Criterion Channel Honors Alumnus Filmmaker Arthur Dong with Retrospective

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
October 14, 2021

A short documentary that filmmaker Arthur Dong (B.A., ’82) made while studying Cinema at San Francisco State University is getting a new life and a bit of a face-lift. His Oscar-nominated film “Sewing Woman” was recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and will be available for streaming on the Criterion Channel over the next six months, along with six other documentaries by Dong.

The channel’s retrospective, “Stories of Resistance: Documentaries by Arthur Dong,” is a look back on his decades-long career as a pioneering filmmaker. The seven films span from 1982 to 2015 and tell powerful stories of the Asian American and queer experience in America. They touch on topics such as anti-gay prejudice (“Coming Out Under Fire,” “Licensed to Kill”) and the complexity and vitality of Asian American culture (“Forbidden City, U.S.A.”; “Hollywood Chinese”) and tell the story of a survivor of the Cambodian genocide (“The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor”).

A longtime admirer of the Criterion Collection since its start as a distributor of classic and art house films, Dong considers the recognition a real honor. “I’m evolving as an artist,” he said, “and for the Criterion Channel to recognize my work as art gives me encouragement that maybe I do know what I’m doing.”

There can be little doubt of that. Dong’s film career began when he was a high school student at San Francisco’s Galileo High School in the late 1960s. In 1970 he created “Public,” an animated film that accompanied a poem he wrote, which won first prize at the California High School Film Festival. More than a decade later he made another award-winning film, “Sewing Woman,” after capturing footage of the sewing factory where his mother worked for a cinematography class at San Francisco State. He was just shooting for practice. Bill Chayes, his professor, viewed the footage and told him he had something special.

“It was imagery that people didn't see because I was given entrée to a sewing factory in Chinatown, which was under a lot of pressure from unions to unionize,” Dong said. “We both agreed that I should do something with [the footage].”

The film, based on a series of oral histories and his mother’s own story, traces a woman’s arranged marriage in old China to her subsequent immigration to the U.S. and her new life as a garment worker and mother. The 14-minute film launched his film career, he says.

Word began spreading about “Sewing Woman.” He loaned it out to different groups, and it screened at conferences and other events. He then entered it into film festivals and began winning awards. Some of those awards qualified the film for entry into the Academy Awards, so he submitted it. His film made history as the first Oscar-nominated Asian American-themed documentary that was entirely produced, directed, written, edited, photographed, and narrated by Asian Americans.

All of Dong’s following films explore the personal side of social issues. “The approach I’ve always taken was to not talk about politics per se and create a didactic piece, but to really look at human beings and their lives and how they are affected by certain issues, situations, and government policies,” he said.

“These current debates didn’t just come out of thin air,” Dong said. “I’m a strong believer in knowing and showing our history, especially untold history, in order to bring about progressive change.”

Learn more about Dong’s work by visiting his retrospective at the Criterion Channel website.