Chanthadeth Lucky Chanthalangsy goes by his middle name. The 19-year-old is of Cambodian and Laotian decent. He’s a Franklin High School graduate and is currently a freshman at the University of Washington.
Lucky knew little about his dad’s Laotian culture, being raised primarily by his mother and identifying with his “Cambodian side.” Having been a part of the Southeast Asian Young Men’s Group (SEA-YM) film program at Asian Counseling Referral Service (ACRS) for three years, Lucky was able to take the skills he has learned in filmmaking and use them to reconnect with his heritage through the stories of his father. The title of his film is Chanthadeth.
“The film I’m working on is about my culture and my name and what it represents,” Lucky said. “I interviewed my dad and he told me it means ‘power’—both of them—I’m a strong individual. But I didn’t know that before until I interviewed him.”
The SEA-YM film program grew from a 2006 in-school group in which Asian Pacific Islander (API) male students could come together to discuss their culture, history, and personal experiences. Over time, the group began meeting at a variety of high schools in South Seattle, including Franklin, Cleveland, Rainier Beach, and South Lake, as well as Aki Kurose Middle School.
The idea was to help strengthen the cultural identity of the children of API refugees, explained Joseph Mills, director of the SEA-YM film program. Mills is also a social worker and therapist at ACRS. Raised with American values, youth from API immigrant and refugee families often face cultural and generational gaps between themselves and their parents, he said.
Mills saw film production as a hands-on way to remedy those gaps. Rather than meeting solely on campus, he began an extension of the group that meets on Tuesday afternoons to produce films. He said about 10 of 60 students who participate in the campus groups are involved in the film productions.
“I think connecting kids to their parents really is a big part of what we’re doing here,” Mills said.
Mills’ role lies in helping the students learn the skills they need to tell their stories, like how to hold a camera properly and record clear audio, or how to shape their raw footage and content into a coherent storyline. The stories themselves are the students,’ and the content of the films varies from family history to the temptation of substance abuse.
Connie So, a senior lecturer in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, said that film is a great way for students to represent themselves, rather than merely taking on the cultural identity portrayed to them by their teachers, parents or the media.
“All the other Asians, Africans, Latinos [immigrant and refugee youth]—everyone goes through this,” So said. “We call this the generation gap. What parents think we ought to do, versus what we want to do.”
Depictions of heritage are very one-sided, So explained. By exploring heritage on their own, youth are able to see history through their own eyes, as well as portray their heritage as they have experienced it for the rest of the world to see.
“Being raised in my Cambodian side, my grandparents—whenever I did something bad—would call me ‘Lao kid,’ so it kind of insulted me,” Lucky said. “I didn’t really like my name because it’s Lao and it’s long and I didn’t really know how to pronounce it myself until Joseph told me.”
Now, Lucky said he is happy to be able to “embrace both sides.”
This year, after two films at SEA-YM were successfully completed, Mills submitted them to the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and both were selected to be screened at the 2015 festival. A Clean UA serves as a memoir documentary of Peter Phan’s struggle to stop smoking marijuana and the social complications that surround this. My Father’s Cambodia is an exploration of the life of director Eric You’s father and You’s trip to Cambodia in his junior year of high school.
You said he is pleased to be included in the festival, and feels he has learned a lot through the production process. You was referred to the SEA-YM through Lucky, a high school friend.
“I realized I didn’t really know much about my culture. I didn’t really talk to my parents much about my culture. So I decided to make that my topic so I could learn more,” You said. “I learned a lot.”
My Father’s Cambodia screens at Northwest Film Forum Screen 1 on Saturday, February 14 at noon. A Clean UA is part of a free showing of Shorts on Struggle. Seats are first come, first served at Northwest Film Forum Screen 2 on Sunday, February 15 at noon.
Editor’s note (2/4/2015 8:33 p.m.): Edits were made to clarify Chanthadeth Lucky Chanthalangsy’s name. Lucky is his middle name, not his nickname as a previous version of this story alluded to due to an editing error.