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5 Questions for Grace Lee, Director of “The Grace Lee Project”

5 Questions for Grace Lee, Director of "The Grace Lee Project"

However much we might deny it, most of us probably fit some stereotype, whether it’s through our geographic origin, income level or some physical attribute that we refuse to change through cosmetic surgery. What do you do, however, when people stereotype you as being “nice,” “quiet” and “gentle”? And the basis of your stereotyped self — a commonly given name — constantly leads people to confuse you with some other “nice,” “quiet” and “gentle” person?

Filmmaker Grace Lee made a project of her dilemma. She built a website inviting Grace Lees from around the world to contact her. She then documented her findings on film. In “The Grace Lee Project,” Lee meditates on the nature of her identity crisis and interviews other Grace Lees about their thoughts on the name.

indieWIRE recently emailed Lee five questions. Those questions and her answers are below. “The Grace Lee” project opens today at the Film Forum and will screen through December 27. It is being distributed by Women Make Movies.

indieWIRE: Why did you decide to make this film when you did? Does it have more to do with your reaching a certain age, a certain stage in your life or with your present circumstances?

Grace Lee: I grew up in Columbia, MO, where nobody had the name Grace Lee, and I was used to being one of the only Asians around. It was only after leaving the Midwest and constantly hearing about these stereotypically perfect uber-Asian Grace Lees that I became obsessed with tracking some of them down. I thought it might be a good idea for a film, or at least some sort of social experiment, but the idea lay dormant for several years.

When I started graduate film school at UCLA in 1997, I was routinely mistaken for a Grace Lee who had just graduated from the theater department. I would also get missent emails from UCLA undergraduates wondering if they could borrow “my” Life Science 2 notes or asking whether I was the Grace Lee who went to the Palos Verdes High School junior formal with them. I never met any of them, but they certainly helped feed my obsession.

The film got jump-started into production when I met Grace Lee Boggs, an 80-something Chinese-American civil rights activist/philosopher from Detroit about five years ago. The moment I saw her and heard her speak, I knew I could start filming. Meeting her convinced me that there would be other Grace Lees out there with fascinating stories, and even if they weren’t that fascinating, that could also be one of my conclusions. I also could not have made this film without the Internet. Being able to set up my Web site [www.gracelee.net] and explain who I was and that I was not going to hijack their identities also helped me get in touch with many Grace Lees.

iW: Of all the Grace Lees who contacted you, how did you choose whom you would focus on? I’m hoping that you met more remarkable Grace Lees than could be presented in the film and that most Grace Lees aren’t forgettable!

GL: I chose Grace Lees who personally intrigued me and who I thought would illuminate some of the themes and ideas I was exploring in the film. For example, the model minority stereotype for Asian-Americans. Or how the word “grace” evokes a kind of feminine ideal. I also learned that many Graces were named for the Christian idea of grace and wanted to explore why Christianity has been such an integral part of many Asian immigrant communities, since it’s not a religion that is native to Asia.

There are so many Grace Lees that I couldn’t include in more depth in the film — like the Filipina cruise ship singer who uses Grace Lee as her stage name, or the car dealer in Koreatown LA or Bruce Lee’s mother (who died several years ago). And of course there are hundreds of Grace Lees out there who are not Asian, including a Mexican Graciela Lee! I guess they will have to wait for a sequel if I ever decide to make one. Maybe another Grace Lee can take up that project.

iW: Do you keep in touch with any of the Grace Lees that you interviewed?

GL: Yes, I keep in touch with all of the main Grace Lees who are featured in the film. A couple of them keep blogs (which I’ve linked to from my Web site), which is another easy way to keep track of how they’re doing. I wish I had the resources to put on a Grace Lee convention, but for now, that will just have to happen virtually. I’m still waiting to meet my Grace Lee, patron of the arts. Maybe she can sponsor it!

iW: What kinds of responses did you receive from non-Grace Lees while you were working on this project? The quest for self-identity seems pretty universal, but do you think non-Grace Lees understood why you felt the way you did?

GL: I like how you divide the world into Grace Lees and Non-Grace Lees. I’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses from non-Grace Lees to the film. Many people have told me after screenings that they can relate to my “identity crisis,” and that even though the stories in the film are specifically about Asian-American women, that this very specificity is what makes the film universal. People appreciate the humor, too, because let’s face it, quests for identity can get pretty self-indulgent. I think anyone who has struggled with being pigeonholed based on something like their name or their age or the way they look can get something out of the movie.

iW: Do you think the name Grace Lee will continue to be popular with the next generation of Asian-American women? Want to make any guesses on naming trends?

GL: I always thought Grace was an old-fashioned name but on these name databases, its popularity continues to grow, and it’s become much more fashionable among the general public. I would have thought that by now, the name Grace Lee would lose its popularity among Asians, but I keep getting responses from Grace Lees on my Web site who were born well into the 1990s. It’s a good, solid name, and I can see why parents would choose it. These days, I’m hearing of Asian-American women and girls with more exotic names like Astrid, Schuyler or Katya. I’m still waiting for non-Asian parents to start giving their kids difficult-to-pronounce Chinese or Korean or Japanese first names. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched, actually.

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