Richard Fung: no easy readings

Born in Trinidad, based in Canada, navigating between identities — gay, Chinese-descended, Caribbean diaspora — filmmaker Richard Fung was “intersectional” before the term even existed, writes Jonathan Ali, and his complicated background informs his pioneering, innovative work

Photo by Mezart DauletStill from Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier. Courtesy Richard FungStill from Dal Puri Diaspora. Courtesy Richard FungStill from See in the Blood. Courtesy Richard FungStill from Rex vs Singh. Courtesy Richard FungFung’s latest film, Re:Orientations, revists the subjects of his 1984 debut. Film stills courtesy Richard FungFung’s latest film, Re:Orientations, revists the subjects of his 1984 debut. Film stills courtesy Richard FungFung’s latest film, Re:Orientations, revists the subjects of his 1984 debut. Film stills courtesy Richard FungFung’s latest film, Re:Orientations, revists the subjects of his 1984 debut. Film stills courtesy Richard Fung

My conversation with Richard Fung doesn’t begin with the most pleasant of topics. It’s only a few days after the horrific incident in Orlando, Florida, that saw forty-nine people gunned down at a gay nightclub, and Fung is telling me his thoughts on the matter.

“One of the things that struck me,” he says via Skype from his home in Toronto, “was that the overwhelming majority of the victims of the Orlando shooting were Latino. And that racial aspect has been erased here, which for me is disturbing on a number of levels.”

Fung — who’s affable, engaging, and has clearly thought long and deeply about  every subject he touches on — then launches into a disquisition about queer identity and American politics, before coming to the question of the person who committed this most savage of acts.

“In terms of the shooter himself, there’s so much information that suggests conflict,” he notes, “like the fact that he apparently at one point claimed allegiance to both Al Qaeda and Hezbollah — one is Shia, one is Sunni. All of these things don’t make for an easy reading.”

No easy readings: Richard Fung could just as well be talking about his own, multitudinous self. Born in Trinidad, educated there and in Ireland and Canada, gay and of Chinese descent, Fung has spent his life both embodying and interrogating the complicated, complicating identity that the British-Jamaican multicultural theorist Stuart Hall declared to be archetypal of the postcolonial experience. He personified intersectionality long before the word existed.

Fung is an academic and a writer, but he is best known as a filmmaker. He has directed many documentary and experimental works, exploring such issues as immigration, AIDS, homophobia, and racism in Canada. He has also sought to elucidate his own family’s story through a series of films that, taken together, stand as an invaluable repository for the Chinese-Trinidadian experience. (He’s made a film about roti, too.)

Writing of Fung in 2002, Cameron Bailey, the Barbadian-descended artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (and no less a Hallian archetype of the postcolonial experience himself) had this to say: “You can choose your Richard Fung. To the queer video crowd he’s the sly provocateur . . . To the postcolonial seminar heads he’s the taskmaster . . . And to a generation of young Asian artists all across North America, he’s Frida Kahlo. Richard Fung blazed the trail.”

Now, with his most recent film, this year’s Re:Orientations, this trailblazer — recipient of the Bell Canada Award for Outstanding Achievement in Video Art, the Toronto Arts Award for Media Art, and, most recently, the Kessler Award from the City University of New York for “a substantive body of work that has had a significant influence on the field of LGBTQ Studies” — finds himself circling back to his beginnings as a filmmaker, as he revisits his first film, Orientations. Made in 1984 and built around the lives of several LGBT-identified Asian-Canadian individuals, Orientations was a groundbreaking documentary about a then liminal community and their struggles to make themselves visible.

Thirty years on, Fung thought it was the right time to take the pulse of the community again. “Not only have LGBT rights changed, but immigration has changed Toronto,” he says. “When I tell people that [back then] you’d go to a gay bar or gay event and see [only] one person of colour, they can’t understand that. The demographics of the city as well as the gay community have changed a lot.”

He also wanted to give young LGBT people of colour in Canada a sense of the history of the movement, and also highlight the fact that — as the Orlando attack tragically showed — the lives of gay people in North America remain at risk, even in supposed bastions of tolerance like Toronto. “Queer people aren’t safe anywhere at this point,” he declares.

 

Born in Port of Spain in 1954, Richard Fung was the lagniappe in a family of eight children. His siblings grew up “behind a shop in Cedros,” in rural Trinidad; he was the only one raised fully in an urban milieu. His father, who was Hakka Chinese, migrated to Trinidad in the 1920s, while his mother — a relation of the seminal Trinidad and Tobago artist Sybil Atteck — was third-generation Chinese from Canton.

Fung was raised within an extended family that was ethnically mixed. Racism in the family was not alien, and as he entered his teenage years in the late 1960s, he felt the profound influence of Black Power. “I began to look at these racisms through the lens of Black Power,” Fung says, adding that he started to understand that while the country may have been independent, the society was still “heavily colonial.”

From a Roman Catholic family, Fung attended the island’s foremost Catholic secondary school for boys, a further eye-opener. “I began to see the petty corruptions of race and class and how that played out in the school,” he says. “I became very alienated from that establishment kind of institution.” He also became critical of Mother Church herself, noting that while the priests were meant to have taken vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, “I [wasn’t] seeing the poverty.”

A “feminine child” who “always knew I was whatever ‘that thing’ was,” Fung remembers experiencing homophobia growing up in conservative, repressive Trinidad. After O-Levels he left for “equally repressive, equally Catholic” Ireland to finish secondary school, before moving to Canada for university.

