This week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Centuries and Still,” is a heartfelt and personal response to senseless tragedy. After the murder of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia in March of this year (six of whom were Asian women), Vietnamese filmmaker Sally Tran spent months researching past racist attacks of Asian people on U.S soil. What she found were atrocities targeting individuals to thousands of human beings spanning well over a hundred years, beginning with the exploitation of Asians immigrants as cheap labor in the mid 1800s.
“Centuries and Still” is the second film in what Tran hopes to make into a series detailing the blood-stained history of racial injustice and violence in the United States. As in her Staff Pick addressing addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, “60 Years and Still,” each moment in time is artfully illustrated using colorful handmade dioramas overlaid by authentic recordings from the people who lived through each atrocity. Each powerful sequence of this film was created by a majority Asian crew to “amplify Asian creative voices,” and each visual detail chosen to honor the fashion, technology, and mood of that time in history.
We applaud the team behind this film for creating a moving time capsule that acts as a mirror of collective trauma, in an effort to stop history from repeating itself in the form of another act of hate.
Our team was curious about the research Sally did in order to condense such a complicated and triggering topic into four short minutes, as well as the film’s unique visual approach. Read on for her insightful thoughts on these topics and more:
“It was hard to avoid seeing the brutality against elderly Asians being victims of hate crimes with some fatal consequences earlier this year. I’m very close to my grandmother who is now 103 years old and I was incredibly disturbed by the online footage circulating. I didn’t realise how traumatising it was for me. It led to a somewhat angry and brooding attitude which really affected my daily self and others around me.
I had to isolate myself and spent days and nights watching and learning about Asian history in America and the trauma and violence that came with immigrating to this country. I knew very little of this history. To me it seemed like the extreme violence and racism in history has led us to where we are today, and I wanted to share this knowledge to others who may not know this history.
It was clear that a lot of my Asian chi, anh, em (this is a Vietnamese phrase that translates roughly to “my peers”) were also uninformed in some ways too. I felt the need to take action in a way that felt right for me. Donating and education are knee jerk, yet naturally I turned to filmmaking as this is what I do. It did take me a while to get enough energy and inspiration to start the process. I spoke to a few Vietnamese friends who were incredibly supportive which gave me encouragement to start.
The momentum came easy from there and I have received endless support from people who wanted to help and contribute in any way they could. The film is a passion project—self funded and made with extreme and absolute love by every single person on the team. That alone has given the project a lot of purpose and I’m incredibly proud.”
On her signature set design:
“Some people get a little confused when they see my miniature work, because it’s on a table top and has a mixed media style. People often wonder, what’s in camera and what’s created in post production? A lot of the time it’s mistaken for stop motion, or animation, but most of the time it’s live action.
In creating these miniatures, I usually work with a small group of designers to create different assets for scenes. One artist would create all the characters, while another creates the props for consistency. But for this film I wanted each scene to have its own look, since each scene is a different U.S. State and from a different time period. The aesthetic choice was to have a different artist illustrate each scene, which allows them to own their style, have a chance to do their own research and learn more themselves. I wanted to have as many Asians involved in the project as possible so I could highlight and amplify Asian creative voices, which is also something important in this project.
I worked with illustrators who have never had their art fabricated before so it took some time for everyone to understand the difference of tech specs and the angle that we needed the characters drawn for fabrication. After briefing each illustrator, they would research and then send their work in progress. I would print the images into different scales, lock in the sizing and then send for final colour printing on cardstock. We would fabricate by cutting and mounting. Once all assets were complete for each scene we would do a dry run to set up the scene so we could see how it looked before shooting day.”
On meaningful aesthetics:
“Films about history are either realistic narrative, high budget films, or documentaries with talking heads cut with archival footage and stills. I wanted to do something a little different to the usual format and make a film that excited the youth to learn about history. So I landed at this hybrid miniature and archival audio film.
You have to be really thorough and considerate when telling a historic story. I worried about taking facts out of context and decided to use illustrations as the visual story tool while making sure that I anchored the scenes in reality using archival audio.
I didn’t want any of the illustrations to move because then it would start to look cartoon-y or puppet-y, or stop motion style. Any moving thing is through the camera and/or lighting that evokes tone and emotion. Color in particular really suggests and pulls the audience into an emotional state — using red for danger, blood, and anger; high contrast scenes for dark and moody emotions; flashing lights for a sense of urgency and impact; realistic sound effects and foley for reality grounding.
I made a conscious decision to not use music as a way to string everything together in these films because I wanted it to feel less unified as reality bears itself. I wanted each scene to have its own thought and voice which was sufficiently portrayed through the archival audio.
We decided to shoot the film in four different formats to anchor the illustrations in reality. We matched the format as close as we could to the time. The scenes depicted in the 1800’s were shot on 16mm; everything between 1900-1980 was shot on 8mm; 1980’s was shot on VHS tape and digitized; and everything in the 2000’s was shot on digital format.”
On historical research:
“I spent every spare moment I had reading articles, watching news events, documentaries, listening to podcasts, and asking people about Asian history in America. It was an incredibly overwhelming and somewhat traumatising few months.
