Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 17.7: CAAMFest40 Shorts – Boundless Questions for Women’s Rights, Mental Health, and our Journeys in Time
By Ravi Chandra
May 9, 2022
Meaning, relationship and wellness have dominated my concerns as I’ve previewed shorts programs for CAAMFest40, which are all available on-demand May 12th-22nd, worldwide without geoblocking. An online pass will get you into the entire online program, including the shorts and some features, or you can buy tickets for individual programs. This review is primarily focused on one shorts program, BOUNDLESS, but I will also mention some additional shorts of interest for LGBTQIA+ themes, mental health, and life journeys, particularly for men. Also note that CAAM is giving away tickets to the in-person opening night screening of FREE CHOL SOO LEE at the Castro Theater! I think this includes the afterparty at the Asian Art Museum as well. Tickets and passes for all in-person and on-demand events are available now.
As a therapist and human, I am close to women’s stories, but how close can I be to their experiences and lives? How close can I, as a man, be to women who have lost themselves or their children to the plans of men?
Thơ, directed, written by and starring Heather Muriel Nguyen, is in the CAAMFest40-on-demand program BOUNDLESS, and hits the nail on the head. Our sexual journeys can be so fragmented and chaotic. No outside observer can totally understand what was going on, and even we are sometimes unaware of our influences and agency in these moments. Thơ is made the object, an actor in someone else’s play, and eventually she finds a way to be herself. She is clear she wants control of her story. I agree. But I don’t see myself in any of the men she portrays. Men exist in more ways than the sexual journeys of women, but that is one of the ways men can most harmfully intersect.
Our sexual and reproductive journeys are under the influences of forces beyond our individual control. Some of them we name as racism, sexism, patriarchy, religious dogmatism and so forth. These come down in disconnections of mutuality and consent. They come down in the ways men’s opinions and actions have consequences on the vulnerable. And there are ways that some women have become complicit in the systems that oppress other women.
Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked opinion in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health, joined by Justice Amy Coney Barrett and three other justices is prime example. The power of an ideology, originalism, has taken precedence over the voices of people who were silenced by the framers of the Constitution. Their “original” lack of empathy and the lack of status and human dignity for women (and obviously, plenty of others, from Blacks to Indigenous peoples to White non-landowners and so forth) is now being further enshrined by Justice Alito’s narrow framing. The potential majority opinion could open a culture war causing untold damage to the lives of everyone who cares about women’s choices on their sexual and reproductive journeys.
“Until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.”
The problem is that this is not true. While there may not have been a law affirming the right to abortion, abortion was practiced extensively throughout the country before the mid 1800s. And rights not specifically limited are ours, per my understanding of our Constitution.
On the NewsHour, I heard that “in the country’s earliest years, abortion was not against the law.” A group of white men formed the AMA in 1847, and decided they wanted to exclude midwives and other women who were offering abortion services and abortifacients, so they advocated for anti-abortion laws. Around this time, anti-abortion laws were written to encourage more White babies against the “Browning” of America. Appendix A of Alito’s opinion consists of antebellum laws which cannot, I think, be separated from the nativist and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiments of the times. The law and Constitution, if narrowly read, can and will service prejudiced sentiment, QED.
Critical Race Theory, anyone?
“[C]ritical race theory explores how law purports to represent abstract and equal liberal subjects while in fact producing racial subjects and hierarchies according to institutionalized structures of white power and privilege.”
– Eng and Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation
Protecting the privileges of White males was clearly a significant influence in the shaping of early legislation against abortion in the 1800s. Neither the framers, nor their descendants, have been perfectly free of bias. Our laws and their interpretation reflect that bias.
What is leaning on this Court, now, in terms of influence? This might sound odd, but I think that underneath everything, on the level of the psyche, the majority thinks that women have become too influential and judgmental on men’s sexual journeys. Do women have mercy for some men? All men? What is justice when women are in charge? Which women? Will men be heard in such a system? I think these are the questions underneath America’s roil right now, and the next salvo will be the final opinion in Dobbs. If abortion rights are struck down, the implicit undercurrent will really be that the world of men does not trust the world of women to be in charge of either their own bodies or mens’ lives.
