ARTHUR DONG 曾奕田
Arthur Dong is an Oscar®-nominated and triple Sundance award-winning filmmaker, author and curator whose work centers on Asian American and LGBTQ stories.
FILMMAKER: A common theme that underscores Dong’s films is personal stories of survival and resistance set against backdrops of social and cultural oppressions. His films that investigate anti-gay prejudice includes Family Fundamentals, Licensed to Kill, and Coming Out Under Fire, which were later re-released in the collection “Stories from the War on Homosexuality.”
Dong’s films about Chinese Americans include Hollywood Chinese, Forbidden City, U.S.A. and three earlier short films that comprise A Toisan Trilogy (Sewing Woman, Lotus, and Living Music for Golden Mountains). These were re-released in his follow-up collection “Stories from Chinese America.”
“Stories from Chinese America” also featured the newly scored and restored 1916 film The Curse of Quon Gwon, the earliest known Chinese American feature film that Dong helped rescue during his work on Hollywood Chinese. His latest film The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor profiles a Cambodian genocide survivor who went on to become the only Asian male who has ever won an Oscar® for acting.
AUTHOR: Dong has taken the extensive research for his documentaries and transformed the material into critically acclaimed publications. His first published full-length book Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970 included a foreword by best selling author Lisa See and won the American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s IPPY Award, and the Art Deco Preservation Award. Before that, Dong served as editor and contributing writer on museum exhibition catalogues for shows he curated (see below).
Dong is currently at work on his new book A Hollywood Chinese Album, a visual journey of images selected from some 1,500 pieces of movie memorabilia the author collected since childhood and during the ten-year research for his documentary Hollywood Chinese.
CURATOR: Besides films and books, Dong has curated museum exhibitions showcasing his extensive archive of cultural ephemera. They include Chop Suey on Wax: The Flower Drum Song Album at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco, Hollywood Chinese at the Chinese America Museum in Los Angeles, and Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs at the Jewett Gallery in the San Francisco Public Library.
TELEVISION: Dong’s first corporate media job was at KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco where he worked in 1981-1982 as a producer in the news department’s Special Projects division. From 1991-1992, Dong produced thirteen documentaries for Life & Times, the signature news program of the former Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET. For PBS’s first national series on gay and lesbian issues The Question of Equality, he directed the premiere episode Out Rage ’69, which examined the New York City Stonewall Riots, an event often cited as the catalyst for the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement.
FILM EXCELLENCE AWARDS & HONORS: Among Dong’s over 100 film excellence awards are an Oscar® nomination, the George Foster Peabody Award, three Sundance Film Festival awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award, two consecutive GLAAD Media Awards and five Emmy nominations.
His numerous recognitions for service include the Pioneer Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Asian American Media Award from Asian CineVision, the Historian Award from the Chinese Historical Society of America, the History Maker Award from the Chinese American Museum, and the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.
The OUT 100 Award from OUT magazine was presented to Dong “for waging a one-man anti-violence project with his documentary on convicted murderers of homosexuals, Licensed to Kill.” In 2015, Equality Forum selected him a LGBT History Month Icon. “For his continued success in the challenging arena of independent documentary filmmaking and his longstanding commitment to social justice,” San Francisco State University named Dong its 2007 Alumnus of the Year.
FUNDING: Funding for Dong’s work has been received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Soros Documentary Fund, the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Initiative, the Independent Television Service (ITVS), the Center for Asian American Media, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, American Documentary, the Hugh Hefner Foundation, Cal Humanities, the American Film Institute, the Unitarian Universalist Association, among many others.
He has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Film, two Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowships, and selected as a Sundance Documentary Fellow.
DISTRIBUTION: Dong’s films have been theatrically distributed throughout America and have and continue to be featured in festivals worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival, Golden Horse International Film Festival, International Documentary Film Amsterdam, Sydney International Film Festival, Gotesburg International Film Festival, Morelia International Film Festival, and others.
In addition to domestic broadcasts on PBS, the Sundance Channel, and Comcast, his films have been televised in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Retrospectives of Dong’s work have been presented at the Human Rights International Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland, the Walker Art Center, the Hawaii International Film Festival, and Outfest. For the 2012 CNEX Documentary Film Festival in Taipei, Dong was invited as their “Filmmaker in Focus,” and in 2015, he was honored with Spotlight tributes at CAAMFest, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and the New York Asian American International Film Festival. That same year, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh sponsored a 10-day, 4-city Cambodia tour of Dong’s latest film, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor.
