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Documentary gives voice to silence of Asian American community

Graduate film student Vanessa Yee’s film thesis “The Laundromat” investigates the stigmas within the Asian American community of mental health and communication of emotions. The documentary shares the stories of her friends who have struggled with silence, as well as her own story of depression.

By Aalhad Patankar

March 10, 2013 11:12 p.m.

In 2009, Vanessa Yee began her graduate film thesis: a documentary that turned the camera not only on an issue in her community, but onto her own personal life. Now a completed project, “The Laundromat” investigates the stigmas within the Asian American community of mental health and communication of emotions, caused by the custom “never air your dirty laundry,” meaning never speak about private issues.

The documentary shares not only the stories of her friends who have struggled with silence, but also her own story of depression and the inability to share her mother’s pancreatitis diagnosis. Daily Bruin’s Aalhad Patankar spoke with Yee about her family and community, as well as her role as the creator and a subject of her own investigation.

Daily Bruin: What does the metaphor of the laundromat mean?

Vanessa Yee: The name “The Laundromat” is always what has captured me. … With the idea of having your dirty laundry, it was just really powerful for me to consider what it would be like if there was a place where people could get rid of it, or to work on it, or to get it clean. A laundromat is about a third-party space, because if you don’t have the tools of your own to break silence and air your dirty laundry, you need to go somewhere else. … It wasn’t an easy journey to get people to connect to the metaphor, but I think we finally arrived at a visual and structural place for it.

DB: How difficult was it turning the camera on yourself as opposed to others?

VY: I fought against it for years. … (The film) started with a realization during my mother’s sickness, but it was not my story, it was a story about my three friends, and the process of healing that they go through, and that there’s hope at the end. … It took me two to three years to get my friends’ families on camera, my family on camera and to get myself to really open up. I had to put myself out there, I had to become a much larger part of the film, in fact being the spine – not just the narrator, but the actual spine, which I didn’t anticipate. It was horrible the whole way through.

I had to have my (director of photography) and editor keep pushing me to take those risks, because nobody wants to be vulnerable in that public kind of way. … It comes with the sense of shame that we were brought up with, to talk about things like depression or to discuss being weak. … This film is a way of getting past that kind of stuff, so eventually I had to figure out a way to be that person for my film.

DB: Who is Vanessa, the character, and how is she different from you as a person?

VY: Whenever I think of myself in the movie, I think of myself as Vanessa the filmmaker and Vanessa on screen. Vanessa the filmmaker is much more confident in some ways and a lot more insecure, because it’s a work of art that you have to put out there. … A lot of times, Vanessa the character fought to not be on screen so much, but Vanessa the filmmaker decided it was necessary.

There was a struggle within me between the part of me that wanted to make a good movie, and the part of me that wanted to hide. What’s great about that is it adds to the layers of a personal documentary. Vanessa the filmmaker is the one who conducts the interviews and asks the questions, while Vanessa the character is the one who’s talking and processing everything. It’s a question of identity.

DB: In 2011, the Daily Bruin featured you in an article before your film was released. In this article, a lot of private information, such as your depression and your mother’s condition, was presented before you had a chance to do so with your film. How difficult was it exposing your emotions and speaking to the Daily Bruin two years ago, and putting your dirty laundry within the creative control of another person?

VY: Back then, I had to make a choice, whether to put the film first, or to put the privacy of the information first. I chose the film, but I think it was a difficult decision. When I realized I was exposing myself in a certain way, I was like “Well, crap.” … But I’m a leaper, so my only regrets were afterwards.

DB: How difficult is it now?

VY: In terms of talking about it now, it’s easier and harder. It’s easier because everybody’s learning to talk a little more about these things, now that the film is a little bit more out there, I don’t feel weird about exposing certain information. With someone who’s seen the film, there’s a common language, so it’s easier talking about it. At the same time, I feel more conscious of what I’m saying. … Having to watch myself go through it all in the film, I don’t think that’s ever going to get easier. Eventually, I’m going to have to walk out of screenings, but there’s probably a process of learning to be comfortable with these kind of things. Maybe when I get there, it will be easier, but as of now, it’s still very fresh to me.

DB: What will be the impact of “The Laundromat,” both as a film and as a metaphor?

VY: The movie is meant to be able to start a conversation, to start a dialogue. There is no way a one-hour documentary could encompass the whole of the theme in question. … Once the lights go back up, after you’ve seen the movie, the discussion that happens after is more important. I’ve created a website called “At The Laundromat,” for the community to air their dirty laundry. It has a story section where people can anonymously, or with their own name, share their own stories of different times they were made silent, or silence within their families and just stories about how they grew up. They range from humorous to dramatic to really tragic, so it works as a forum where people can get together and ask each other questions.

DB: Throughout the film, we see you discover very serious and very hidden truths about your friends, your family and yourself. What were some of the lighter moments on this journey?

VY: One thing that doesn’t get shown in the documentary is that we laughed as much as we cried, and maybe even more so laughed. Even though my friends had been or were currently going through something, there are still moments of joy and hope and the fact that we could talk about it.

I mean, even the documentary itself, I could laugh about that time now. That means I’ve gone somewhere, I’ve been able to talk about it in a way that’s not just about distance, but being able to reflect on how silly and how dramatic we were back then. Of course in that moment, that dramatic feeling is true feeling, and you should acknowledge(it) … but now there’s a distance. We would walk with literal clouds over our heads, but we could laugh about it now. … We were just friends having conversations when it came down to it.

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Aalhad Patankar
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