This letter is the writer/director’s personal response to this blog post:
It’s Chloé Zhao. The writer/director of LEE, a feature film set on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I’m not very good with social media, but my young actress made me aware of your response to our film. I’d like to have an open dialogue with you because it’s very important for me that people know why I’m making this film. I got comfortable because people on Pine Ridge trust me with this film. But I forgot there’s a world out there watching us as well. So I’m glad you brought your doubts up.
I appreciate your passion for what you believe in. And I can see where you’re coming from about not wanting to have an outsider come and tell your story, because when non-Asian filmmakers and TV shows try to tell my story — that of an Asian woman — they often get it wrong.
Most of those stories are far removed from reality. They are often loaded with stereotypes, disrespectful of the culture, and where Asian women are portrayed – we are often seen objectified, sexualized, and diminished into cardboard caricatures. These characters are usually just in place as accoutrements to the (usually white, male) lead.
So when I set out to make this film, I wanted to be especially sensitive to the culture and to portray the lives of the Lakota in the most honest way possible. I first visited Pine Ridge 3 years ago, and I’m sure you’re aware of how private a people they are. It took me a while to win their trust, but eventually, I did. They were the one who taught me what they value. “Chloé, it’s not about how much money or fame you have. We don’t care about that. It’s about if you come back and stay or not. And if you do come back and stay for awhile, then you’ll become part of us”. An elder gave me that advice on my first trip to Pine Ridge. It is true. Famous journalists come by all the time, for a day or two, snap some shots and leave. People from Pine Ridge are used to that. So I went back and stayed and went back again and stayed longer. I was living there for six month just last year, and in Utah for two month with a teenager from Pine Ridge to do acting work at Sundance. Pretty much abandoning my life in New York. After three years, they have trusted me with their sons and daughters when I took them out of the reservation for acting workshops. They are used to me going into their homes without knocking (most people don’t there anyway). They will get offended if I didn’t show up at holiday gatherings. So after a while, I stopped trying to explain to the world why I’m making this film. It just became who I am. And what I am to the people on Pine Ridge. They read my story, offered their insights, and they guided me so that my story was their story, and in doing so, I will be able to tell their story to a wider audience.
As you will see in my blog post, I casted 70% of the cast with non-actors, people who were born and raised on Pine Ridge. I spent a lot of time working with them, so both they are comfortable acting in front of the camera and at the same time, my script keeps changing so the characters will become them instead. Authenticity means a world to me.
In regard to crew. Those people who are attached so far are my friends who I’ve been working with for a long time. As you can imagine, it’s really difficult to raise money to make a film about Native teenagers. So my friends are working very cheaply. We “cast” our crew very carefully because I will be bringing them, regardless native or non-native, onto Pine Ridge, which is my second home. So I’m the gatekeeper of who is working on this film and I’m very careful to find the most passionate, respectful crew, Native and non-native alike. Our crew hasn’t been completely assembled yet. You are only seeing part of it. We are still in preproduction. A lot of the youth I have been working with three years will take on production assistant jobs and internship to learn about filmmaking and I have plans to establish a long term film workshop within the community. Regarding things like costume design - anyone who works for us, regardless native or non-native have to spend time and be guided by the people of Pine Ridge when it comes to recreating their looks (As you know not all Natives are the same).
I also understand why you think it’s weird that a Chinese person is writing about a culture that’s not her own. But if you find out about what it means to grow up in Communist China, you will know that I do not have a culture of mine own. So I set out, all my life, to learn about other people’s culture. And Pine Ridge has become my second home. I feel more at home among my Lakota friends on Pine Ridge than my estranged community back in China.
When I heard about the teen suicide rates in Pine Ridge, it really resonated with me and my upbringing in 90s China, when teen suicide rates there escalated. In some ways, telling the story of Pine Ridge is also telling the story of my experience. I think I still have trouble fully getting my head around all the things that happened then because I was so young, but Pine Ridge I can make sense of. I get that part. Maybe once I share it, it will inspire someone else to come along and tell it a little better, and then someone else… But if it’s going to start somewhere, why not me? I spent several years getting to know the people of Pine Ridge, to understand their customs, and listening to their stories. I am just the medium for getting their message across. This is the story the universe led me to and I am working every day and night to do right by it.
I hope you will also take a look at my directors statement where I talk about why this film, why Pine Ridge and what is our plan for community initiatives.
Regarding the photo you were talking about that you found was too “exotic” to use:
Her name is Keanna and she lives in Allen, Pine Ridge. She is a Little Wound high school student. She loves Rap music, the Burrito Stand where her uncle works (famous on Pine Ridge) and dancing pow-wow. I can tell you a lot more about her. I took this photo of her when we were chasing the sunset shooting a segment where she talks about history. One of the reasons I used that photo is because one of the three main teenagers my film, Aurelia, is raised traditional. The other reason is that Keanna’s mom asked me to help boost her confident. Because she is shy and she doesn’t believe in herself. So I used her photo where she looked strong and confident. She was thrilled and proud to see herself in that way. She will be acting in the film, playing herself and I can’t wait to work with her.
It’s more than just making a film for me. It’s my life that I’m sharing with the people I know on pine ridge. So I hope you can understand why reading your commentary was hurtful. But like I said, I understand your passion. Because without passion, nothing can really be achieved. And I hope we can find a common ground for understanding.