Interview: Keisha Knight and Abby Sun on Looking Beyond the Canon in “My Sight Is Lined With Visions”

As part of the biweekly DocYard screening series at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, Keisha Knight and Abby Sun were already rethinking what a special evening at the cinema might look like without one of its crucial components when it became obvious that for a screening of Miko Revereza’s “No Data Plan,” there would be no way for the Manila-born, American-bred filmmaker to attend in person, a longtime tradition for the series. However, it became an entirely different calculus when the coronavirus made it impossible for films to be presented in their natural habitat of a movie theater, leaving them without an obvious gathering spot for an audience as well.

“Because [Miko] had left the U.S. and had been undocumented before that, he was not going to be returning to the U.S. for the next ten years, and we had to Skype him in for the Q & A, but this struck me as a moment when everybody had to move online anyway, so it didn’t feel like it took away from the experience in any way,” says Sun, who could be encouraged by selling the same amount of tickets they were expecting to sell for an in-person screening. “In a sense, that was more honest to the cycles and the ways of distributing films [now], encountering filmmakers whose lives are affected not only by COVID but nationalized border policies and things like that.”

Although Knight and Sun couldn’t have imagined the situation they found themselves in, the two were unusually primed for this moment, having spent so much time already considering how films can have presence in the abstract. Knight had founded Sentient.Art.Film, the distribution initiative behind “No Data Plan,” a 70-minute gem that was unlikely to find a traditional path to American audiences following a celebrated festival run — to carve out a space for adventurous films in the mainstream that had originated outside of it, and Sun, a savvy programmer for the likes of True/False and Hot Springs, was accustomed to thinking about where pieces of art can reside alongside each other in the mind and works from the past could take their proper place in the contemporary cultural firmament. But to claim the attention they deserve, Knight and Sun could see the seemingly infinite acreage of the internet for the trap that it could be for such films when sending even the most ballyhooed of the lot online can feel like throwing out a message in a bottle.

It’s remarkable then what the duo has done with “My Sight is Lined with Visions,” a series that goes beyond Sentient.Art.Films’ already noble mission of ensuring a platform for current films threatened with falling through the cracks to resurface a collection of nonconformist Asian American cinema that was largely bereft of such champions during the 1990s when they were first made. Although the era is known as a watershed for representation on screen when Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”), Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”) and Ang Lee (“The Wedding Banquet”) attained the success that would lead to sustainable careers in Hollywood, Knight and Sun’s revelatory program suggests that any consideration of cultural strides should be far broader in scope to include filmmakers operating on the fringes of other movements of the era from the exploding New York indie scene to queer cinema to redefine what an Asian American film is, full of energy and invention during a time when there was a predominant image of gentility and tradition.

After a weeklong run in the summer of 2020, Knight and Sun struck a deal with filmmakers Rea Tajiri (“Strawberry Fields”), Roddy Bogawa (“Some Divine Wind”), Spencer Nakasako (“Kelly Loves Tony”), Shu Lea Chang (“Fresh Kill”), Marlon Fuentes (“Bontoc Eulogy”), Jon Moritsugu (“Terminal USA”) and TRAN T. Kim-Trang (the 1992-2006 video collection “The Blindness Series”) to allow their film to be presented online for a year, a length of time that allows for Knight and Sun to create a feeling of invitation to works that could seem intimidating without it in the present day. While making the whole selection available all at once, the two have put an impressive amount of thought into the context around each individual film, commissioning essays from top critics to encourage interaction with the historical and technical influences that informed them while additionally bringing these films very much into the present with a vibrant social media feed and live events on a monthly basis that put audiences in touch with the filmmakers. (Already, one can enjoy a spirited conversation with Bogawa with more to follow, including a live chat with Trang on March 11.)

