In the short mockumentary “Asian American Jesus,” the fake filmmaker offers the following explanation for why the project focuses on an obscure female slam poet: “I thought that she’d be a good subject to interview, because she wasn’t, like, famous or anything, so she was a lot more likely to talk to me.”
Following this logic myself, I told the real filmmaker Yasmine Gomez that I wanted to interview her for this website. She responded emphatically that the result would be the “shittiest blog post ever.”
Okay, fine. Yasmine’s not famous, so maybe she’s both easy to reach and unworthy of cyber attention. Or… maybe not?
She wasn’t that easy to reach last week while juggling plane trips and film shoots and social engagements. As for cyber worthiness, that’s an even more debatable question. Besides “Asian American Jesus,” she has a growing list of credits to her name, including two other Asian American film festival selections. She’s also put in work for NBC, a bunch of pharmaceutical giants, and Complex Media, for whom she produced early editions of “Magnum Opus,” a documentary web series about classic hip hop tracks.
I squeezed into Yasmine’s schedule last Saturday night in San Francisco, where she was visiting to handle production of both a hotel commercial and a documentary on Vietnam’s “queen of hip hop,” Suboi, a featured performer at CAAMFest’s music showcase. We met up in Japantown in front of New People Cinema, among a small crowd of festival-goers containing the likes of Phil Yu and Goh Nakamura. She was exiting a screening of “Top Spin,” a documentary about teenage table tennis prodigies who hoped to represent the United States at the 2012 London Olympics.
The chance to ask a seasoned filmmaker (and, as I later learned, eighth grade ping pong champion) for a critique of “Top Spin” seemed like a potential angle for a Dat Winning article. However, that wasn’t my primary interest. As I tried to explain while we searched for a place to eat in the Japantown mall, I wanted to talk more broadly about what she and I do in our overlapping fields, and how those efforts intersect with sports.
That’s where our connection originates — Yasmine and I were basketball teammates in college, playing intramural hoops at UC Berkeley for a now-defunct student group called Hapa Issues Forum. As with most of the squads I’ve represented, I’m sure that one was terrible, but that was so long ago, I have trouble remembering. In the many years since then, both of us have continued to seek out various other opportunities to embarrass ourselves on the hardwood. That impulse led Yasmine, upon her move to New York four years ago, to volunteer with the Dynasty Project — which, as you may or may not be aware, sponsors Dat Winning.
I have a dim comprehension of this arrangement, but the whole situation still feels opaque to me. So, as we settled into our seats at a small sushi boat restaurant, I tried to illuminate matters.
Me: “So what is the Dynasty Project? I have no idea what it is.”
YG: “Okay, my impression of Dynasty Project, and I don’t work for them or whatever, so I don’t know if I’m even giving you the full right answer…”
YG: “I can’t believe you don’t know — you accepted this fellowship!”
Me: “I know. What am I thinking?”
As we continued, I ascertained that the Dynasty Project organizes youth basketball games in New York City Chinatown during the summer, and that it’s coordinated by a guy who lets people like Yasmine help out, either by keeping score or by preventing creepy weirdos from entering the gym. That guy is Ren Hsieh, and he manages Dat Winning.
YG: “Ren is cool. Ren I think played basketball for NYU… So he’s good. I’ve seen him play in games, but I don’t think I was watching while he had some stellar move or anything… he’s just a chill guy, who runs a thing.”
Besides running a “thing” and a website, Ren also connects volunteers to other youth basketball programs, where those benevolent souls find themselves coaching nine-year-olds in Chinatown’s public school system. So for a couple hours on Saturdays, Yasmine’s been putting a co-ed group of roughly 20 kids through warm-ups, drills, and scrimmages. On rare occasion, they face off against some other group from some other school.
YG: “This is exactly the age that I started playing team basketball. And I remember it, vividly. So you want to make sure that they learn the right fundamentals before they develop all their bad habits… The nine-year-olds are more fun; they’re still actually very cute and fun to work with.”
Yasmine got her own first taste of hoops in the family driveway, goofing around with her dad and brother in suburban Valencia. Like so many Southern California households in the ’80s, hers pulled for the Lakers; parties to watch playoff games attracted assorted extended relatives, some who grew up with basketball in the Philippines. When she joined her first organized league, “I was the only girl on an all-boys team. I think that’s probably why I remember it, because it sucked. Horrible… During practice, we played shirts and skins — hello? Guess which team I’m on.” Undeterred, she went on to play all four years in high school, two on varsity.
Compared to her formative years on the West Coast, basketball in New York City Chinatown has proven different in several ways. When she gets on the court to square off against adults, competition feels more physical, intense, serious. People curse a lot. They’re also shorter.
YG: “I grew up playing with big white girls. So I was playing the three position, that’s what I was used to… As a freshman I was point guard, and then I became the three. And when I play now, just pickup with other women or whatever, I am the tallest, and they want me to post up, and I’m like, I don’t know how to post, I have zero post moves, I can’t rebound. I just like to hang out on the perimeter and shoot, but they keep pushing me to post up, or rebound more.”
A more meaningful contrast, though, comes across in observing the students she coaches. Yasmine thinks they seem totally comfortable in their own skin. After practice, she watches them gleefully share the kind of Asian snack foods that once brought her ridicule in Valencia. “To have stronger identity at that age — I don’t know,” she marveled about their apparent blissful obliviousness at occupying the dominant cultural position.
The sparking of traumatic childhood memories led to discussion of the new sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” which Yasmine contended would make for more compelling subject material than herself. And we did have a fun time talking about it, but it’s a network television show with famous people — that’s not what I set out to cover. What I set out to cover was someone who is not famous… but who might be one day.
Me: “What are you going to do? What’s your film dream?”
YG: “I just kind of want to keep working. The dream is to work. People hire me to produce and direct. I get paid to direct now. As a female person of color, to get paid to do it? To me, if I can do that, and make a living doing it, and it’s fun… Of course you want to keep a balance of the corporate stuff with indie stuff you care about, and so I still try to do that, but I don’t know that I have any strategy. When projects come my way, then I’ll be like, yes or no.”
Me: “Is it harder to succeed as an Asian in media or in sports?”
YG: “Probably sports.”
Me: “Is it harder to succeed as a woman in media or in sports?”
YG: “Maybe media. It depends what sport. I don’t know; that’s a weird question.”
Me: “Well it’s very broad, sure.”
YG: “I mean, the statistics for female directors are already so shitty. And then you add minority female? Even shittier… I think there are a lot of female producers. And I think in a way, that’s why I’ve pursued producing, essentially… Producing feels more realistic, because directing is very difficult. Realistically, I can be really good, but it may not matter, because at the end of the day, someone’s going to hire his white, guy friend to do something. I know the racism and sexism that exists in the system, and so you could be going for this, but unless you really do it yourself, you can’t rely on the powers that be to hire you.”
Film seems like a tough racket, and tougher still if you don’t fit the industry mold. But I think that could change for some talented, hard-working folks — if we’d just pay more attention to them.