Said Soe
a conversation with
San Francisco videomaker

Valerie Soe

by Anita Chang



In early 1990s San Francisco, as I was convalescing from my years living in the Big Apple and anxious to clear the mirror, Valerie's video works provided just the right kind of medicine I needed to recover. They reminded me of the Chinese herbal concoctions my mother used to brew at night when I was a kid — concentrated, yet with a scent that was hard to escape, bitter to the bone yet cathartic at its conclusion. As I've gotten to know Valerie, she's not only become a role model, mentor, and friend, but a supporter of my own media work. Although she has less time because she's been busy raising her baby girl, Rose, I was quite honored to have a piece of her alone time for this interview on November 14, 2001.

Your works and writings have always had strong political content. How have the events of 9/11 affected you and any current works of yours?
When I used to make this politically charged work, I was very sure of what I thought. I had a very definite point of view, knew exactly what to think based on my political beliefs, social convictions, Marxist upbringing, and NOW, I'm not quite sure what to think. It's very easy to say that the U.S. is this global imperialist power that's stepping on everybody, which is certainly true; bad things are happening, and the government is doing bad things in my name. But at the same time, you can't sort of let people blow up buildings! I wouldn't go to war about it, but there should be some recourse.

People are trying so hard to put meaning into something that in the U.S. they didn't have to think about, except in a very abstract way. They live in their middle-class existence, in their safe haven of the U.S., and then all of a sudden they're physically threatened and it has changed the way they think. So again, there are some things that never change—the way that the mass media parallels what the Pentagon says.

What does your media research usually entail?

Doing internet. I go to alternate sources like the British, leftist papers, the Guardian in England. Friends funnel me inflammatory articles that don't necessarily get covered in the (SF) Chronicle or Channel 7. For example, the U.S. has ceased all satellite reporting of any of the military action over in Afghanistan, bought all the satellite pictures off there and forbidden the media to use the pictures. It's all open knowledge but not written about in this country.

The internet is making a difference because people are able to send information around. They're bypassing mass media and communicating person to person. You can send out 50 spams to your friends you download from another press source from the web. There's a lot of conspiracy theories going around and a lot of misinformation, but there's also really good stuff out there if you're willing to look out for it. So I think that has tempered the coverage. I'm sure the government is worried about that and wants to restrict that somehow. I think in the so-called Patriot Act there's a provision that if you hack a government website, then that is an act of terrorism. I'm not sure about that, you might have to check. So they're really cracking down on a lot of this stuff. I wrote an email to my friend in HK that we're not getting much information through the mainstream media but that I can go on the internet and look for stuff. And then I thought, Jesus, I sound like I'm in China, like communist China, because China blocks websites and they know that's the way people organize.

You've often referred to yourself as a cultural worker. Could you discuss this in the context of you being Asian American and of the events (referring to 9/11)?
I would say about 70–80% of my works deal with Asian American themes, and I see my works as an alternate voice for dissent, you might say. The internet has changed all this because it's more efficient to send out an e-mail instead of, "Let's make a film or video." But in the '80s, it was more efficient to make a movie and show it around because there really wasn't the web, so that was becoming the way that people were electronically leafleting, sending out alternate voices. I have no time, so I just forward e-mails.

As an experimental videomaker, do you feel you have a place to show your work and that it's reaching the intended audience?
In San Francisco there are venues for my works: ATA (Artists' Television Access) shows stuff, and the Cinematheque.

But do you sometimes feel you are preaching to the converted?
But sometimes it gets on TV, like the local broadcast Women of Vision's NAATA (National Asian American Television Association). They distribute to schools and package films together for corporate sensitivity training.

I'm in the same situation of making experimental documentary works that get very little distribution. Do you have any suggestions as to how that could change?
I noticed recently that the younger Asian American filmmakers are making narratives — commercially accessible with the same underlying issues of identity, culture, and politics. And it's neat because you would think that an agitprop documentary would be more powerful and have more impact, but if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, right, it's the same thing. So you get a movie out there like The Debut (a feature film about the Filipino American experience that got amazing theatrical distribution. If you want to know more, check out that is reaching out to all these different people, and being shown in multiplexes in Virginia and southern California and so forth. I think they made a million bucks, which is great, low budget, took eight years. They're reaching regular people. Maybe that's the way to go. No, I'm not making feature films, but I support people who do. I think it's cool.

Let's go back to the beginnings. Who was your inspiration or role model?
When I started to make experimental films, there were not that many Asian Americans doing it for sure very few people of color. Marlon Riggs I really liked because he was doing really politically engaged work that was also formally interesting, like Tongues Untied. I also used to tell people I started out doing the punk rock thing, which is very do-it-yourself, which was like the early '80s. The idea that you didn't (a) have to spend a lot of money, (b) go through commercial channels or make commercial work, and (c) make work that was appealing to a mass audience. You could be very iconoclastic and individualistic and still make good stuff, and that was kind of fun. So I think I was really colored by that when I was younger. This idea of having the counterculture, alternative underground. I grew up in the suburbs, too. I didn't know that many Asian Americans, although in college there were a lot of these (Asian American) leftists working in UCLA when I was an undergrad, and they imprinted me with their radical beliefs. They were starting to realize they could infiltrate academia and shape young minds to be communists or socialists.

