What is it like when your grandmother has Alzheimer’s?
That is the simple premise behind Jeff Man’s short film called “A Family Day.” The film documents a day in his non-biological grandmother’s life. He always wanted to ask his grandmother about her life story but he never did, and now it’s too late because of her Alzheimer’s. Man visited his grandmother’s elder care home during the fall 2014, grabbed a camera and a friend, and followed her around for the day.
The main obstacle presented in the short film is the Alzheimer’s disease Man’s grandmother was battling and how it affected her and the whole family. “Just seeing her slowly transform into a different person is really hard for me,” Man explained. “Also, the difficult decision to put her in the home was hard for my parents.”
In one of the film’s most profound moments, Man and his grandmother sat on the couch after she went to the window and waved goodbye to his father. He just put the camera in front of them and let it roll. While his grandmother was holding his arm, Man tried to talk to her, asking questions such as, “How have you been?” in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. He got no response and felt embarrassed sitting there.
“I started laughing at how awkward it was,” Man said. “But then I started crying when I saw some of the gestures she was making to show me in her way, I can feel she was thinking about me.”
The film was selected to participate in the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) and other film festivals. SAAFF’s program describes “A Family Day” as, “A subtle portrait of family and the obstacles we face together.”
Despite its simplicity, the relatable dilemma portrayed in the film had a profound impact, making many audience members cry. “The greatest response I’ve received from other people has been how much they can relate to that scene and that interaction with my grandmother,” Man said. “I always felt bad because I thought it was just me and my own introverted and shy nature that made it difficult to talk to her.”
The idea to film ordinary life was inspired by a documentary called “Manakamana,” where the filmmakers put a camera in a cable car that takes people to a sacred Hindu temple in Nepal. It’s a 10-minute cable car ride and the film doesn’t have any cuts.
“I thought it was going to be incredibly boring,” Man said, “but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.”
When he watched his own footage, it had the same effect. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to turn it into a movie,” Man said. “But when I sat down with the footage I found that there was something there.”
At SAAFF 2016, “A Family Day” was included in OHANA MEANS, a collection of short films that explore the meaning of being in an Asian-American family from different perspectives. Part of Hawaiian culture, “ohana“ means family. The concept emphasizes that families are bound together and members must cooperate and remember one another.
“We wanted to compare and contrast those experiences, and showed the diversity of being Asian American,” Adrian Alarilla, the Festival Filmmaker Liaison at SAAFF said in an email. “We also wanted people to cry. But seriously, as we all know, family is a huge part among Asian Americans. It’s these strong family ties that bring us together, and by showing these films, we were hoping to reaffirm that as well.”
To Man, ohana means the people who are always there for you. The ones you hold nearest to your heart, but also the ones who are capable of driving you the craziest, too.
Man’s love of movies began early. He grew up watching all kinds of movies in front of the TV. Based on his early interest in writing, he went to college to study journalism, thinking he would be the next Roger Ebert and be a movie critic. After writing movie reviews for a couple years, he realized that he didn’t like the feeling of always being critical of people’s hard work.
He felt confused about his career goal for a while, until he took a filmmaking class and fell in love with it. He’s been pursuing it ever since. Currently, he works as an assistant to one of his favorite filmmakers on the HBO series “Togetherness,” and continues to produce short films to achieve his goal as a full-time filmmaker.
Man’s family was not supportive of his dream of being a filmmaker at first. They didn’t say it, but he could tell they were very worried when he chose to go this profession. “If I were to go into something where I’d have a stable job with good pay, it’s easier for them and others to measure the amount of success I’m having.”
With filmmaking, Man is taking a gamble that making art will pay off in the long run. The only thing he can do is keep making films, try to get them shown at film festivals like SAAFF, and hope people like them. Watching “A Family Day” at the Philadelphia Asian Film Festival with his family, and seeing the effect it had on other people, was a breakthrough. His family liked the film, and they felt better about his decision to be a filmmaker.
Finally, Alarilla and Man also shared their opinions about the opportunities and difficulties for Asian Americans in the film field, from a film festival organizer and a filmmaker perspective.
Alarilla: The difficulties are both in front of the camera, and behind it. In front of the camera, it’s hard to find Asian Americans in leading roles in mainstream media. And even if the role is for an Asian Americans, oftentimes a white person is cast for that Asian American role (think Aloha). Behind the camera, there is a lack of diversity in stories that mainstream media shows of Asian Americans, and we are often relegated to supporting roles, as comic relief characters, or as villains in the story. That is why it is so important to support independent Asian American film festivals such as SAAFF, that are showcasing films by Asian Americans for everyone.
Man: I’m lucky enough to have a job that I love that I can make a living off of and also have time to work on my own film projects. I just concentrate on the work and getting better at what I do and I also don’t feel comfortable speaking for Asian Americans. I know it’s probably harder for Asian American actors out there to get good roles so they might have more to say on this. I’m just trying to make good movies inexpensively and hopefully, one day, make a feature film. If I never “make it” as a movie director I’m never going to blame my race for that. I’m going to blame myself and the fact that I never got good enough to make a great movie.