Politically Active Filmmaking: A Conversation with Director Jy-Ah Min
Filmmaker Jy-Ah Min grew up in Southern California. In college she got involved with politics – registering students to vote, organizing young Korean Americans, and putting together peace marches–and had planned to be a lawyer. But while studying at the University of San Diego she met Jean-Pierre Gorin, a leftist who worked with the French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Gorin suggested Min watch Godard’s revolutionary 1966 movie, Masculin Féminin. When Min saw the film about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” as Godard notoriously described it, she was fascinated by his use of text as images and rapid sound cuts, and she saw parallels between '60s youth in France and her contemporary peers in San Diego. She wanted to explore this idea with her camera, and ended up making her first feature film, M/F Remix, about roommates Mimi and Philip. M/F Remix –– which is not a remake of Masculin Féminin, but, like the title says, a remix –– made its U.S. premiere at the International Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco in March, and will screen at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival from April 6-17th, with more screening dates viewablehere. AlterNet spoke with Min about reinventing a classic, infusing art with politics, and filmmaking as activism.
When did you first see the Godard film, and what about it interested you?
It must have been like early 2003. It’s certainly not my favorite Godard film, but for me it wasn’t a question of finding a film that was my favorite. At the time, I was a visual art major but I had the intention of going to law school. But I got bit by the film bug at this time, and I saw this Godard film and there was something about that film that gripped me. It’s about the youth of the '60s during the time of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, but for me it didn’t feel like the past. There was a language embedded in the film, or perhaps the language of Godard, that I felt was relevant to the present and the place I come from, which is the world of hip-hop.
I can be a very obsessive person because I keep thinking about things and I don’t let them go. After seeing that film, I was thinking about all the elements of it, and it kind of opened my eyes and helped me pay attention to what was happening around the time which was, you know, 2004 was the reelection of Bush, so the election period was coming on. This was a time where people were starting to pick up cell phones, but not everybody had them, and there were a lot of technological changes happening. I felt this urgency to understand it even though I was 23 or 22 and didn’t quite understand it. But I had a sense of something that was disappearing that I wanted to grasp and capture.I started talking to Jean-Pierre Gorin, a French American filmmaker who worked with Godard. He was very interested in the project and wanted to see where it would go. It started out as a summer project. I never imagined I’d be a filmmaker.
How did politics play into your movie?
I grew up in Southern California as an immigrant, and I’ve been involved with Asian American community throughout my college years. I worked for the Southern California Korean College Student Association, SCKCSA. It’s a collation of Korean American college students, and we did community service and did political work in community, so I was a politically conscious kid. During the Bush and Kerry election period, for me it was such a crucial moment, and yet I felt... I don’t want to say apathy, but people were not involved. My peers were uninvolved. They weren’t necessarily uninterested, but there was no activism. As we know today, Bush got reelected and then we had the Iraq War. For me, it was a really crucial moment and nothing was happening around me. A lot of people were not involved at all, and I kind of wanted to understand that better because a lot of my obsession in my youth was about being politically active and trying to get more people involved in that. So I was trying to understand -- how do you create activism in your community, and how can you move people to collectively work toward something?
Southern California is very spread out and we’re always in private spaces, and we’re always moving from one private space to another. I was interested in the people in their 20s being obsessed with the things they were obsessed with, and I wanted to capture that.
You say you saw parallels between France in the '60s and Southern California in 2004. What were those parallels?
Godard tried to create a system of distance in his film so the camera was able to capture young people almost like looking at animals in a zoo. If you have the proper distance, you see how they move, and react and he creates the distance between the subject and the story by using text and images and sound in an aggressive way. And for me, that was not only linked to a language I recognized in music, but in terms of circumstances -- I mean, this is 1966 just two years before 1968, which rocked the world. At the same time the Vietnam War is going on and you see the young people in Paris who he called the generation of Marx and Coca Cola having the leisurely life and not really caring about what’s going on in the world, or maybe that’s just a side Godard chose to capture at the time.
I know Godard said in an interview once that Masculin Féminin is not a film about youth, but it’s a film that thinks about youth. In the same way, I ended up creating a film that is not necessarily about Masculin Féminin at all, but it’s a film that contemplates the methodology used in Masculin Féminin to think about the present. I wanted to create the same kind of distance that Godard had. That’s why the film turned out to be quite experimental, because I didn’t necessarily know what it was going to turn out to be. I had an idea in terms of style and construction because I had a lot of guidelines. Godard has a lot of stylistic techniques that I certainly borrowed from. What I like about his style is he has a trademark way of using text as an image, and he has a way of creating rules and breaking them. That to me is relevant to hip-hop. I believe we are the generation of remix. Not necessarily by choice, but because we are so overwhelmed by all the information and images coming at us all at once.
Were you trying to present Mimi and Philip, the characters in the film, as passive?
They were passive, but I wasn’t trying to criticize the characters for who they were. I was simply trying to observe the people around me. I don’t think M/F Remix is a negative film or saying that all young people are doomed, we don’t participate and we don’t care. I think it’s quite the opposite, and I think there’s a reason why a lot of academics have a hard time pinning us down as Generation X or Y or Z or whatever, because they can say we’re lazy or this or that, but at the same time we’re super productive. I think it’s just a different mode of communication all together.
I was born in 1980, so I turned in papers written by hand and I wrote rough drafts. I remember a time before the Internet. I lived through an age where there were a lot of changes and different modes of communication and expression and productivity. For me it was just trying to describe one aspect of the lives of Mimi and Philip but not in a judgmental way. I wanted to create an environment in the film that allowed me to capture the daily mundanities of two young roommates co-existing together in the isolation of their own home.
There’s the famous quote from Godard about Masculin Féminin being about the children of Marx and Coca Cola. What did that mean to you? Is that about consumerism?
My film begins by saying “Dear Mr. Godard, we know Coca-Cola but who the hell is Marx?” And I think the rest of the film was trying to figure out how that applies to the characters of Mimi and Philip.
Masculin Féminin was about youth in the '60s. It was the first generation that defined themselves as being consumers, unlike their parents’ generation who didn’t have the same leisurely ways. It was the onset of the sexual revolution with the birth control pill.
In my film, the last quote is, “Nothing new on the western front.” The alternative quote that I considered ending the movie with was “Sois jeune et tais tois,”which means “Be young and shut up.” It’s supposed to be a sarcastic quote that was used in ‘68 by the student protesters who would put up these big posters with de Gaulle who had his hand over the mouths of the youth. The poster was created to outrage the youth, to say, get out there and let your voices be heard. But I chose to say “Nothing new on the Western front” because I feel we’re on the same trajectory that Godard picked up on in the '60s and I think we’re on the extreme end of some things he picked up on. For example in original film there’s a scene, which you see in my film, where he’s talking about there’s going to be machines that will give sexual pleasure and things like that. Now we’re in an age where you can go out to Barnes and Noble and buy a book like Kama Sutra for Dummies or you can buy condoms in every flavor.
How does filmmaking fit into your political activism?
What I love about the medium of film is that it’s a medium that can be shared with enormous amount of people. That comes with responsibility and power to be able to articulate something in a very precise way. For me all films are political. When I was active in my community, I realized that if you speak to a large crowd of 500 people, maybe one person will actually remember it. It’s fleeting, and it’s gone. The magic of cinema is that you can articulate something over a longer period of time and have that stay and be archived and be shared many times over for generations. There was something that fascinated me about that. Also that it’s a craft that I can work towards being able to get better, and that was really powerful and alluring.