Nowadays there seems to be more Asian American artists. It's really great and encouraging. If you go someplace like Locus (Locus is an alternative arts exhibition and performance space in Japantown run by a group of young Asian Americans): an important component to their exhibitions is to create in-depth dialogue with artist and audience. To see all these cute young Asian Americans together ... they're so earnest and interested. They're smarter than I was in a lot of ways.

What advice would you have for young Asian American artists who want to make films?
It's great to live in the Bay Area because there is a network of support. In Los Angeles, media art support is dissipated, very spread out. Anywhere you can get people to help you out and be supportive and let you know it's okay to do what you're doing is really important because there is not much financial reward, there is no fame. The Film Arts Foundation ad campaign is great because it says things like, "It's not for the money, or the glory or the fame, it's for the love of film." Right, which is true, and it's kind of pathetic. You can't be doing it for any other reason. Just make sure you have a support network.

What's it like being a Mom now?
I thought of Kelly Loves Tony (a documentary film by Spencer Nakasako, maker of AKA Don Bonus, about a young teenaged Laotian couple's struggles), and now I understand how difficult it was for her. You're always tired, that's priority. There's some weird biological thing that goes on where it's easy to mommy mom when you have a kid. That is the first thing you think about, the well-being of the kid. So to concentrate on something else like art, which actually takes a lot of concentration, it is really hard. You only have so much energy. All I can say is that I'm really glad I have this editing thing on my computer. Even if I don't get anything done, it just makes me feel I'm keeping that part of my brain alive. Not letting it atrophy. It's really hard.

Check out
Valerie Soe's
work online

1995, bullet casings, monitor,
altered target

1995, KFC zoetrope,
altered makeup mirror

Walking the Mountain,
1996, installation view

Valerie Soe has made numerous award-winning videos. Her video pieces are: ALL ORIENTALS LOOK THE SAME (1986, 2 min), Scratch Video (1987, 4 min), New Year, Parts I & II (1987, 23 min), Black Sheep (1990, 6 min), Destiny (1991, 6 min), Cynsin: An American Princess (1991, 10 min), Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape (1992, 12 min), Beyond Asiaphilia (1997, 14 min). Her works are distributed by IDERA, CrossCurrent Media, Women Make Movies, Video Data Bank.

Installation works are: Diversity with Chan Cheong-Toon (1990, 3-channel video installation), Heart of the City (1992, 2-channel site-specific installation), Mixed Blood (1992, interactive video installation), Risk=Fear+Need (1994, participatory performance), Walking the Mountain (1994, video installation).

Soe has been a recipient of the James D. Phelan Art Award in Video, a 1994 Cultural Equity Grant from the San Francisco Art Commission, a 1994 Art Matters Fellowship, and a 1992 Rockefeller Foundation Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship.

Soe also writes art criticism and has been published in Afterimage, High Performance, Cinematograph and The Independent, among others. She curated the exhibition Girl to Woman: Stories for the New Feminism at the University of California, Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery and has programmed several shows at Artists' Television Access and the San Francisco Cinematheque on teen videomakers. She is also on the Board of Directors for the Film Arts Foundation and is a founding member of X-Factor, an experimental film and videomaker coalition. She chairs the Film/Video program at the California State Summer School for the Arts and is on faculty at San Francisco State University's Asian American Studies Department.

In addition to a 9/11 video project, Valerie Soe is currently working on a longer personal documentary, The House of Ong, about trying to locate the site of her grandmother's house in Phoenix, Arizona, which she describes as "sort of a surreal and humorous journey since it was torn down in the '70s to make room for the superhighway that now bisects the city."

What are some of your thoughts on the world as you raise your daughter?
The new economy was booming and everybody seemed so happy, in a lot of ways and carefree. That was an amazingly euphoric time period, even though we were grumbling about our rents and SUVs and all that.

You mean euphoric in terms of most Americans?
Well, in San Francisco especially. I think that's why a lot of people had kids in the past year because they had that sense that things were doing really well. But, anyway, things are getting worse. It seemed more optimistic back then, and now it's reversed. But at the same time, when you get to be older, you realize that things are going badly but then they'll get better again, right? I read that about older people who are in their seventies. They say, "Well, we lived through World War II and we saw the '50s and '60s and we know that it was a terrible time, but it will change, hopefully." So I try to be optimistic as much as I can about that. Even though I make stuff that is very pointed and critical about society, I think I'm actually an optimist at heart. That's why I probably bother to complain, because I think complaining will actually change something. I think people who are pessimistic who don't think they are going to be able to change things, they just live and they just are depressed.