Literally, some men feel like they’re being canceled by a woman’s right to choose. And some men are. Homo scapegoatiens. Truth be told, many men have suffered enormous injuries at the hands of some women. They know it, and are not happy about it.
Personally, I trust many women to have influence on me – but control? No thank you. But I am deeply influenced – and sometimes even controlled – by the world of women, because I care, a lot. And because we are all connected. So there you have it. Because I’m Brown, I will go down with the women I care about. And then we’ll figure out how to have a party we can believe in.
This last is an amicus brief advocating for trust in the psyche, not a legal opinion. We can’t legislate trust between the genders. That has to come from societal and interpersonal processes. The court could facilitate such trust, or it could complicate it, for years to come.
In the end, it’s all about working towards trust in a situation where trust has been eroded, for understandable but misguided and unreasonable reasons of conquest, power and subordination. What we can each do in our lives is live in our humanity, all the while deconstructing the projected intersubjectivity of toxic masculinity paired with toxic feminine control.
What I’m looking and hoping for is a new covenant of trust as the wrecking ball of powerful opinion-makers and “influencers” meets an already vulnerable society.
Professor Lawrence Tribe says “It’s very uncommon for justices to move from the position of affirming a decision below to reversing.” But as David French writes in The Atlantic “In 1992, The Washington Post reported that Justice Anthony Kennedy initially voted to reverse Roe v. Wade when deciding Planned Parenthood v. Casey but later switched his vote to affirm Roe, ‘a flip attributed in court circles to liberal constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe’s pulling strings backstage.’”
Can any of the five in the current majority (Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) have a change of heart? Can their ruling be made narrower, as narrow as possible? If not, then how will we restore trust in the court and in the country? Because there are yet more challenges ahead.
Lamesa Nashrat’s a day at the beach starts with the words “the process of birth is painful. Painful for the mother, and painful for the baby. Both mother and baby cry.” The stream of consciousness film stretches into the journey of finding meaning in life, with influences as broad as the birth of aviation to a synth voice that sounds like Stephen Hawking talking about the universe, which then talks about billionaires. How do we chart our way in a world where our hopes meet futility and cynicism? How do we retain or imagine a perspective that gives us life?
The film playfully suggests that billionaires and other “influencers” will be given a “bionic immune system” but the real question is “who is immune from suffering,” as we tilt towards extinction. “Does evolution have a purpose?” The voiceover says no, according to Google. But then for the kicker: “if it’s the end of the world, I want to be where you are.” And herein is the purpose of our human evolution, I think, or at least the evolution of human meaning. To be with each other. How do we do that, when some individuals and the entire structure of society is so disconnected from being? Can we construct a Geocortex of care for need and nurture?
But a Geocortex is a tall order. Maybe we need innovation less than inner-renovation. The longest journey is from the mind to the heart. This is, of course, a relational journey, and it cannot be undertaken alone. We are all part of each other’s journeys, whether we know it or not.
TT Takemoto’s Ever Wanting for Margaret Chung is an experimental film tied to the first Chinese American woman physician, Margaret Chung. The final images are of men parachuting from planes in WW II, over a background of blood cells flowing through capillaries. Preceding this are images of militarism, and women taking various roles, from doctor to singer. What is the life of this planet we inhabit? How does this life influence the roles women take? No one influence can take credit for Dr. Chung’s life and journey of identity. She came from a Christian family, yet handed out jade Buddha’s to servicemen going off to war. She was a psychiatrist and a surgeon, per Wikipedia. She was apparently queer, generous, and foul-mouthed if the need arose.
The conditioning of life meets our agency, and from there our identity is continually created. What agency is arising for us now, out of all our myriad influences, on this brink?
Nirav Bhakta’s Thank You Come Again is a time capsule of memories in a convenience store, and the relationship of a South Asian man with his father, under the pressures of abusive immigration authorities. The film had me asking just one question: where is the compassion for our childhood selves who experienced such horrible pain and trauma at the hands of forces beyond their control? Are we not still those childhood selves? Don’t those moments still live in us? Don’t we still need each other’s help?
The moments don’t go away. But we can be here for each other.
