Filmmaker Sean Weiner reflects on his relationship with his race has changed over time.
by SEAN WEINER
JUNE 2016 // Sean Weiner grew up thinking he was white—until he realized the world didn't see him that way. In this personal documentary, Weiner tells his family history as a means to explore the experience of growing up between races, complete with misperception, false acceptance, and the perennially posed question of how much we control our own identities. Here Weiner shares with us his documentary and reflections on the process.
This was a film I always wanted to make. In fact, I knew I wanted to create something about the shared experience of being mixed before I knew what medium I would use to tell that story.
The format of the personal documentary has always resonated with me. Watching a personal doc is like reading someone else's diary. It's a viewing experience filled with spelling mistakes, the imperfections of memory, and mundane spaces made dynamic through revealed context. Still, many of the great personal docs I treasure tell the story of a humdrum existence rocked by something unbelievable: a hidden scandalous secret or an unimaginable act of kindness or, more often, violence. My story was one of a goofy-looking kid coming of age in the suburbs of Cranston, Rhode Island. I had the humdrum dead to right. But where was the unbelievable, scandalous, or unimaginable?
When I began discussing this project with peers a few things were revealed to me: Most folks have known their race since before they could remember and think it's rather unbelievable that someone would only learn their race later in life. Most folks considered it scandalous for a grown man and a police officer to harass a child walking home in his own neighborhood for looking "suspicious." Most folks found it unimaginable that a person could exist between identities in constant fluctuation depending on who was looking at them. That's when I realized that maybe this project would be like other personal documentaries after all.
Making a film is a lot like uncovering a dinosaur skeleton. It's as if the film's already there, you just have to look for clues as to where the rest of it is hiding. In this case, my grandfather's VHS tape became something very precious. My grandfather's video archived our lives: his Super 8 and 16mm films immortalized my brother and I playing with tchotchkes from Chinatown, my parents feigning surprise as they noticed they were being filmed, and my bubby hitting Hollywood starlet poses with grace and ease. Just before he passed, my grandfather transferred all these disparate memories onto a single VHS tape. It spanned generations. The camera used was from the 50s/60s, the footage from the 80s, the VHS transfer was done in the 90s. It was an incredible artifact and it became the backbone for the film's story.
The rest of the film followed, but conducting interviews with your own family can be tough. The formality of the process creates a sense of unreality. With my team, Justin Drobinski, my brilliant Director of Photography, and Andrew Lund, my tremendous advisor in CUNY Hunter's Integrated Media Arts, I decided to approach interviews as natural conversations to capture the ephemerality of unguided conversations in familiar spaces.
For my own interview, we decided to play with the idea of a voiceover by camouflaging it in a standup routine. I was doing a bunch of open mics in New York City, and a lot of what folks said on stage, myself included, was more catharsis than anything else; strangers standing in front of strangers and sharing their deepest secrets. We let the funny fall away to leave the personal reflection as a natural spine scene of the film.
The result is this funny, sad little personal doc exploring identity. It started out about race but really seemed to travel beyond that. In the end, I think it’s about the experience of knowing oneself and having the courage to be that for everyone to see. And I think that is a universal experience. ✰