Two African-American men, a Hispanic woman, a Hmong Asian-American woman, a Palestinian woman, two White women, and two White men sit in a room.
It could be a small group in any college in America, but in this case, the group has been brought together to form a hot mess of diversity prepared to engage — if they only knew how. In Lee Mun Wah’s new film, “If These Halls Could Talk,” the filmmaker explores the process of the group’s unlayering. Members peel back the distrust that’s built up in their lives in order to see each other in a true light for the first time and to experience the real payoff of diversity of any kind: a real heart-felt conversation with a person different from oneself.
No wonder such real conversations don’t happen in real life more spontaneously. As the film shows, it takes real work, essentially a therapy session led by Lee, 65, a trained psychologist and diversity trainer, who in a Zen-like way steers the discussion.
True to its title, if the halls of colleges across America could talk, they might reveal the yearning students have to connect diversity’s dots. Students want real connections, real conversations but too often settle for the superficial. They are cordial but content to walk on by each other as if diversity were a parade and campus life a charade.
It all makes for an artfully disguised teaching tool for educators, intended as a tool for the classroom. At times, the film has the look of MTV’s “Real World.” But that show is as real as yesterday’s eyelashes, a program about pretty people in extravagant places for the purposes of fake narratives and sexy conflicts.
Lee’s film, however, gathers real people and makes them live four days of summer on a ranch-style retreat in Ukiah, a remote part of Northern California. He gets them to talk to each other like they never would in public.
The sessions yielded more than a dozen hours of group sessions on video that Lee has assembled for a series of films to be released during the next few years. Parts 1 and 2, which debuted in Chicago in early November, are introductory by design. But there are little gems in the film, moments that will strike a chord with educators and other audience members who get to be a “fly on the wall” as the discussions unravel.
We first meet Jonathan Henderson, 20, an African-American from Oceanside, Calif., at Mira Costa College in California. He also is president of the Black Student Union. His answers are cool and perfunctory to a point. Then come tears once he and the others realize they’ve never had such candid conversations like these, and he’s scared.
There’s Vera Salayma, 25, a graduate student in journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder who gets angrier as the film progresses. She’s a young Palestinian woman who was seen as hot and exotic when she first came to America. But when she returned from the Middle East wearing the hijab, the traditional headdress of Muslim women, she noticed how she was treated as if she were a terrorist.
“[America] is the most racist place I’ve been to,” says Salayma, whose understanding of the issues run deep. Her cousin was killed by a suicide bomber. She loves her Islamic faith and understands that there are radicals who fuel the stereotypes about Islam that she hears when she wears her veil. “I’m not some crazy fanatic,” she says. “I am a human being.”
But she tells how she stopped trying to reach out to others when she found that even her best and most sympathetic teacher in college was ignorant of her Islamic culture.
Maivi Ntxhlav Sia Yaj Yang, a Hmong Asian-American, was Salayma’s loud ally in the group. A student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the first in her family to go to college, she’s become the role model for her family and also for the teachers she encounters. They have no idea of the Hmong experience, and it leaves Sia without the guidance she deserves. “It hurts when you don’t have that,” she says. Teachers mistakenly place the successful Asian stereotype on her, thinking her life is close to the Chinese experience and not the Hmong, who came to America as refugees.
Isolated, Sia says she succeeds not because she is smart, but because she studies hard and focuses on her studies.
Perhaps the most touching story is from Joe Rogers, a student at Butte College in Chico, Calif. He makes sure people know it’s Rogers without the “d.” That’s Portuguese, he says. The “g” only Rogers is Scots Irish, he says proudly.
Joe knows who he is, but he also has a secret: He has AIDS.
“It’s a nightmare, a living bloody nightmare,” he says. It terrifies him to know that his immune system is so compromised that having the flu could kill him.
The others react with encouragement and support for the isolation Joe feels for being gay and having AIDS.
But it’s Joe who crosses the trust bridge. He despises “heterosexual privilege,” but knows he has his own tolerance issues.
He recalled seeing a young Black man and then crossing the street out of fear. Joe used to say he wasn’t racist, but realized that indeed he was. And now he finds himself forced to “unlearn the racism.”
The premiere DVD ends with Will Syldor, an African-American from UMass, who, like the others, is encouraged but still hesitant.
“I think the issue is all of our pains and hurts are tied together,” he said. “And there’s like a white sheet over that, and no one talks about that.” He talked about a wall that comes up when the talk comes to race, religion or sexuality. “We can’t have that conversation,” he said.
Maybe not yet. But they do.
“I was surprised by their wisdom, their honesty, their vulnerableness, and our shared sadness of how little we have traveled in the area of diversity after all these years,” Lee said.
Lee promises at least two parts a year from the group’s conversation, which in the end will show the world what a real conversation on diversity might actually look like.