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film review

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, a young San Francisco Chinatown resident turned his 16mm camera on his neighbourhood, and the young activists rattling its once quiet streets by publicly defying the conservative views of their elders. Harry Chuck's exquisite footage—spanning three generations of demonstrations and protests—would capture a divided community’s fight for self determination, and what would come to be known as the Asian American Movement.Courtesy of HotDocs

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  • Chinatown Rising
  • Directed and produced by Harry Chuck and Josh Chuck
  • Classification N/A; 112 minutes

“Chinatown is an institution created by racism.” It is a phrase plainly stated early in Chinatown Rising. It’s said with neither malice nor controversy; it’s a simple fact. With that history in mind, this revelatory documentary captures how one Chinatown flourished despite those oppressive roots.

Chinatown Rising is the story of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the activist leaders who fought for the neighbourhood across three decades, beginning in the mid-1960s. The culmination of four years of archival work and interviews, the documentary, first released in 2019, takes on renewed resonance today with the sharp rise in anti-Asian racism and violence amid the pandemic. In recounting the protests and sit-ins against the institutionalized racism of a past era, it offers a visual field guide to what activism looks like in a community that, for some, is not traditionally associated with speaking truth to power.

The documentary is primarily told through the lens of Harry Chuck, a Chinatown community leader who filmed 20,000 feet, or 10 hours, of footage in his youth. The never-before-seen reels are rich with the day-to-day of Chinatown at the time, its residents eking out lives within its borders. The early narrative is familiar – if depressingly universal – even to Canadians: historical fear of the “yellow peril,” no paths to citizenship and suffocating immigration bans that separated many migrants from their families (until policies in the U.S. were finally loosened under Lyndon B. Johnson).

That was the world of Chuck’s parents, who stoically, as quietly as possible, persevered through the numerous indignities. Then, amid the backdrop of the civil rights movement and a new influx of Chinese immigration, things changed. Chuck and his contemporaries fought, as loudly as possible, for more. For non-English first-language rights in public education, for less Eurocentric and more diverse curriculum at what was then San Francisco State College (sound familiar?), for more public housing in the neighbourhood (very familiar).

Forty-plus years later, these pivotal moments are brought to life in fresh interviews conducted by Chuck and his son and co-director Josh. As Chuck and his cohort continued to thrive, not just as entrenched activists but as academics, religious leaders and even San Francisco’s chief of police, they never lost their fire. It’s heard in the rise of their voices as they remember long-ago rallies and campaigns. Even in silence, it’s seen in their joyful reactions as the Chucks play back momentous speeches from the group’s past triumphs.

Those same voices also contribute to a lack of tension at points. There are more than a few scenes of police violence against student protesters, bloodied bodies and all. Sit-ins against housing evictions inevitably end with the last residents dragged out to the street. One person interviewed was a victim of the 1977 Golden Dragon gang shooting – his friends were killed that night. Yet many subjects are able to retell their stories with levity and even some laughs.

It could be the emotional remove of decades. It could be a certain stoicism. It could be that history is written by the victors – and rightfully so, in this case. (The documentary’s less obvious high points include explicit acknowledgement of the Black Power movement and its influence on Chinese activists at the time, as well as Chinatown’s sustained allyship with the adjoining Filipino community.)

Over a bouncy Rolling Stones-esque outro, Chuck reminds viewers: “You celebrate those moments, you enjoy them and you deserve to enjoy them. But don’t assume it’s always going to be that way.” We know that for sure now. We also know how we’ll celebrate when we win the fight again.

Chinatown Rising is streaming for free as part of the Hot Docs For Viola series from April 15-25 (hotdocs.ca).

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.