Which isn’t to say much help is needed to make the films in “My Sight is Lined with Visions” feel au corant. One is bound to experience as much surprise and delight in watching an orgasm conveyed with the contraction of an accordion in Chang’s “Fresh Kill,” an incisive swipe at global conglomerations that hasn’t seen its edge dull 25 years after its premiere, as the characters involved, and that sense of invention and unpredictability can be found in each of the selections from the rebellious dramas “Strawberry Fields” and “Terminal USA” to the gloriously messy realities presented in the docs “Some Divine Wind” and “Kelly Loves Tony,” each exploring intergenerational conflict.

Recently, Knight and Sun graciously took the time to talk about creating a place for these films to be rediscovered and reckoned with, how to recreate viewer engagement within the confines of their online cinematheque and building on the work of a community of filmmakers to create a community of viewers that can keep these films in the cultural conversation.

Had plans for this series been in the works before the pandemic?

Abby Sun: The short answer is no. None of this was planned before the pandemic and in fact, I think a lot of it came out of seeing what other brick-and-mortar film institutions were doing in response to the pandemic.

Keisha Knight: I had been working with Roddy [Bogawa]’s film “Some Divine Wind” — we had licensed that back in 2019 and I had been setting up some screenings through the release of this book with Kaya Press, but it was really hard to get a momentum around it. Part of that is when you have just one screening happening in a brick-and-mortar place, sometimes if it’s a very specific film and it’s a very specific audience, so you can’t necessarily generate the critical mass that you would need to feel like there’s an energy around the exhibition. What’s so interesting about moving everything online was that in the middle of all this meltdown, here we have the world that we can now bring to these films.

When it’s a series like this where one can choose to have access to everything all at once, is it exciting to rethink how to create a context around the films so there’s a real experience?

Abby Sun: Because the two of us are also the website designers for the site, we did try to start from scratch and imagine what are all the things that we like about film screenings and what are all of the things that feel possible but aren’t being done right now? We try not to put restrictions on that. We quickly basically discarded the platforms that would lock us into a design for the platform, although we are using Vimeo OTT for the actual films that are paid.

Keisha Knight: It’s interesting because I actually get very annoyed sometimes at people who are really precious about design and yet at the same time, all of the elements of how the work is cradled is actually quite intentional. One of the things that was important for us in this was creating an archive and a discussion and knowledge around the work because part of the reason why these things have been erased is because they haven’t been necessarily discussed in a way that makes sense or situates them in a way people can grasp onto or take further.

We have this year to really generate a lot of knowledge, a lot of energy, and a lot of interest around these works that hopefully then people can take forward. Part of the user experience now that we’re really trying to mastermind is how to create an archive of all these things, so that’s something we’re going to grow over the year. We started with the YouTube Channel, just organizing the vault and the shorts and the Q & As that we do, but [we’re] creating an archive people can access of the essays. These films are delicate things and they take their time through the world. We just wanted to make sure there was enough time for the audience to find them, which has actually been really amazing for these films in the virtual space.

Something that was striking was the exquisite presentation of films — on one hand, you don’t have to worry about print trafficking exactly, but what’s the process like of getting these films uploaded and presentable?

Keisha Knight: A lot of the shorts were really more challenging because we really had to track people down. [For instance] “Twitch” was from a colleague of mine who has worked more in the fine art space, and it was one of the first projects he made back in 1999 shot on black-and-white reversal and [was] somewhere digitized in the bowels of his gallery in Hong Kong, so we’re here in Boston and he’s in New York and we have all these people in Hong Kong, looking through all these different drives to find us this seven-minute film that doesn’t have any titles. [laughs] It was in the middle of COVID and there was some very shady situation in order to get it digitized and sent to us, so even for these films that seem like there’s small additions, there’s so much around them all.

Abby Sun: In the spring, we did run into access issues because quite a few of these filmmakers, their day job is an academia as teachers and as we all know, almost every single university unceremoniously kicked everyone off without warning. A lot of people had their digital masters locked within their offices and couldn’t get access to them, so we were doing things [then] like ripping off DVD copies that were the only exhibition copies that filmmakers had. Thankfully, with the lead time of relaunching “My Sight is Lined with Visions” after the May 2020 series, people were back into their office. Roddy actually spent the pandemic year doing a digital remaster of his own work, [which] I think he really liked this reiterative materiality of working within the digital itself. One other difference between the spring and this current edition is that we actually have rescans of works, so for instance “Fresh Kill” looks fantastic because it’s the 20th anniversary scan that they didn’t have access to in the spring and we now do. I just rewatched parts of it today and it looks better than I’ve ever seen it.

