When was the last time you asked your grandparents about their lives? About the hardest thing that's happened to them, or even the happiest thing that's happened to them?
As senior Jeanette Lam pointed out, it’s sometimes easy to bypass the deeper and more personal conversations with family.
But Lam said she hoped to disrupt the mundane exchanges. After graduation, she will set out to create a documentary series about the relationships between grandchildren and their grandparents. She will begin with her own relationship with her paternal grandmother, who emigrated from China to Vietnam, then to the United States.
Although Lam grew up with her grandmother, who has lived with her immediate family all of Lam’s life, Lam said she hoped the project would bring them even closer.
“I have grown up with you for 21 years,” Lam said of her grandmother. “But how much do I actually know you? I don’t know the details of her beautiful and painful immigration story, so that’s what I hope to find out.”
Lam’s grandmother, Eying Kuo, is excited that the project will allow them to spend more time together, she said.
“It makes me happy that I'll get to see you, be with you,” she said through Lam, who served as her translator during the interview. “Since you were a kid, you've given us so much happiness. So much joy.”
For the series, Lam is searching for grandchildren around the world who want to “deepen, reconcile or begin a relationship with their grandparents,” Lam said. After posting on social media pages and making casting calls in various film Facebook groups, Lam has received interest already, she said.
Although the project may seem like a hefty undertaking, Lam's experience has prepared her well, she said.
Most recently, Lam has served as co-cinematographer of “France’s Children,” a feature documentary directed by New York Times journalist Aida Alami. This past summer, Lam also directed a Jubilee Media video series called "Cover Story," during which two strangers stalk each other on social media and make predictions before meeting in person.
“I think it’s rare to find people like Jeanette who feel very much alive in this world doing what they believe in and what they believe is important,” said Jean Rheem, a freelance filmmaker and Lam’s team leader during her time at Jubilee Media. “A lot of people live in fear. A lot of people talk about their dreams. But it’s hard to live out your dreams.”
As a Bonner Scholar, Lam worked as a videographer for the Center for Civic Engagement, producing five documentary shorts about Bonner Scholars’ work in the Richmond community.
“When you talk to Jeanette, she’s listening,” Alexandra Byrum, Lam’s Bonner adviser, said. “Her presence enables her to connect with people in deep ways and to make them comfortable to share their story with her. That’s such a critical piece to her work.”
Lam’s new endeavor brings her full circle from the summer after her freshman year, when her passion for film started as she created a documentary short about her maternal grandfather in Taiwan.
While in her mother’s homeland, Lam began to understand the sacrifices her mother made for her to be born in the U.S., she said. Although thankful, Lam said she had missed out on knowing her Taiwanese family, especially her grandfather, whose memory was deteriorating. As a gift for her grandfather and relatives, Lam wrote a reflective piece about her family, which she used as audio behind footage she shot of her time in Taiwan.
On her last day in the country, she went around to relatives’ homes to show them her work. Little did she know that this documentary short, which was accepted into the Richmond International Film Festival, would propel her start in documentary film.
For her current project, Lam understands that with such a sensitive topic, the camera will have to take a backseat, she said.
“This whole experience is going to take more patience than I’m used to,” Lam said. “Usually, I have an idea of a storyline, but I think this project will require the camera to be secondary. With me and my grandmother’s story, I want us to be experiencing life together and the camera is just there to catch it.”
Lam said she planned to dedicate one year to the project after graduation.
Contact contributor Alice Millerchip at email@example.com.