It was hard to whittle it down to only a few scenes, of course. I had 20 top scenes that were then taken down to 12 scenes. I like to stick to four minutes for this type of film as it’s meant to encourage people to do their own work of learning more and sharing what they know with others. When I found a good sound bite I would download and insert it into Premiere Pro, while cutting the film with storyboard sketches I created.
The list of resources is available for people to do extra work.
Structurally I wanted to start with the anti-Asian hate crimes, and then cut to 1850’s which I believe was the pivotal moment in history when Chinese people were immigrating to the U.S. Of course racism and immigration were happening much earlier, but this is where I decided to start the film and build up from there until the present.
I let the story unfold in chronological order after the cut back, showing the audience that perhaps today’s racism and anti-Asian hate crimes peaking have something to do with history replicating itself.
I wanted to tell different stories across many API cultures including both well-known and less known ones. It would be good to have a mix of victims across the gender spectrum, but sometimes it’s hard because a lot of female victims suffered rape and murder, which was too dark and heavy to repeat.
I’m Vietnamese and I didn’t include any story from my own history because I was gravely triggered by incidents that are too painful to retell, such as the Vietnam war and violence against children and women. A Vietnamese film will come out of me eventually when I have the capacity for it.
Truthfully I’m not sure if the film captures this topic thoroughly enough, but it’s the kind of film you can keep adding to and revisiting; it could keep growing and adjusting forever.”
On making films in response to racial trauma and tragedy in America:
“In the same way ‘Centuries and Still’ came about, ‘60 Years and Still’ is a film I made that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year I felt helpless and wanted to contribute in more ways than just protesting and donating. I felt like I needed to say something and do something, and I started with educating myself. So I read and watched and listened. I never anticipated making a film, but during the pandemic I was able to, and had good friends also wanting to contribute. It was my first short film, or film, since moving to NYC 6 years ago and I was very inspired.
I was worried that I wasn’t the right person to tell that story, but made sure I attached the right people to the project. I don’t think I can continue making films with this much trauma and suffering every year. It does take a lot out of me. I put everything into my films and it can be a lot of suffering, but I do want to make this an ongoing series. My goal for next year’s film as part of this series is either to raise money for it or put my own money into a fund and find a young filmmaker who’s a good fit for this educational and cinematic storytelling. I think people from different cultures should be telling their own stories. I want to be involved, uplift, inspire, and encourage younger filmmakers in any way I can.”
On the film’s message:
“This series is all about encouraging people to learn and educate.
I didn’t know much about API history here and I wonder how many of us share the same struggle. The API community has been through a lot, and the trauma from history is still lingering, coupled with continued racism and ignorance. If each person is willing to do research and learn, perhaps things can start to change, not just for the API community but for all communities.”
On challenges faced:
“The hardest challenge was the emotional burden this film took on me. I’m still recovering, and I’m triggered when reading the news or listening to podcasts. One day I woke up and started my usual news reading but I just couldn’t do it. I spent the last month feeling like the shell of a person.
I can’t wait for the film to be released, I feel like a weight will be lifted off my shoulders. I’ve lived with this film since April, which is not actually a long time. But picture me spending most nights watching a documentary in my studio at 3am, crying on and off for five hours, feeling numb to the information that hasn’t really kicked in. Sometimes when I watch the film or talk about it my eyes will well up because it triggers my muscle memory.
There was a week when I was scouring the Internet for ‘racist slurs yelled at Asians during the pandemic.’ How many ways can one Google that? I watched and heard so many incidents that wouldn’t fit into the film’s timeline, but I was curious about how the public reacted or treated the victim. I also wanted to make sure I picked incidents where the harm was caused by racist people and not those suffering from mental health issues. All of my research took two months.”
Her advice to aspiring filmmakers:
“Filmmaking is hard no matter how seasoned you are, and when you get older and more experienced, some people’s dreams fade and are quickly replaced by “that” paycheck. We start to value our time and skills differently when we are more accomplished. As an aspiring filmmaker, you may not have a grasp of ‘that’ paycheck yet, but don’t worry, because sometimes that youthful energy will get you further than money. Embrace that!
My advice for any filmmaker, aspiring or experienced, is to really make time to tell the stories you want. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, it’s exciting to just get out and make stuff and not worry about how good it’s going to be. Make mistakes, make bad shit, and figure out what story and storytelling style best fit you.
I started making music videos and films back in New Zealand before coming to the States. I had a great run in the residency grant film world. As I transitioned to NYC, I had to make money so by nature I’ve spent the last 6 years making commercials and having little time to really invest in my films. After I put my filmography together and realized this gap, I decided to focus on telling the stories that are important to me. These projects have more purpose and meaning to me. I regret not leaning more into my filmmaking in the last six years.”
On what’s next:
“I have a few film projects that I’m grinding on, both of them have a strong Vietnamese voice. I’m working with a Vietnamese transgender actress, Yen Nguyen, to develop a story that explores transgender themes while showing the trauma accompanied by comedy. I also have a feature script I’m writing which I’m just as excited about. It’s an action revenge film with topical political and social themes around policing and community set in Saigon, Vietnam.”