Moviehole at SXSW : Who is Grace Lee?


Tim Basham with the answer

As I prepare to attend my first SXSW Film Festival (actually, my first film festival of any kind) I begin to appreciate the sacrifice and dedication these filmmakers put into their work. For some, it is their first opportunity to share their creation with the world. For others, it’s one more notch on the resume. And then there are filmmakers whose entire life savings, and children’s college funds, are invested in their films.

Why do they do it? And how do they keep themselves going in the face of a heck of a lot of adversity? I’ll be asking them these questions over the next few days as I watch their films and listen to “the buzz.”

I had the opportunity to pre-screen another SXSW entry, this time a documentary from California filmmaker Grace Lee.

The Grace Lee Project
When I first read the synopsis of “The Grace Lee Project” I thought, “How cute. Google your name to see what comes up and build a whole film out of interviewing people with the same name as you!” It sounded like a high school project done by the kid who always did what the teachers wanted and could never step outside the box.

It’s so nice to be wrong.

Grace Lee is a filmmaker in search of her own identity. Growing up she thought she had a unique name until she realized that it was the Asian-American version of “Jane Doe”. Her interviews with other Grace Lees begin with just a lot of nice girls living in nice places doing nice things. She even creates a “statistically average Grace Lee.”

Lee’s frustration shows as she tries to find a Grace that doesn’t fit her statistical average. The ambitious news reporter from Hawaii stands slightly above the norm. And the talented teenager who expresses her angst in her art puts light on the enormous pressure to excel that Asian students feel, which also appeared to be the driving force behind another Grace Lee who, when in high school, tried to burn her school down to hide an unfavorable academic report.

One Grace that definitely did not fit her statistics is the 88 year old Detroit resident who began to march for civil rights in the 1940’s and continues to actively write and speak on the subject today.

Eventually Lee travels to her family’s roots in Korea and meets a lesbian gay rights activist and is inspired by her passion until the woman later tells Lee she cannot be seen in the film because of how it would affect her family. Lee is disappointed and uses the moment for her own self-analysis.

“Why isn’t she allowed to be as flawed and human as everyone else?,” asks Lee. “Why isn’t she allowed to be as flawed a person as me?”

Sometimes Lee’s complaints about her own imperfections become a little tiring, and even seem forced. But her ability to bring her subjects to express themselves openly and honestly overcomes any other weaknesses the film may have.

These Grace Lees are likable and interesting. And, as Lee demonstrates, they are anything but average—just like the rest of us.