Charlene Xu’s How Small is a lovely animated film about the relationship of grandmother to granddaughter, as transmitted in misconnects over the grandmother’s gift of a sweater to her as a little girl, and emotional misunderstandings, which are ultimately bound with moments of care and nurture. How many daughters go their whole lives without being understood by their mothers? How many mothers go their whole lives without being understood by their children? Maybe total understanding is not possible, in either direction, but to have a continuity of love and presence is a real blessing.
This continuity runs through Frances Grace Mortel’s Dear Nanay, connecting the strength of her grandmother’s hands to her own resilience. Thank the universe and the culture of care for that strength, in all the places it exists. It doesn’t, everywhere.
How can we influence the world so that it allows the strengths of women, and men, to tend together in care? In so many ways, it feels we are leaning away from each other. How can we lean in, to the task at hand?
As we engage with gender and sexual orientation at the Supreme Court and cultural levels, these films can feed our collective consciousness. The GREAT EXPECTATIONS program has Emily May Jampel’s Lucky Fish, a tender short about a chance meeting between two teen girls, and The Return, Hena Ashraf’s profound meditation on her relationship with her father as a queer South Asian. SPECTRAL DRIVERS has Naman Gupta’s incredible Coming Out with the Help of a Time Machine, which captures so much of the tension in our coming out stories.
Don’t Worry About It, by Melissa Kong, also in SPECTRAL DRIVERS, is one of my faves of the fest. A young Asian American woman with OCD is counseled by a strict but caring White woman therapist to overcome her phobias through exposure to the situations that trigger her. By the end of this lovely film, she gets down to a core of meaning: a feeling of guilt, shame and inadequacy as a person, which is channeled into various corporeal habits of attempted mini-redemption, such as washing her hands 30 times every time she feels dirty. Only ultimate, total self-acceptance will bring us to wholeness and freedom – because our lives are enfolded in patterns of judgment and physical and psychic incarceration.
We can be each other’s liberators.
Another favorite is Erica Eng’s Americanized, in HOMEGROWN, featuring a Chinese American high schooler in Oakland, straddling Black and Asian worlds. She strives for acceptance in each, but is rejected and even bullied by each. Her journey reminded me of my own, and will resonate with everyone who has found belonging hard to find, and identity a continuous act of creation and setback.
Yet another favorite (maybe I should stop with the “favoriting” already and just admit I love what all these filmmakers are doing) is Ka Ho’i: The Return in the NEW JOURNEYS program. We see an aging Hawai’ian Vietnam veteran reliving memories, living in disconnection, and then ultimately finding his rootedness in Hawai’i and her people themselves. “Wherever a Hawaiian goes, there too goes Hawai’i.” If we keep our aloha spirit, I think, we can stay tethered to the spirit of life itself, beyond time, beyond our mortal suffering.
Elvis of Laos, also in NEW JOURNEYS, has lessons for surviving and thriving over a difficult life. Voradeth Ditthavong found inspiration in Elvis and family during his life as a refugee and immigrant, producing incredible music over a career that spanned Laos in the early 1970s to France and the U.S. in the 80s to the present. (Here’s his SoundCloud.)
“Life is a journey. Nothing is smooth, even the highway, there’s a bump. Be yourself. Don’t get stuck to anything. You have to live your life. To love. To learn. Don’t stop learning. And to leave a legacy if you can. If you love something, do it, as long as you can, until your last day. You have to have an idol …but you have to be you. You have to be you.”
Our collective psyche and journeys are in need of repair. We are not just individuals, we are a relatedness of men and women and children and people of all genders. It feels like we are on the precipice of cutting ties to something. The familiar, perhaps, or the archaic. It can feel like we are being forced to cut ties with each other.
Maybe we must cut ties, not to people, but the impulses that pull us away from each other. How do we cut ties with aggression? How do we lean into love, I wonder, as I always have. How do we lean into conscience, and accountability?
Everyone out here leaning, holla. We need to hear each other. As a woman in Justyn Ah Chong’s Pili Ka Mo’o (in PEOPLE POWER) says, we’ve grown “numb to the purpose or sacredness of things,” and we need to find our way back to feeling.
For further reading:
Schuessler J. The Fight Over Abortion History. New York Times, May 4, 2022 (but the NewsHour segment above is more comprehensive, IMHO)