Shannon Gee’s fascination with documentaing stories began as a young child. Photo credit: Minh Nguyen.
Seattle-based film and television producer Shannon Gee is remarkable in many ways. Not only has Gee made a career in an industry Asian Americans seldom tread, but when Gee started, she entered the profession self-taught, with an English literature degree and no prior experience in film. Attributing her success to generous and patient mentors, Gee has racked up an impressive film repertoire that includes producing the Public Broadcasting Station’s (PBS’s) documentary “The Meaning of Food,” directing the Wing Luke Museum’s documentary and video installation, “If Tired Hands Could Talk,” and currently work on the Seattle Channel’s “Community Stories” series as senior producer.
With the goal of exposing the general public to more diverse communities, the “Community Stories” series has covered anything from the lives of women firefighters and members of Seattle’s gay rugby team, to organizations such as Salty Dog Studios in Ballard, and eSe Teatro, a bilingual theater group.
Gee’s most recent film was previewed at the Wing Luke Asian Museum of the Pacific American Experience last spring to great praise. The harrowing documentary, “One Generation’s Time: The Legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes” detailed the labor activism and lives of Domingo and Viernes through interviews with those who were closest to them prior to their tragic, politically motivated murders 1981. Gee hopes to air the documentary later this fall on the Seattle Channel. In the meantime, she sat down with the International Examiner (IE) to discuss notions of diversity, Asian Americans in creative industries and the importance of documentation.
IE: The idea of diversity seems to be a centering force for a lot of your work. What do you hope people get out of hearing the stories of others?
SG: The Seattle audience is really open to these sorts of stories, but they often don’t get told. I hope, for people who didn’t know about the stories, that it enhances and enriches people’s experience living here by knowing those stories.
As for those whose stories [the Seattle Channel is] highlighting — especially because we profile groups of people who don’t typically have stories told about them — I want them to feel like they had their stories told correctly.
IE: Do you remember what interested you in photography and film in the first place?
SG: My dad was an amateur photographer. We had a dark room in our house. He would also say things like, “They’re tearing down that building, building the new I-90 Bridge. I should take pictures of it.” That kind of stuck with me: the idea that we should document something like that. When the Kingdome was torn down, I filmed that because I felt like someone needed to capture this. I was also really interested in writing when I was young, so my interest in film is a combination of playing with narratives and also an impulse to document things.
IE: What was the purpose of documenting for you?
SG: I have an incredible fondness for this city, and the memories of things are really important to me. Filming helps me remember that the Beacon Hill library used to be in the storefront, for example. With the Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes documentary I’m currently working on, I was 11 years old when they were murdered, but I remembered the effect of it really well. The ID was one of my neighborhoods. You just felt what was happening. It’s important for me to remember those feelings.
IE: Some of your stories are of Asian American communities. Do you see a lot of Asian Americans in your industry?
SG: There is definitely disparity in media and practically every field you can think of, where artists/journalists/people of color are not being represented in numbers, being represented positively and fairly, and participating on equal ground. It can drive you crazy thinking about it all.
But that doesn’t mean Asian Americans aren’t creating art, making film, and writing stories. In many ways, the Internet and social media has made it easier to find and follow people and their work. For me, being able to find, view, listen, and in some cases, purchase works from artists of color by way of social media has been a liberating workaround to the filters of the established channels.
The desire has always been to get the mainstream to stop putting limatations on things, like, “oh, we have one Asian person, so we don’t need another,” “that box has been checked” or “hey, that characterization fits exactly what we think Asian people are like, so lets keep perpetuating that stereotype.” But [these limitations] are and will be a constant battle. I hope the work that I do might help lessen the grip of those a little bit.
What I enjoy about the work I do is meeting people and learning from them about their lives and experiences, and then having the honor of putting their stories together.
IE: For young Asian American aspiring filmmakers, what would be your advice?
SG: I was lucky to have mentors, and that relationship is something to seek out. If you have the opportunity to work or intern for them, you can learn a lot. Look for mentors who are generous or will give you the benefit of the doubt. Get in those situations, take advantage and have people teach you.