Adele Free Pham is an independent filmmaker based out of New York City. Her 2008 film “Parallel Adele” has screened at numerous festivals internationally, and is distributed by Third World News Reel. Currently, she is producing “The Transition” documentary on Obama campaign workers after the election and its effect on their lives, as well as “Fine Threads”, portraits of South Asian teenage women growing up in Queens, NY. She has lectured at several colleges and universities on depictions of mixed race and minority populations in mediated culture.
Pham answers some questions related to her production of “Fine Threads”, her own beauty salon experiences, and being a filmmaker focused on race and minority depictions.
Worldtown: You made a film about threading. Have you ever had your eyebrows threaded?
Adele Free Pham: About three years ago, my good friend Ngozi Olemgbe introduced me to threading, as well as yoga. So I guess I’ve been an indo-phile for quite some time. The only reason I don’t thread more often is because of money. It’s not even that expensive! I blame it on the Asian genes. But then I’m Scottish on the white side, so monetary fickleness can’t be avoided. Threading really gives the best shape to your brows though, no doubt about it. I won’t even get into upper lip hair right now…
WT: Why do you choose themes within themes – rather than making a movie about South Asian girls, you decided to portray them in a threading salon? What do you like best about this approach?
AFP: My co-director Tanwi Islam is the driving force behind the threading salon as a narrative device, and also good friends with Ngozi, so the catalyst for my own introduction to threading as well. I was really excited to use this visual thread if you will to connect one girl’s story to another. I was speaking at Wesleyan last week, and the audience was mostly Desi girls. Watching their excitement to the opening credits (”Fine Threads” over a beauty salon with Indian music in the background) was amazing. One of them actually squealed “This is a movie about threading!!!” Now I know that we are truly onto something. The act of threading itself is rhythmically beautiful, cinematic, and fun to shoot. It connects beauty ideals and culture, which are both themes in the film. As far as the theme within a theme as my directorial calling card, I’m just really deep, so hire me…
WT: What did you learn about beauty in South Asian culture, and do you feel you can relate?
AFP: I think South Asian girls have more hair issues than East Asian girls. I hear “I’m so hairy” all the time, although I don’t really notice, but maybe that’s because of the threading. Culturally however I have a lot in common with the girls we are filming, and Tanwi (Islam) who is my best friend. As a filmmaker with an immigrant parent, it took me a long time to accept that my father is never really going to “understand” what I do until I make 100K a year, which currently, seems hilarious. Growing up I think I rejected a lot of my culture, and it’s funny that now that I’m an adult, most of my work deals with it. I have buku latent issues. However the young women we are filming are ahead of the game, and more in tune with their identity than I was at their age. Maybe it’s the times we live in, or the fact that NY has so many different kinds of people running around. I take more away from their stories than they realize. The act of making a documentary is always a revelation in one way or another. I didn’t really answer the question, but let’s just move on
WT: How did you come about this project and how did you pitch it and fund it?
AFP: Tanwi was teaching the girls behind “Fine Threads” in an after school program at South Asian Youth Action in Queens. She asked me to come one day to screen my film “Parallel Adele”, and then that week they decided to make a documentary for their end of the year project. I wasn’t really doing anything, so I was down to get the project off the ground because I was sort of fascinated by the group, and really enjoy teaching. Later I pitched the film in a sentence in an unrelated email to my distributor and they happened to be a looking for a group of girls of color in NY to “invest” in if you will. They provided us with sound equipment, and I had been able to buy the sony EX1 with my co-director on another project, so with a lot of hard work by the girls, Tanwi, and I, it just sort of came together. We shot for four days total, and I edited like crazy for a couple of days in order to make the NYSCA grant deadline. We are still waiting to hear if we have funding to continue the project over the summer. Such is the temperamental nature of documentary film.
WT: Do you ever get labeled as a filmmaker focusing on “hot topics”, such as race relations? If so, how do you respond to that?
AFP: I don’t think that I’ve made enough films to be labeled as anything yet. But this idea doesn’t scare me. People are going to box me into whatever they’re going to box me into anyway. I’m my biggest critic. My only fear is running out of ideas and becoming a hack, or getting trapped in a job I hate for the money. There are so many talented people in the world who are living the dream. That is my inspiration and creative competition. If they can do it why not me!!!
WT: If you were the only filmmaker making the types of movies you do, why would it be important to you?
AFP: As I said before I’m my biggest critic, so if I don’t like something I’m working on, or I find it vacuous in a bad way, it usually won’t last. I am still growing as a filmmaker, which will probably be a life long endeavor. I really want to film abroad and make documentaries where the stakes are high and be a catalyst of change.
Before I said I didn’t have any heroes, scratch that. Roxana Saberi, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are three female journalists that are paying the price for making media that’s worth a damn. Unlike myself, who is currently living it up in LA at a film festival, and going to eat a breakfast burrito after I answer these questions, these women have real challenges and uncertain futures to say the least. I ask myself everyday if I would be willing to take the same risk for the overall goal of making the world a better place. I don’t know the answer. This also keeps my ego in check. However, another goal of mine is to make a comedy with an all brown cast, that feels “normal”, so there are many ways of being political. I’m a big fan of subliminal messages. I credit my white mother, who when I was little, only bought me dolls of color to combat the Barbie effect. She is a hippie and I love her.
WT: What’s the best article, book you’ve read, film you’ve seen, or song you’ve listened to lately that everyone should read/see/listen to?
AFP: On the plane to LA I read a profile on modern Rwanda in the New Yorker, read it. On a related note, the documentary “War Dance”, which was nominated for an Oscar some years ago, is not to be missed. Stakes are fucking high, and Americans tend to forget this surrounded by oceans, capitalism, and mediocrity. Canada is the same to some extent, except you guys have healthcare. Obama needs to get on that. Musically, I just leave it to East Village Radio. Comedically, I am a big “Tim & Eric” fan. Look them up on Adult Swim, and please don’t hate me.