Move over, Hollywood, as up-and-coming filmmakers are making their voices heard right here in Montgomery County. Now in its seventh year, the Bethesda Film Fest will showcase the works of five documentarians who live and work in the area when the festival takes place at the Imagination Stage on Friday, April 5 and Saturday, April 6.
The quintet of short films by local documentarians includes two works that tackle one of the most prominent issues of our time as well as a look back at a largely unknown, and dark, chapter in the nation’s capital.
Penny Lee and Lisa Mao’s “Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968” recounts the tumultuous days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, when cities from coast to coast went up in flames due to deadly civil unrest.
Washington, D.C., was not spared, and strife boiled over in Chinatown.
“When one thinks about D.C.’s Chinatown, it’s really a gate and a neighborhood with Chinese characters. But it’s not really what Chinatown” truly is, said co-producer Mao, a native of Potomac, adding that what most people see today are various Chinese restaurants surrounded by Urban Outfitters and a community anchored by the Capital One Arena — Western capitalism all but swallowing traces of the East.
“We really wanted to tell the stories of the Chinese-Americans who lived there when it was an ethnic community,” she said.
Mao moved to San Francisco to chase her filmmaking dreams before returning home to Maryland, where she works as cable show producer for networks like Travel Channel. After returning east, she wanted to find a story of her own to tell that was close to home. She turned her attentions to Chinatown.
“The D.C. riots were an unusually terrible time. The U.S. Marshals were [called in]. There was a curfew. It was a scary time,” Mao said, adding that 1968 also saw the murder of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Mao, who has a master’s degree in history, was also looking to roll back the stories of wounds in the Chinese community that had not been dealt with in a half-century. “History shows that the riots happened throughout the city, mainly around 14th Street and H Street., but there was a small ethnic community of immigrants amid it all, and we just thought many people don’t realize it bled into that neighborhood,” she said. “How did these immigrants experience that in their adopted homeland?”
Mao and Lee experienced some initial resistance from the Chinatown denizens who had been living there in ’68, but Mao said that Lee helped open them up to share their experiences on camera. “This is really her [Lee’s] community. Her husband Jack grew up in D.C.’s Chinatown,” Mao said. “A lot of these folks that we interviewed, they were coming of age at that time. So, in 1968, several of them were teenagers.
“Once we had the connections to people, I would pre-interview them. It wasn’t like a shock what we were going to discuss.”
If the subject of Mao and Lee’s film might not be known to the greater public, Lizbeth Nthanze Kariuki’s “Bravery with Grace” brings to light just one instance of the greater societal problem of sexual assault. Kariuki’s seven-minute short shines a light on Grace Imhoff, a student at American University’s business school, who bravely shares the story of her attack.
Courtesy of Lizbeth Nthanze Kariuki
A still of Grace Imhoff, the subject of “Bravery with Grace.”
Kariuki came to American University from her native Kenya last summer to study film, and learned about Imhoff’s story in The Eagle, the campus newspaper. “What I really wanted to do with her story was show how she overcame her fear [of] what she had gone through, and still be able to tell her story and go out and help her community,” Kariuki said, adding that highlighting one particular case may help the public realize the larger effects of sexual assault.
Although Kariuki’s background is in journalism and public relations, her interest in film led her to want to study in the United States. “It’s very male-dominated still, so I feel women need to be brave enough to take up the mantle and say we can do it,” said Kariuki, who is based in Gaithersburg. “There just needs to be more encouragement for us to keep making films and tell the [stories] in our own ways.
Courtesy of Lizbeth Nthanze Kariuki
Lizbeth Nthanze Kariuki’s “Bravery with Grace” brings to light an instance of the greater societal problem of sexual assault.
Like Kariuki, Lee and Mao were working with the most meager of budgets, calling in every favor and even using their own equipment. Mao said she got exceptional support from the 1882 Foundation, whose aim is to educate the public about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The organization commissioned “Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968” and was able to help direct the filmmakers in some of the right directions.
“Ted Gong, the director of the 1882 Foundation, had gotten a very small grant…and I don’t even know what that [money] went to,” Mao said. “I donated my time, and so did Penny. It was a very shoestring budget.”
What money they were able to raise went toward color correction, sourcing stock footage and hiring a professional narrator, Mao said. Neither she or Lee took a salary.
Mao said she and Lee will answer questions after the Bethesda screening. She also has invited friends, but adds that her parents, who have seen the film, are unlikely to come.
“It’s the one thing of mine my dad has seen where he’s like, ‘Oh, good job dear,’ even though I have hundreds of hours on TV,” Mao said with a laugh.
Kariuki has invited Grace Imhoff, the subject of “Bravery with Grace,” to come to the Bethesda Film Fest screening of her documentary.
“I feel the topic is so sensitive, but also very relevant to right now,” Kariuki said, adding she aims to continue to stoke conversations about sexual assault awareness and keep making films in the U.S. and in Kenya.
“I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to showcase Grace’s story,” she said. “I think platforms like the Bethesda Film Fest really give artists an opportunity to show our stories. This gives me encouragement to continue doing what I do.”
The seventh annual Bethesda Film Fest, presented by the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, April 5 and at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 6 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. For tickets, $10, visit www.bethesda.org/bethesda/film-fest-tickets or call 301-215-6660.