EARLY YEARS: Born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Dong’s film career began with Public an animated Super-8 film shot on his bedroom floor in 1970. The project was an outcome of a pilot program to introduce film production to students at Galileo High School (now the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology). Based on a poem written by Dong, Public expressed his political views through the story of a child who responds to oppressive societal norms and the culture of violence around him. The five-minute film earned first prize at the California High School Film Festival.
Dong subsequently enrolled at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema where he directed Living Music for Golden Mountains, a film about his Chinese music teacher that received a student Oscar® nomination for documentary. He followed-up with Sewing Woman, a documentary detailing his mother’s immigration to America from China. Clocking in at 14-minutes and made for under $2,000, the film went on to garner an Academy Award® nomination for best short documentary.
The unexpected demand for Sewing Woman motivated Dong to start up his own company, DeepFocus Productions, Inc, which continues to develop, produce, and distribute his work. Soon after in 1984, he was selected to attend the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies as a Directing Fellow and made the move to Los Angeles where he currently resides.
HOLLYWOOD: Dong completed the program at AFI, followed by a short narrative film Lotus, which was funded by an AFI Independent Filmmaker’s Grant and told the story of a woman’s struggle with the practice of footbinding in China. As was customary for new alumnus, AFI set up appointments for Dong to meet agents and studio executives. At these sessions, he was told it’d be difficult to hire an Asian American director, particularly since Wayne Wang, who caught the attention of the industry with his indie hit Chan is Missing, had just released his first studio film Slam Dance and it failed to connect with critics and audiences; agents and studios weren’t willing to take risks on another Chinese American director.
Dong was also informed that although Lotus was well made and demonstrated talent – the film had already won a few awards and was shortlisted for a live action short Oscar® – it featured only Asian characters and he was advised to make another film or write a script with white characters to be more marketable. Coincidentally, Dong was already three years deep into development on Forbidden City, USA, a documentary about Asian American nightclub performers during World War II who fought racial barriers to pursue their careers, much like the situation the filmmaker was facing in Hollywood. Inspired by their stories and undaunted, Dong forged ahead with his documentary and has since continued to produce non-stop.
INTERSECTIONALITY: In midst of the AIDS epidemic from the 1980s-1990s, Dong set out to help encourage dialogue between the Asian American Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities. As a strategy, he offered premieres of his films to organizations from these groups so long as they partnered together, an infrequent coalition at that time. For the premiere of Forbidden City, USA, he brought together the Asian Pacific AIDS Coalition and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (now known as CAAM, the Center for Asian American Media) to produce a sold-old, black-tie event with 1,000 patrons.
For Coming Out Under Fire, which chronicled the U.S. military’s anti-gay policies in World War II, Dong invited the Asian American International Film Festival (now known as CAAMFest) and Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival to join forces for the premiere of his film at the Castro Theatre, located in the heart of San Francisco’s gay neighborhood. The sold-out event with 1,400 people would become the first of future screenings to be booked at the Castro by CAAMFest, which now regularly programs LGBTQ films.
BOARD MEMBER: Over the years, Dong has served on the boards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film Independent, Outfest, and the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. At the Academy, he was among the original architects that advocated for and founded the organization’s Documentary Branch in 2001. Dong currently serves on the Museum Inclusion Group that advises on diversity issues for the Academy Museum. During his tenure on the National Film Preservation Board, he nominated and successfully lobbied for the recognition of two landmark Asian American films into the National Film Registry: The Curse of Quon Gwon and Flower Drum Song.
JUROR: Dong has been invited to serve as a juror for the Sundance Film Festival, the International Documentary Festival at Amsterdam, the Morelia International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Outfest, and others. As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, he votes for the Oscars® and Emmys.
TEACHING: Dong has taught documentary for over 25 years, recently serving as Distinguished Professor in Film at Loyola Marymount University where he taught graduate courses and designed MFA and certificate documentary programs. He has also taught at Emory University, San Francisco State University, University of Hawaii, University of North Texas, UC Santa Barbara, University of Texas, the CNEX Doc Academy in Taiwan, the Sundance Documentary Workshop in Beijing, and the Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker.
BOOK REFERENCES: Dong is profiled in the publications Independent Film Distribution; the Council on Foundation’s Documentary in Action; Chinese Americans: The History and Culture of a People; Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans; The Views from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, and Hostile Climate: Report on Anti-Gay Activity.