Trailblazer Christine Choy on ‘Our Responsibility to Document History While It Is Unfolding’

Documentary trailblazer Christine Choy kicked off Hot Docs’ Industry LIVE conference with a captivating fast-forward through the plot points and ideologies of her experimental, activist filmmaking, including her recent turn in front of the camera in Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s doc-feature debut “The Exiles,” winner of this year’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize in documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film has its international premiere at Hot Docs on Thursday, with a followup cinema screening on Sunday.

A beloved, outspoken film professor for many years, Choy has also worked steadily behind the camera since the early 1970s, and was a founding director with New York-based Third World Newsreel, one of the oldest alternative media arts organizations in the U.S., and through which she made the seminal “From Spikes to Spindles” (1976). Her current projects include a doc about the WWII U.S. air squadron the Flying Tigers and another exploring Tupac Shakur’s influence on Asian pop music: “I used to babysit him—can you believe it?,” she laughed.

Recently, Choy has been experiencing a resurgence in attention—and not only because of “Exiles.”

Her Oscar-nominated, Peabody-winning 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”—about the case of a Chinese American draftsman who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit in 1982—was inducted last year into the National Film Registry (NFR) of the Library of Congress; many of her films, including that one, were recently made available on the Criterion Channel.

After explaining to the Hot Docs audience the particular dynamics of the segregated society and labor issues in Detroit at the time of Chin’s death, Choy went on to describe the hesitation of the public broadcaster supporting the Chin documentary to greenlight her as director. Her only formal training was architecture, they said, but more important was the question of how she could be objective, since she is Asian. (She was assigned a white male journalist from WGBH to supervise her work.)

Choy said she feels circumstances have changed a great deal, mostly for the better, since she became an Academy member following the film’s nomination. “When you stand up to explain your position and talk about your people’s culture, which is also as a part of world culture, to an establishment institution, some of them are willing to listen—that really changed the landscape for me at the end of the 1980s,” she said, adding, “You young people, future filmmakers, are able to use our misunderstandings positively instead of negatively.”

In “Exiles,” Choy interviews three leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests in their current homes, bearing with her never-before-seen footage she captured in 1989, following the arrival of the men in the U.S. after the massacre.

In 1989, Choy was primarily interested in asking the three dissidents about the unidentified “Tank Man,” but soon realized there was much to learn about the protests. Filming was “very chaotic,” she told Toronto film critic Angelo Muredda during the conference interview. “I literally didn’t know what I was shooting. After filming in Chicago, I followed them around in New York. But the film stayed in negative format and was never processed.”

After NYU opened a campus in Shanghai in 2013, Choy, an NYU professor, offered Shanghai television the footage, due to its connection to Chinese history, and was turned down three times. “Can you believe it, they said ‘bury it.’ I became furious and knew I really should digitize the negative,” she said.

With financial support from Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who had just won the 2013 best director Oscar for “Life of Pi,” Choy was able to digitize the footage, which was in good physical shape, and later showed it to Columbus and Klein, who had taken her doc production class at NYU.

“As documentarians, it is our responsibility to document history while it is unfolding, right? So to bury it again is a little ludicrous, right? (‘The Exiles’ filmmakers) Ben and Violet did a fantastic job because the film is not didactic.

“I am so thankful the material exists and that they have been able to reconstruct it using today’s film language,” she continued. “And I’m really grateful these voices will be heard and maybe not today in China, but maybe 50 years later.

“The spirit of the documentary filmmaker is that you have to take a position—even if it might be jeopardizing your family, your fortune. But you have to take a position, otherwise, who else is gonna do that?”

For Choy, the love of film goes back to her young teenage years living in South Korea (her father was Korean, her mother Chinese). “We were Chinese students, so we were allowed to go to the movies because we were already corrupted,” she said. “I wanted to be a movie star, but when I got to America there were no Asian movie stars to look up to. So I became a filmmaker.

“Now, I’ve become a movie star in a documentary film—what was a crazy, unimaginable dream came true!”

“A Conversation with Christine Choy” and other Hot Docs Industry LIVE sessions were recorded and are being made available to Hot Docs online passholders this week.