Keisha Knight: One of the things we really want to do, that goes along with archiving, is to be able to help these filmmakers also preserve and scan and get their work done, so we’re actually doing some work to figure out how can we support that work and actually really create fine quality prints or digital copies for these filmmakers. We’re [also] in the phase of getting some funding to launch an artist development program in the coming months that works off of the filmmakers from the series and links them with younger artists because a lot of what’s so impressive about these filmmakers is their consistent process and boundary pushing filmmaking practice that we feel could be a great kind of way for people to organize themselves in this life.

From what I understand, there was actually a feeling of community in the programming when one filmmaker might’ve led to another. How did that guide this?

Keisha Knight: Everything starts with Roddy. Even before COVID happened, Roddy introduced me to Jon [Moritsugu] and Jon and I had a really great conversation and then I was talking to Shu Lea [Cheung] back in 2018 and Miko [Revereza] actually connected me with Spencer [Nakasako], so everyone kind of knows everyone and it just suddenly started to feel like family. Then Abby knew Rea [Tajiri], so they connected and Rea knew Shu Lea, so it all started to have this real cohesive feeling and the reason this series feels the way it does is because of the generosity of the filmmakers. They’re like, “We want this, go, you have our trust and thank you,” and with Sentient, that’s the ethos we want to build around distribution more generally. With this group of filmmakers, they’ve been through it and I think they understand that these relationships are a part of what keeps this kind of work and this kind of practice vital, so they’ve really shared that with us and it’s been amazing.

Abby Sun: Yeah, for instance, Rea and Shu Lea shared the same studio for a number of years, not that they were working on the same projects, but this community aspect was built in amongst their work. Roddy and Jon and Spencer appeared on many panels and things like that over the years together, but part of curating is also establishing new relationships, so even the filmmakers whose work is less considered among that circle like Marlon Fuentes, we are so honored and excited to have as part of the year-long relaunch series, bringing his film back into the conversation about these transgressive works.

There [was recently] that big piece about Asian American filmmakers in the New York Times, and what really struck me is this new generation of filmmakers, a lot of them were talking about a feeling of isolation while working as an Asian American filmmaker. While I’m not dismissing that experience, I do think there’s value to remembering that there were community ties. The feeling of isolation doesn’t have to be the narrative or the way of working. We can remember collectively what we have done together and it doesn’t have to be just Justin Lin or Mira Nair either. There was a lot of amazing work that was happening and another reason why for[we have] critics writing essays [to accompany the series] is because we wanted to put this knowledge and this experience of encountering this work, which is so relational, back into the consciousness of people that are writing about this work today too.

Were you consciously programming films that went against the grain of what one would think of as an Asian American film of this era? The ways in which they seem unclassifiable now make them feel so fresh, yet it seems like that would’ve prevented them from playing festivals that were targeted to a specific niche, whether that’s Asian American or American-indie-centric.

Abby Sun: We decided to limit it to the ‘90s because this was the transition period, in our opinion, for Asian American media. It was when this idea of mainstream acceptance of getting films into Hollywood onto public TV was really being not only by funders and film festivals, but also by a lot of the filmmakers themselves. This is when you see Wayne Wang making “Joy Luck Club” and also Mira Nair getting studio funding and this is the time period when Justin Lin has his breakout and he’s about to make “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which got picked up by Paramount in the early aughts, so this was the last time with living filmmakers who saw the shift in the industry.