What are some of the things you think have changed since you started your work as a videomaker?
Actually, I think the world has gotten worse in some ways, like rampant consumerism. It seemed like after the World Trade Center thing, for a week or two, people were actually thinking about deeper values. Oh my God, how can we change our lives? How has our consumerism, or our greed, or self-centeredness made this happen?

And that's where media literacy is so important because so much of media is what directly fuels consumerism. That's what I do. I teach in my class how to read things critically, how to analyze the stuff that is coming at you, and once you learn it, you can't NOT see it. That's the interesting thing, once you learn to dissect imagery, then it's sort of a skill that you keep. It's really good. I am encouraged by that. That's why I like teaching in Asian American Studies, because lots of students don't come from critical theory or an art background. They learn to read the media and watch films they don't usually get to see. Plus they don't see that many Asian faces in movies.

What is the kind of creative work that you really like doing?
I used to do installations just so I could get the gallery shows, but I don't really care about doing them, because I don't think I'm really good at it. I guess I like making personal stuff, where I get to talk about my personal problems, couched in humorous terms. These longer pieces are hard for me to do — anything longer than five minutes. It's just too big. It's formless and amorphous. And when you talk about your family, you have to be very careful. It's harder. I'll never do it again. I have to finish it, because I made it a project for this Rockefeller thing and (Rockefeller) thought this sounded like a good project and I probably would never have made it if I had never gotten that grant. That is the problem with these big grants, people make ambitious proposals that they can't necessarily complete.

What does it mean to really survive as an artist in San Francisco, WITH integrity?
Well, when I started making videos, there were still a lot of smaller grants that supported experimental forms, like the Western States grant, FAF (Film Arts Foundation) is one of the few small grants, and Creative Capital. You would get these little grants for personal works and there was a period where all these things went away — AFI (American Film Institute), Western States, CAC (California Arts Council). All that were left were the NAATA grants, you have to aim things toward public TV, which is not my style, but you have to adapt your work to fit these grants. That is why it's hard for someone like me who is not used to making longer, more professional films. On the one hand, you want to get money, live off it if you can and a lot of people do it and they can do it okay, but on the other hand, it affects the way you make work, so it's hard. And you want to think you can make a living and somewhat support yourself through these grants, but it is actually really hard, nowadays especially.

As far as the teaching goes, there is not that much teaching out there. You have to calculate what the market wants from you, and that is true of anything you're selling I guess, whether that is yourself or your films. You see, it's capitalism's fault again.

What I like about your work is that it is not only intelligent but also really accessible. You've struck a nice balance between formal experimentation and also incorporating everyday, recognizable pop iconography.
'60s and '70s experimentation was all about expression, not reaching out to audiences. So you get Michael Snow and Brakhage, who are hard to penetrate. To me, I was more interested in getting people to watch it. If nobody watches it, then why make it? For your own gratification? It's important to have the audience as your partner. Political agenda couched in accessible terms, digestible terms. That's sort of the trick too—to get people to absorb something they might not normally absorb because they are seduced by the way that it engages or entertains them.

How do you see being a "cultural worker" as someone actively involved with social change?
I always believed that doing media work was just another form of activism, because the way we get most of our information is through TV, advertising. So going out and picketing and protesting is fine, and I've certainly done that but it's not necessarily the most efficient way to reach a lot of people nowadays, partially because the establishment, the powers that be, realized that if you just ignore protesters, then they don't exist. If they're not on the TV news, then they don't exist. It really hit home for me during the Gulf War because there were huge massive demonstrations in San Francisco and that got no coverage. I thought, wow! they just pretend that it did not exist. So that meant to me that there ought to be another strategy to reach people. It is partially why I work in media, which is to use another form of reaching people. As Craig Baldwin says, "Speaking in the present tense nowadays, which is the filmic language."

Do you vote?
Oh yeah, always; it's one of my favorite things to do.

Valerie Soe has a short film included in the "Underground Zero/9-11 Project" (organized by independent filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi) which is currently showing at selected theaters in the Bay Area. A powerful and moving collection of thirteen short films inspired by the events of September 11.

Anita Chang is a San Francisco-based filmmaker whose works have screened nationally and internationally, won awards, and been broadcast on public television. Her works include She Wants to Talk to You (29 min, 16mm, color, 2001), Imagining Place (35 min, 16mm, color, 1999), Mommy, What's Wrong? (1997), One Hundred Eggs a Minute (23 min, 16mm, b/w, 1996), Video Letter to the President (1996), and Spofford Alley (1994). They are distributed by Third World Newsreel, National Asian American Television Association and Berkeley's UC Extension Center for Media. She guest lectures, curates and writes on film, and teaches film and video production, alternative documentary and experimental filmmaking. She was an artist-in-resident in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she taught "Alternative Strategies in Documentary Filmmaking," and she has recently completed a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is currently education director at Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools, a grassroots organization which brings media literacy education and media production to youth in schools and after-school programs.

Special thanks to Steve Gilmartin for help in copyediting this interview.
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