It was in Canada that a sympathetic and enlightened therapist reconciled Fung with the fact of his homosexuality, and in 1975, at a Marxist study group, he met the man who was to become his partner in life, and who remains his partner to this day. (“Marxism and a psychiatrist — two unlikely roots into gay life,” Fung notes with a laugh.)

Wanting to be an architect but unable to live up to the stereotype of Chinese prowess at mathematics, Fung entered the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University, where he is a professor in the Faculty of Art) and began studying industrial design. He gave it up after what he comically calls “the flowerpot assignment” and switched to what was then the photoelectric arts department.

After graduation he worked at a community television station teaching people how to make videos — working with “ordinary people’s voices.” It was this on-the-ground experience that inspired Fung to want to become a filmmaker himself, and he returned to university to take a degree in film studies.

In Ireland, Fung had seen a British film, The Ruling Class, in which Peter O’Toole plays a feckless aristocrat who believes he’s Jesus Christ, which made a particular impression on him. He then saw Eric Rohmer’s masterpiece of suppressed sexuality, Claire’s Knee, “which made me really fall in love with film.” But it was in film school, when he encountered the work of people like pioneering Afro-British artist-filmmakers Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah, filmmakers for whom the beauty of the image could never be divorced from the meaning it was imbued with, that Fung found the intersection of aesthetics and politics within the medium where he felt most comfortable.

 

Fung’s filmography, from Orientations all the way up to Re:Orientations, reflects this. His work includes archival material, repurposed footage, and even dramatic reconstruction — often with the filmmaker’s own incisive voice-over narration overlaying the visuals — to create multi-layered, complex tales that attempt to disturb the white, hetero-normative, historical status quo.

In films such as Fighting Chance (the story of four Asian-Canadian men at different stages of HIV infection) and Out of the Blue (about a young black Toronto man arrested in a case of “mistaken identity”), Fung probed marginalised, hyphenated Canadian lives, with eye-opening, often provocative results. The Way to My Father’s Village, meanwhile, in which Fung journeyed to his father’s birthplace in Guangdong, and Islands — in which he confronts the Second World War film Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, a Hollywood vehicle for Robert Mitchum, which was shot in Tobago and featured Chinese-Trinidadian men (among them one of Fung’s uncles) playing nameless, faceless Japanese soldiers — saw him consider the Chinese-Trinidadian story through the lens of his own family’s various narratives.

Even that documentary about roti, Dal Puri Diaspora, in which Fung retraces the Trinidadian dish dhalpuri back to its Indian origins, is more than a mere gastronomic quest. Fung had first visited India in the mid-1970s. He was reading V.S. Naipaul at the time and “looking for traces of Trinidad, what I knew as Trinidadian culture” — particularly, for this obvious foodie, in the cuisine — but never found them.

Fung returned to India several times, and in 2009 became a visiting scholar at the Islamic University in New Delhi. It was at this point that one of his colleagues claimed to know of a dish from eastern Uttar Pradesh that appeared to have characteristics similar to those of dhalpuri, and thus Dal Puri Diaspora was born.

Beginning with the filmmaker tucking into a roti at his neighbourhood Trinidadian restaurant on a snowy Toronto day, Dal Puri Diaspora follows Fung as he travels first from Canada to Trinidad and then from Trinidad to India in search of his culinary holy grail. Informed by Fung’s formidable intellect and relentless curiosity, the documentary expands along the way into a fascinating exploration of the consequences of migration and proto-globalisation that characterised the colonial experience. (And — spoiler alert — the search is a successful one: Fung does find the “mother” dhalpuri.)

Now Fung is at work on yet another film in which he returns to his endlessly compelling origins. As yet unnamed, this new documentary is a portrait of his ninety-two-year-old mixed-race “outside” cousin, Nan, who has lived in the United States for several decades but was once famed artist Boscoe Holder’s dance partner, lived on the Orinoco River, and married five times.

Though Nan’s story is remarkable, “there’s a way in which [it] encapsulates a lot of other families’ stories in Trinidad, negotiating questions of race, propriety, hypocrisy,” Fung says. “I’m also interested in her re-confronting Trinidad as a contemporary space.”

Fung is aware that, as a Trinidadian who has not lived in Trinidad for many years, he too is always re-confronting the place himself whenever he visits — both on a personal level as well as in his work. “I have a certain humility about what I can say about contemporary Trinidad,” he says, pointing out that he sees himself now as a “diasporic Trinidadian.”

That appellation is but one of several identities — including gay, Asian, Canadian, Torontonian — that he can readily claim, identities that have all gone indelibly into the making of the man and the filmmaker. And among all of these identities, Trinidadian is not necessarily the one Richard Fung feels he has to claim most, or even at all. “If I want to be Trinidadian,” he says at last, “I am free to be Trinidadian.”

 

A Richard Fung filmography

Re:Orientations (2016)

Dal Puri Diaspora (2012)

Rex vs Singh (2008)

Jehad in Motion (2007)

Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier (2005)

Islands (2002)

Sea in the Blood (2000)

School Fag (1998)

Dirty Laundry (1996)

Out of the Blue (1991)

Steam Clean (1990)

My Mother’s Place (1990)

Fighting Chance (1990)

Safe Place (1989)

The Way to My Father’s Village (1988)

Chinese Characters (1986)

Orientations (1984)