Interview with Ursula Liang, Director of “9-Man”

Connect with 9-Man on Twitter, Instagram

Connect with 9-Man on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

I first stumbled upon Ursula Liang and her 9-Man documentary project on Kickstarter. This westcoaster had never heard of 9-Man, so I went ahead and backed the project. Can’t wait to see the documentary and better yet, get to New York and see a game firsthand.

Since the 1930’s, young men have played this gritty, streetball game competitively in the streets, alleys and parking lots of Chinatown . . . Today, some 80 years later, nine-man is a lasting connection to Chinatown for a community of men who know a different, more integrated America and it’s a game that has grown exponentially in athleticism. Nine-man punctuates each summer with a vibrant, aggressive, exhausting bragging-rights tournament that unites thousands of Chinese-Americans and maintains traditional rules and customs—sometimes to the malcontent of outsiders.

Here is the youtube teaser video . . .

So now the documentary is beginning to make the rounds with its West Coast Premiere at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday May 2, 7:00PM [ticket info]. I caught up with Ursula Liang and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

My Interview with Ursula Liang…

So before we get into the movie, tell me about Ursula, the person. Who are you? What do you like to do? What’s your story in a nutshell? And one thing we would never guess about you?

I’m originally from suburban Boston, but I have been living in New York for a very long time now. I was raised in a very close and creative family of five that sang out loud a lot, played sports in the backyard, and had lively dinner conversations. I definitely like a challenge and love being around people who make you question what you think you know. I enjoy staying busy and often find myself talking to strangers. I think people would be surprised to know that I can actually cook. I do it so infrequently because of my hectic, New York smorgasbord, modern-working-woman life, but I can–if I ever get around to it.

Why 9-man? What about the game inspired you to make the film?

If you’ve ever seen 9-Man in person, you would know exactly why I made the film. There is a very palpable energy that saturates the tournament. You step on the black top and you feel it. The love and passion these guys have for the game and one another is so great to watch. It was something I wanted to see if I could capture. When I learned about the history of the tournament and discovered that some of the pioneers of the game were very, very old, I felt a responsibility to tell the story right away. Henry Oi was 91-years-old when I interviewed him. He had had several strokes and his breathing was very labored. I was afraid he wouldn’t last more than 15 minutes when we sat down to talk, but his memory of 9-Man was sharp and energetic, probably preserved in a very special part of him that holds on tight to the things he loves.

As you put this project together what surprised you the most about the people, the game, the community, etc.?

I was surprised at how open the guys were to letting me into their worlds. All the colorful stories and spaces were so much fun to experience! They took me to their homes, their jobs, private clubhouses filled with smoke or mahjong tables, a P.R. (hostess) club, their basements and attics. The players were incredibly emotive and open to talking about their lives. I wish more people in the media understood how many rich stories there are to tell within this community.

You funded 9-man this using Kickstarter. What were the best and worst aspects of trying to fund the film this way?

Kickstarter is an incredible resource for filmmakers, especially first-timers like me who don’t haven’t yet figured out the grant game. Running a campaign is a tremendous amount of work, and that is the first warning I give people who ask for advice on crowd financing. You have to treat it like a full time job for the length of the campaign and really carefully plan out your strategy and pitch in advance. The greatest thing about Kickstarter is that the site itself is a very robust machine; all of your outreach is amplified by the site and you will definitely reach a much larger audience with them than you would on your own. About a third of my funding came from donors who were lassoed by Kickstarter marketing. I also connected with people who ended up helping me finish the project. My creative director, John Fan of Circle Square Creative found me through the Kickstarter campaign and I never would have met him otherwise. Also a few Kickstarter employees donated to my campaign. Thanks guys!

People are always going to experience films differently, but if you had the power determine people’s reactions, what are you hoping folks get out of 9-Man?

I hope that people walk away from the experience feeling like we introduced them to a world that they could never have accessed on their own. People who have never heard of 9-Man will see an intimate portrait of the game and its history, and guys that have played for years will have a window into other teams and vantage point that allows them to see themselves in a different light.  On the most basic level, I’m hoping that people leaving the film feeling that they saw a portrait of Asian America that is more authentic that what is typically seen in the media. We are a complex, passionate community with a lot of diversity that defies stereotypes.

Can you pay it forward a bit and share 2-4 organizations of people who you think others should know about.

I’m one of the founding members of the Filipino American Museum, so I have to give them a shout out. FAM is this amazing new roving space that celebrates contemporary Filipino American arts and the roots and traditions of the Philippine diaspora. We’ve curated inspiring events highlighted by a sound installation, activist symposium and a musical showcase and fine art auction that raised a substantial amount of money for typhoon relief.

I also have a special place in my heart for the Bronx Documentary Center (Current BDC Kickstarter Project) this great space in my neighborhood that brings challenging and important art to a neighborhood that is so often underestimated and overlooked.

9-Man by Ursula LiangPlease support this project as you can . . .

Thanks for reading. If you have any interesting projects or people that you think I should feauter on my blog, please feel free to let me know.

 

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