Whether you have a unique or a common name, you've searched for it on Google. Anyone who denies it is a liar. Perhaps you're narcissistic; perhaps you're paranoid. Maybe you just want to confirm your uniqueness, or lack thereof, to get an understanding of your place in the world. Whatever your reasons, chances are that you discovered many strangers with the same name as you.
My own name is very common and a search for "Christopher Campbell" introduces me to people from around the globe. There is an opera singer in California. There is a professor of plant systematics at the University of Maine. There is an assistant location manager who worked on Jarhead and Spider-Man 2. There is a former District Councilor in New Zealand facing charges of child pornography. If I search the more gender-ambiguous "Chris Campbell", then I meet even more.
The curiosity ends there. I don't want to meet any of these people who share my name. And I sure don't want to make a film about us all. Grace Lee, on the other hand, did want to meet and document other Grace
Lees, and the result is a charming little adventure entitled The Grace Lee Project.
As it turns out, Grace Lee is a very popular name, especially among young Asian Americans. Lee, who is of Korean descent, found this out after growing up in Missouri, a state in which very few of her race dwell. When she moved to New York and later Los Angeles, cities with large Asian populartions, her identity became more and more shadowed. Nearly everyone she met knew or had known somebody else named Grace Lee. She even discovered another filmmaker with the name.
After being told one too many times about other Grace Lees and how they were mostly indistinct and unmemorable, Lee decided to explore her name. She made a website in order to connect with other Grace Lees, and the response was overwhelming (it still exists but has since turned into the official site for the film).
What she discovered through emails and a survey is that she could make a general stereotype based on the average Grace Lee. These consisted mainly of those forgettable women out there, the ones described by acquaintances as "petite" and "nice". Worse, they paralleled the main stereotypes of Asian-American women. As with any stereotype, there are exceptions, whether individuals are naturally different or strive for originality. Two of the Grace Lees wanted so badly to be unique that they changed the spelling of their names to Graise Lee and Gracely. Another burdened by a feeling of invisibility tried to burn down her school.
In an effort to showcase these anomalies, and celebrate in general people who are able to burst out of bland expectations, Lee took a camera and a crew and hit the road in search of the most interesting women with the name. What she ended up with is a perfectly paced compilation of portraits laid out through a combination of light-hearted mockery and warm-hearted reverence.
She begins with a TV news field reporter in Hawaii, who breaks her mold by nearly abandoning her background. With no remnants of her Alabaman accent or patterned ethnicity, she has that local-news plasticity about her. She is still generic, only All-American generic rather than Asian-American generic.
From there Lee spotlights a number of people who aren't what they seem. A 14-year-old (the aforementioned Gracely) superficially fits every trait except for a dark, artistic talent that few of her peers are aware of. Then there's Grace Lee Boggs, with abilities that many in Michigan are familiar with. The 88-year-old Chinese-American has spent more than fifty years as part of Detroit's black community, helping to lead in radical movements and social programs. She comes off so distinct that she hardly seems human. She's like superhuman.
Much like Lee's sisters-in-name, her film is mostly generic with occasional exceptions. It isn't generic in a bad way, though. The fact that it is merely another documentary highlighting individuals with a unifying theme makes it as much a statement on the identity of documentaries as on the identity of Grace Lees. Another doc could be made of all the Chris Campbells, also showing some who are boring and some who are captivating.
The thing that I love about her documentary is it features some individuals who are so captivating, they extend beyond the purpose of theme, going so far to even break its own subjective sub-genre. Lee's final visit (on screen) is with a Korean-born adoptee who as a child was abused by foster parents. Now she has given up her privacy and her son's to aid and board another family rescued from an abusive home. In addition to representing another type of unique Grace Lee, one with pride for her heritage and name, who could only have dreamed of growing up average, she is even more fascinating as a representative of humanity. When Lee concentrates on the woman's story, she forgets for a while what is her overall point of being there, and the audience shares in this powerful distraction. This person, with her natural presence and inspiring struggle, could be a part of a film about Grace Lees, or about single mothers, or about adoption, or about domestic violence, or a great many other things. The moment when Lee suddenly remembers her focus, and when I subsequently did, is evidence of the control documentary film can have on us.
Although this demonstrates a beautiful triumph of objectivity – even if just for one minute – the moment is nonetheless a diversion from the otherwise self-indulgent course the film travels. Although Lee does spotlight these other Grace Lees, the film is essentially about her, not them. Unfortunately she never illuminates herself comparatively. She tells a lot about herself and occasionally shows up on screen, but she never opens herself up to the audience. Despite all her autobiographical narration, Grace Lee, the director of The Grace Lee Project, remains indistinct and unmemorable.
If you have the chance to see The Grace Lee Project during its two-week run at NYC's Film Forum (Dec. 14 to 27, 2005), the documentary is accompanied by a perfect companion: Max by Chance. Max Kestner's short, autobiographical collage is a wonderfully quick and thorough slideshow that traces the filmmaker's ancestry and contemplates the happenstance of his existence. At only 29 minutes, the film is an exhausting rush of back story and circumstances that led to Max's identity. It is like a feel-good answer to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation crossed with the prologue narrative from Amelie. Between The Grace Lee Project and Max by Chance, you'll be left to wonder about your own selfhood for days.