The interesting thing about the films in this series is they do run the gamut. We have an artist film more in the form of TRAN T. Kim-Trang and her “Blindness” series and then we have work that was broadcast on PBS – some with controversy like “Terminal USA,” some with less like “Kelly Loves Tony,” but almost every single one of these films was distributed. They were programmed at Asian American Film Festivals, even though to our eyes today, I agree, very few Asian American or Asian Canadian film festivals would touch something like this. But back in the ‘90s, it was a different story and part of our question is why did this happen? Why would an ecosystem that is full of community stakeholders have deprioritized these types of films? And what does that say then about the health of the ecosystem of Asian American media, funding, support and distribution that works like this that we find so powerful, so accessible, and so necessary [have become less visible].

They’re not tackling issues of representation in necessarily the same ways that filmmakers are doing today, but they respond to a lot of the same issues — for instance, the ’92 uprisings in L.A. and what’s happened this past summer with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter – these are cyclical histories, and what does it mean that we’ve forgotten what was happening in the past? These filmmakers also represent a broad range of ideas about what it means to consider oneself Asian American. There are filmmakers that live in quite diasporic, transatlantic ways. In the spring, we had a program with Richard Fung’s films and he is based in Toronto, born in Trinidad, and lived for a time in New York, so to us, it’s a connected ecosystem and named it 1990s Asian American Film and Video to bring these films back into the conversation, but by programming things that didn’t fit neatly within that category, [we were] trying to question the limitations and the potential of this idea in the first place.

When you have an opportunity to reach the world in a way these films never have had before, does it change your ideas about programming?

Keisha Knight: We have to be creative to find support for these films that are very, to me precious, but experimental in form and in content. We were talking to someone the other day who [was saying] “Make it mass, make it mass…” and this is not about global domination. There is a certain audience for these films that can then be grown, but the audience is not necessarily a small audience. It might actually be very disperse, but it’s about growing it through the world. So I get a lot of life from the filmmakers who are giving us their trust. That really fuels all of the distribution work that we’re doing and one of the main interventions of the company is trying to figure out what does a distribution company look like that is not just about extracting value from a film as much as it can be extracted, but actually building relationships around a film that actually create a different ecosystem of distribution. Artist development, the fellowships, the panels, all of these are in conversation with each other.

Abby Sun: It really is about this collective retrieval and refiguring the ecosystem. For instance, even within our community outreach, we are offering the programming staff, the communications staff, the educational staff at Asian American festivals access to “My Sight is Lined with Visions” because to us, It’s not necessarily a transactional one where it’s just like can you help us sell tickets. We think it’s important for young arts workers and for film festival programmers who haven’t had a chance to encounter this work because I’ve found, for instance, that classes that focus on Asian American films usually talk only about representation or media effects, like who’s being cast in fiction films. It’s not really about the form.

We’re also spending just as much time if not more on the social media presence of Sentient.Art.Film, [drawing on] a lot of the filmmakers’ personal archives. We’re putting out behind-the-scenes photos from their productions l and their own recollections of what was happening, so it’s not just “Buy tickets,” it’s “Oh, this is how these films are being made. This is what people were thinking at the time. These are the people that they knew.” During Sundance, one of the things that we did was we excerpted two interviews from Michael Almereyda and Amy Hobby’s film “At Sundance” – one was with Kayo Hatta, who passed away about 10, 15 years ago and also one from Gregg Araki, and when I rematch it, I’m like “Oh my God, Sundance is exactly the same from 1994 until now.” The same problems that people have with Sundance existed in ’94, the ways these filmmakers talked about securing funding, trying to get people interested [in their films], so those are the types of ways that I think we’re intervening in this space and it’s not all negative. It’s really positive and hopeful, doing this type of memory retrieval and preservation work.

Keisha Knight: A huge part of the motivating factor [behind] how we’re organizing “My Sight is Lined with Visions” is having this multimodal, cross conversations [when] there’s a lot of kind of secrecy and opacity and mystery around distribution [with] people twiddling their fingers in dark corners. That’s not what we’re really interested in. We see distribution as part of the creative practice, not the end of it and that’s something we’re always actively trying to make clear through our actions as much as our words.

“My Sight is Lined with Visions” is now streaming through January 25th, 2022.