosophical way.

I did not have a teacher like Mr. Shapiro, who was a great appreciator of the arts, and so when we initially talked to the students through his class, he had them watch my last film, Seeking Asian Female. I really wanted to understand the film through the lens of this sort of stereotype of the Tiger Mother. I think in some way the students felt like, “Oh here is this kind of alternate reality mom who I can tell my thoughts and feelings to who isn’t going to worry about whether I get an A on this interview or not.”

The motivation for making the film was the students themselves. When I met them, I was surprised that they felt this palpable urge to have their stories told; they wanted to have their stories told and a lot of times. I’ve been making documentaries about Asian Americans for a really long time. That’s kind of challenging sometimes. We haven’t traditionally been raised to expose ourselves to the public in terms of Asian tradition. It wasn’t the case in my last film, but for the other films I’ve worked on as an editor or producer, it’s not part of our world view. In America, it has been dangerous to be Asian and so you kind of keep that part of you inside. I’ve been writing proposals for 20 years, talking about how important it is to have storytelling about our community and sadly, now you’re seeing the true urgency of it.

APA: Did Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ever come up during filming given the timing?

Lum: Yeah, that was in the background while we were filming, and we spoke to students and parents about that. The strange thing was that the students did not feel comfortable framing themselves in that paradigm. I think there’s two things: there’s the legality of it, but then there’s also the emotional reality of it and the impact on our identity. While I was in post-production, it’s making its way back to the Supreme Court. The initial trial happened, and it was ruled that Harvard does not discriminate and yet at the same time it came out that Asian Americans are rated lower on personality.

There’s a deep misunderstanding of Asian Americans and particularly Asian American young people are so overshadowed. We live in the shadows of the motherland of Asia, and we’re seen as these perpetual weird people that live in America. Foreign and, at the same time, not fully American.

I don’t usually talk about this in interviews, but Loni Ding was our hero. Loni Ding, who was one of the early filmmaker who always told stories about the Asian American experience. She made the Asian American series. She’s really good at showing Asian American culture and how we are part of the creation of America. We created the railroads, and there’s so many things that Asian Americans have been part of but not acknowledged. It’s like that classic photo where we’re not in the picture.

Education is a great part of it. Look at the way Asian Americans support public education in America. We’re one of the communities that are true believers in public education. Tape v. Hurley was the foundation for Brown vs. Board of Education. These are very American things that our community has fought for, including the idea of birthright citizenship, for example.

APA: This film stands in direct opposition of the sentiment that Lowell students, particularly Asian students, are “robots” given how much energy and passion each of the students exude in your film. Was that one of the goals for this documentary? 

Lum: It seems really silly to say this out loud, but Asian American students are just as human as every other student out there. It’s so ridiculous even have to say that. That’s where I think that we don’t have the point of reference in our community for what it means to be Asian American. We don’t have it ourselves, personally, and the greater, larger community doesn’t either. So, when they look at us from the outside, they see just these gross stereotypes. They don’t have anything to do with individuality.

One of the great things about being a White person in America is that you are allowed to have flaws. You’re allowed to be an individual. There’s a variety of even things like stereotypes about a blonde or a red-blooded fraternity boy. At the same time, there’s a hundred other stereotypes of what it means to be White, and we have just one, which is that we’re quiet, hard-working, and smart.

APA: Quite a lot stacked against Asian students, but even the non-Asian students within the high school seemed to be blanketed in those same stereotypes. The two words that I expected in the documentary was “affirmative action,” which is something I think often hangs over the head of students. Rachael talks about her experience as a biracial person and the racism she encountered during her time at the school. As we know, affirmative action perpetuates internalized racism and infighting for a limited space between people of color. Was this something that came up during the filming process?

Lum: My film is not a policy film. It’s really about telling a story and capturing students on their journey, which never really happens. You can have a lot of policy about students and all the articles that are written, but they look at them from the outside of what the kids are going through. We’ve shown the film since it premiered at Sundance. We’ve had all this opportunity to show it in very interesting places like college admissions committees at universities. It’s shocking that they find the film revealing, shocking, and full of tears. They’re left wondering, “Oh what is the impact of our policy on these kids?” That’s what films can do; they take you to another world and change your heart and your mind.

APA: There’s quite a lot of studies around high achievers with high anxiety but also studies on what happens to adults when they’re out of the school system and don’t have the support system they need. Have you been able to follow up with the students and see how they’re doing as this would be the year many of them will graduate from college? Have their perspectives changed?

Lum: One thing that we’re really proud of is that we’re launching a campaign with the release of our film that tries to do good with our film. We take it to communities, students, parents, and the gatekeepers that put students at the center of the college admissions journey. We provide them with resources for mental health and student agency.

Students that were in the film are coming along with us as we do that. Often times they’re speaking at festivals or community screenings and a couple of them have even written letters to their high school selves. High school students are going through the process just as these students are now about to move on from college into the big wide world and beyond. It’s been amazing to see them and watch them grow up over the course of a school year. And then it’s been amazing to see where they have ended up in four years because they’re very much inspiring. It gives you hope in our sea of chaos that we live in right now.

Ian is going to be going off to do Teach for America so he’s going to do a year of teaching. Alvan and Rachael are applying to medical school right now and going through all that. They’re all doing different things, and each one is kind of growing in surprising ways. Donna, Rachael’s mom, is still right there with her. Same with Alvan and his parents.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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