Saturday, May 10, 2014

Documentary Filmmaker S Leo Chiang and "Mr. Cau Goes To Washington"

Chris Cooper – 1,236 Words

Mr. Cau Goes To Washington

“Now, you’re not gonna have a country that can make these kinds of rules work, if you haven’t got men that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose.  It’s a funny thing about men, you know.  They all start life being boys.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of these Senators were boys once.”
Jefferson Smith (portrayed by Jimmy Stewart) in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!  Public television stations across the country will re-broadcast A Village Called Versailles and Mr Cao Goes To Washington starting this week.   The two films will be shown back-to-back on stations such as WGBH World (Boston), WHYY (Philly) and Alabama Public Television.  And if you are in Silicon Valley, PBS Northern California (KQED) is hosting a film and conversation event Thursday, May 29th in San Jose to highlight the rise of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley politics and show clips from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington and A Village Called Versailles. 

When the Center for Asian American Media, which funds television programs for subject matters based on Asian Americans, asked filmmaker S. Leo Chiang to do a documentary film on an Asian American political figure based out of New Orleans, he said yes without hesitation.

         Chiang is best known for his documentary film A Village Called Versailles that was nominated for an Emmy Award; received eight film festival awards; aired on PBS Independent Lens series; and has been acquired by more than 200 academic public libraries.  The film focused on the rebuilding and transformation of the Vietnamese American Community in post-Katrina, New Orleans

         A Village Called Versailles is part of the reason I was approached to do this project, because I spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans in the Vietnamese community and they thought I was the right person for the project.  They actually came to me and said they were putting a lot of programs for politicians, one of which was Joseph Cau.”

Joseph Cau is not your normal politician; Cau was at the time considering going to seminary school to become a priest; and in fact, did not come under the political public radar until after $90,000 was found in then Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson’s freezer.  Jefferson would later be convicted of taking bribes. Thus began the novice’s bid for the Senate.

         What makes Joseph Cau unusual are three things:  he is the first Vietnamese American to be a congressman; he is Republication when over 70% of the New Orleans population identify themselves as Democratic; and he is an extreme idealist.   

         It seemed only fitting that the title of the film would be Mr. Cao Goes To Washington; a bit of a spin on the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington with Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith. The film reveals the journey of Mr. Cau’s ideals and his good intentions, only to be a bit dazed by that great dose of reality. The film took about two years to film and complete, beginning with Cao’s campaign for the 2010 election of the New Orleans district congressman office and through his second campaign.  Chiang described Joseph Cau’s bid as Republican Senator for Louisiana being something nobody expected, especially Joseph Cau.

“It was a fluke.  He is the first Vietnamese immigrant voted into Congress and he was the only Republican that voted in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill.  Mr. Cau is idealistic in terms.  He really believes you can overlook partnership and racial representation.  It was something he strived to achieve during those two years”

         Chiang traveled from his home base of San Francisco to New Orleans and Washington D.C. and spent the days with Congressman Cau. 
“I was in New Orleans for six to eight weeks straight through. I’d just show up at Joseph’s office and hung out there as much as I could and followed him where I was allowed to go with a camera.  Even though there were some things I was not allowed to shoot, I had more access than many people.”

        Chiang and Cau have a lot in common; both are Asian and both at one time considered a different career field.  Chiang, even though he always was fascinated with film at an early age, thought he’d become an engineer, and started taking university courses.
         “I was working apple computers for a while and not satisfied with the work. I was very curious about media and photography and life.  And I liked to play with camera and make weird little short films.  It was kind of a fluke.  I didn’t have too much film training at that point.  It was a sign and I needed to drop what I am doing and go to film school.”
         Chiang was accepted into the film program at the University of Southern California where he received his MFA in film production.  His focus was on fiction and non-fiction films, and he found that he enjoyed the non-fiction the best.

         “I was always interested in story telling and documentaries stood out.   I love traveling, meeting different people, going to unusual places.  Real life stories are so much more compelling than what people can make up.  I tend to lean toward more things that have more observational elements in it.”
         In a screenplay – the play itself determines the outcome of the film; and how it is structured.  In a documentary the participants ad lib at will, and determine the structure and direction of the film.  The writing for the documentary film is based on what was said by the participants.

         “The first step of making a documentary film is to converse with your subject, which Cao would do.  There are lots of discussions about dramatic structure, character development.  You let what you film determine how it is going to be put together.”
         After 800 hours of worthy footage, the editing process can be a painful one, especially when you have to cut the footage down to a 71-minute film.
“The way I like to edit is to start on the scenes and the shoots that I remember the most compelling to me when it was being video taped and start to think about the whole story, and what the film is about.  Even then, there will be more edits.  First passage is not the end product.”

 “I wish that I could include Cao’s back story, which is fascinating and unusual.  As an eight year old he came to America and was raised by his parents, uncles, aunts, relatives and sponsors.  He originally came to California but decided to become a priest and moved to New Orleans.  Joseph’s father died in the middle of his reelection campaign.  A lot of people were against him and he dealt with a lot of personal stuff.  It was tricky to try to capture that story.  He is now studying for a PhD in philosophy.”

Mr. Cao Goes To Washington had its first screenings in San Francisco, the place he calls home.
         “Actually when I first moved to the USA going to high school in Santa Jose I felt comfortable in the Bay area.  It’s a dense city and we lived in an apartment in multiple unites that are the typical San Francisco Victorian.  It is a very beautiful city; one of the most beautiful in the world.”

Chiang is now working on a project with another filmmaker about Lesbian, Gays, and Transgender politicians who live in conservative countries – thus far he’s followed individuals in Kenya and the Philippines.
He is also a lecturer in the Social Documentation program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Photo Description And Copyright Information

Photo 1
A Scene from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where Jefferson Smith (portrayed by Jimmy Stewart) addressees Congress.
Public Domain

Photo 2
Mr. Cao Goes To Washington movie poster.

Photos 3, 11, and 15
S. Leo Chiang. 
Copyright granted by S Leo Chiang

Photo 4
A Village Called Versailles movie poster.

Photos 5, 8, 12
Anh “Joseph” Cau
Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington

Photo 6
William Jefferson.
Public Domain.

Photo 7
Rep. Anh “Joseph" Cao, R-La, attends the House Oversight and Government Reform 2009, on Bank of American’s buyout of Merril Lynch.
Photo Attributed to Bill Clark/Roll Call/ Getty Images)
Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington

Photo 9
President Barack Obama talks with Representative Joseph Cao, (R-LA), in the State Dining Room following discussion with members of Congress about immigration reform, June 25, 2009.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington.

Photo 10
Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao chats with President Obama at a Congressional Republican event, 2010. (Photo courtesy of House Republican Conference).
Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington
Photo 13
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Congressman Joseph Cao (R-LA) walk over the Judge Seeber Bridge in the Ninth Ward to release a wreath in commemoration of the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Sunday, August 29, 2010. 
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington.

Photo 14
Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao campaigning for his re-election in Uptown New Orleans, 2010. (Photo by Bao Nguyen)  Production still from Mr. Cau Goes To Washington

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