Threese Serana, and I have been working on our documentary Our Family Album, playing at NHdocs on Sunday, June 3rd, for just over two years––and filming closely related materials since 2013. Threese is from the Philippines. We are married, and very early in our relationship we were confronted by a whole series of assumptions and clichés about who we were as a couple. To simplify only slightly, she was seen as the Mail Order Bride. Moreover, as a white American male of a certain age, this meant that I was sadly desperate enough to need one. This attitude was remarkable pervasive and often quite ugly. It started close to home: My dear Aunt assumed that Threese must only be interested in my money. My mother, who had a better sense of my problematic finances, concluded that she was just looking for a green card. Never mind that she had been a full-time lecturer at University of the Philippines and a successful journalist. Her family, of course, had their own prejudices. Although we imagined ourselves as an International academic couple (I teach at Yale), very few people were buying it.
There are only a few ways to react to these kinds of situations. Inevitably one has to ignore a fair amount of what are currently called “micro-aggressions”—though how micro they are remains questionable. People often assumed Threese was either our child’s nanny or “the help.” Once we went to a friend’s party where a faculty member complained to the hostess that Threese was not doing her job––and then told my wife that she should stop talking to people and go wash some of the dirty wine glasses. That had real consequences: She has avoided parties and university functions ever since. Or when Threese was on the Yale bus, a staff member took it upon herself to tell her in a loud voice to get off the bus—it was only for Yale employees. She was with our son, had a Yale ID and may well have been working at the university or taking classes. But that is really beside the point. Lots of people ride the Yale buses, but it is best if they can’t be confused for some kind of undocumented immigrant. So one internalizes and suppresses. Or you do a Michelle Malkin, the right-wing pundit who insists that she is not at all Filipino (or Filipino American) and does what she can to lose all traces of her cultural identity even though her family’s origins are quite obvious given how she looks.
A third response is to push back in some way. Here I evoke documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and his “F••k You theory of art.” Rather than try to eliminate as many ethnic markers as possible—as my mother still wishes we would do, one confronts people’s prejudices and assumptions. In fact, we had started to make a documentary entitled Visa Wives. It focused on a group of women who were coming to the United States from the Philippines to get married to Americans on what are known as fiancée visas. The whole process is mildly humiliating, and we had actually spent a lot of energy avoiding it. But as it turned out, Threese’s best friend and her sister, both highly accomplished individuals, were coming to the US on fiancée visas. Threese also has a male cousin, a US citizen who was bringing over his girlfriend on a fiancée visa as well. They worked against these clichés in all sorts of ways. So we starting making a documentary about them. Of course, we were the fourth couple in this story, and the film’s conclusion was to come at our expense—the realization that for all our efforts to avoid “the stigma,” we were no different. We were victims of the very prejudices the film is meant to undermine.
We shot a lot of material for Visa Wives, including many scenes of us and our son John Carlos. At a certain point, however, it became stuck. Meanwhile I was participating in a short workshop led by Thomas Allen Harris focused on constructing stories out of family photographs. It was a documentary that started in the editing room from pre-existing materials—including lots of material from Visa Wives–– and just took off. Our Family Album explores the uses and power of family photography not only in our case but among a group of friends and colleagues who have significant but diverse interests in these kinds of images. If you imagine our documentary as a wheel, Threese and I are the film’s hub but these friends––from Jamaica, India, England, and Italy as well as more our distant relatives are the spokes. When this part of the film works for audience members, it encourages them to reflect on the role of photography in their daily lives. We think of it as reimagining The Family of Man (the most popular photobook of all times) for the twenty-first century.
Although our original impulse of defiance remains, it has been re-directed and perhaps presented with greater subtlety. Our Family Album interweaves several storylines. For one, it traces my growing understanding and appreciation for Filipino culture. The film begins with me coming to Manila to talk to Filipino film scholars about the first movie kiss––Edison’s The May Irwin Kiss (1896). It end with Threese, John Carlos and myself traveling to Davao, Mindanao to meet the son of the first person to produce feature films in the Philippine—Edward Meyer Gross (starting in 1912). Filipino film history has dismissed Gross as some American imperialist who exploited Filipino culture, made a fortune and presumably left. They had never bothered to track down his descendants, who reveal a quite different and moving story. It includes the important role of Gross’s first wife and collaborator—Antonia Molina who was a wildly successful theater actress. (Truth be told, I see our filmmaking efforts as carrying on that tradition in some form.) Correspondingly, Threese used this film to find out about her family’s roots in ways that many might see as quintessentially American. Inevitably John Carlos’s story is the crucial strand of our film: growing up in a bi-racial/bi-cultural household and negotiating between these two quite different aspects of his identity.
Of course, we are still in the final stages of finishing this film, so I lack much critical distance, but it seems the richest and most complex of my documentaries. Moreover, making this film and taking these photographs has done a lot to make our respective journeys possible. Back when I first got involved in the world of nonfiction—some 45 years ago-- I quickly realized that making a documentary could give me access to people and places that would have never been possible otherwise. In this current film endeavor, we could ask questions of relatives, friends or strangers that we could never otherwise have asked—and got answers we would never have been given if the camera wasn’t there. The camera provokes and can bring out truths, which would have otherwise remained unspoken and unacknowledged.
Making a documentary builds connections and often deepens friendships. The camera gave Threese an occasion to ask her oldest relatives about her family’s history. Within a year of their filmed interviews, her two uncles had died. And what we found was that her family history—which includes Jews fleeing Spain to seek refuge in the mountains of its most distant colony—had certain uncanny similarities to my own. Manila and New York may be at opposite ends of the world, but we share more than we would have ever dared to expect. Making this film helped us discover these deeper affinities. And perhaps it can help us all discover our deeper shared humanity, the affinities and connections between peoples that is currently under assault. The micro aggression are not forgotten but rather have become the film’s subtext.
- Charles Musser
Charlie Musser is a filmmaker whose credits include Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982) and Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2014). He is currently a professor of American Studies, Film Studies and Theater Studies at Yale University—teaching courses in film and media history as well as documentary filmmaking.