At the Black Dog Café this Sunday, filmmakers Justin Schell and Tou SaiKo Lee will be screening Travel in Spirals, a documentary about spoken-word artist Lee's journey back to his birthplace of Thailand in 2008. The two will be on hand to talk about the film after the free viewing.
Schell and Lee met in October of 2007, when Schell was working on an essay about Twin Cities hip hop and "was realizing how many people who do hip hop in Minnesota aren't conventionally from Minnesota," Schell says. He went to a fundraiser Lee performed at for Pakou Hang, and they started talking. Since then, Schell has written numerous articles about Lee, and helped him organize events like Boom Bap Village (a Hmong hip-hop event tied to the July 4 sports tournaments). Together, they made Travel in Spirals, which follows Lee and his grandmother on a trip to Thailand in 2008.
Lee was born in a refugee camp in Nong Kai, and was only two months old when his family came to the United States. Thirty years later, he returned to Thailand with funding from a travel study grant from the Jerome Foundation. He wasn't sure of what to expect.
"I felt disconnected from Hmong people in Thailand because I grew up in a different environment," Lee says, "but in a way, it also felt like I was reaching for something deep inside myself by being able to experience living in a Hmong village up in the mountains the way my ancestors had been for many generations."
He felt humbled by the way of life, and the small community living off the land. "I was really inspired by these Hmong village artists who were immersed in creativity. It's a way of everyday life to just make music, choreograph dances, paint pictures, recite poetry, sew tapestry. I was in awe," he says.
The experience helped change the way Lee thinks about his own work. "Even though I had many spoken-word poems and hip-hop songs that were written in English, I felt awkward performing for my cousins and village people that didn't understand what I had to say. It motivated me to write more lyrics and poetry in my native language, and to gain some perspective living in Southeast Asia as Hmong people with my approach to writing," he says.
Travel in Spirals explores Lee's past by connecting with his family members still living in Thailand. It also includes a glimpse of the cultural scene in Thailand which is filled with artists, musicians, activists, and leaders. Schell wanted to help tell the story with Lee "because his story reflects so many other stories of Hmong refugees. Many people can recognize themselves in the story of Travel in Spirals," Schell says.
While in Thailand, Lee encountered kwv txhiaj, a Hmong improvised oral tradition that is recited throughout a life and passed down to other generations. "It definitely made me think of how I can have a freestyle state of mind inspired by tradition, and envisioning messages that can last through lifetimes," Lee says. "It does put pressure on my creativity, but at the same time it's about allowing myself to tap into that freedom to stylistically say something serious and stay rooted in storytelling."
As they were putting together Travel in Spirals, the filmmakers had to have a number of things translated. "This was a slow process," Schell says. "I had been looking at the footage for a long time before knowing what was being said. After we started to get things translated, it was an incredible revelation to learn more about his Aunt Joua's poem, where she tells the story of being married to a man who didn't love her, and eventually having to divorce him."
Schell and Lee also made a Hmong version of the film, which they brought with them to Thailand when Lee returned in 2011. "This meant translating the English voiceover into Hmong, having Tou re-record it, and then re-editing the film to match that voiceover," Schell says. They brought a portable projector, showed it a number of times, and gave out copies of the DVD to people there, especially those who were in the film.
"They were very happy to have Tou return and to see that all the things that he filmed were part of something they could see," he says. "There's a scene where Tou is pounding rice to make these patties. It's one of my favorite scenes in the film. When we showed it on the wall of a village in Thailand, there were people doing the same activity 25 feet away!"
Travel in Spirals has screened at a number of film festivals, and was recently part of the MNTV showcase broadcast on TPT. It is also now on view in the Walker Art Center until June.
Currently, Lee is working on a new project, called Ntiaj Teb Koom Tes, which translates to Unified Worldwide. The project creates connections with other Hmong artists from different countries around the world. While they were in Thailand in 2011, Lee and Schell recorded parts of a song with a singe, poet, and musican, and Lee has been in contact with Hmong French hip-hop artist JinLee, and is planning to work with Hmong Chinese singer Ling Lee on a collaboration.
Meanwhile, Schell is finishing up We Rock Long Distance, which he hopes to be finished in the next couple of months.