Bronx Documentary Center screens her film ‘9-Man’
Ursula Liang moved to the Bronx in 1998 in her 20s and hasn’t left since. For her, the place just feels like home.
“It’s like the stepchild syndrome where you have to love it extra hard and you have to defend it extra hard because everyone talks so much crap about these places,” said Liang, who lives in Mott Haven. .
So when it came to screening her first film, the Bronx Documentary Center was the obvious choice. Her sports documentary, “9-Man,” was screened last month aa part of the center’s Women’s Film Series. It will have another screening this month in Montréal at the 44th Festival Du Nouveau Cinéma.
“Ursula is one of the most important Bronx filmmakers,” said Michael Kamber, the founder and center. “9-Man is unique because she uses sports to tell the history of immigration and cultural struggles in immigrant communities.”
The film’s subject is a traditional sport originating from China, similar to volleyball but with more intensity and played with nine men on the court. For Liang, who started her career as a sports journalist, sport has meaning beyond athletics.
“Sports is a meeting place,” she said. “It’s a place where the president of the United States meets with the plumber. They can talk intelligently about the same thing when they’re in that space. I love that it’s the social middle ground.”
Liang captured that middle ground in the film, telling the story through multiple characters and team perspectives. Players of all ages and skill levels compete their way to the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, held last year in Las Vegas. Tensions were high among all of the teams across the United States and Canada, and Liang was in the middle of it all.
One of the rules that garners the most attention and controversy is that each team must have at least six players of 100 percent Chinese descent on the court. Born of Chinese-German heritage, Liang naturally learned about inclusion and exclusion throughout her life and that is part of what drew her to the story.
“It’s hard for me to tell a story that doesn’t include that perspective,” she said.
Liang also wanted to focus on a community – Asian Americans – that she says is often unwilling to share emotions. She also feels it is rare to see Asian Americans in mainstream media unless they are cast for comic relief.
“Many of the men were very hungry to tell their stories because Asian Americans don’t get to tell their stories,” said Liang. “Every human being in this world wants to tell their story.”
Liang’s embrace of her own cultural experiences includes her love for the Bronx. She often uses the geo-tag of the “South Bronx” on social media, since for her it evokes a type of swag. What she wants to dispel is the idea of the Bronx as a tragic place.
“The hostility of the mainstream world has created that wall — and that wall is a problem for us for connecting [with other communities]” Liang said. “I really love the Bronx. I wouldn’t want to be in any borough.”
The Bronx Documentary Center’s mission is to bring documentary films and photography to the borough, but it’s a double bonus when the filmmaker is also local.
”The Bronx is always overshadowed by Manhattan and Brooklyn filmmakers,” said Jean Lane, the co-programming director for the center. “It’s important to shine a light and to give them the exposure they deserve.”
The center’s Bronx Photo League is currently exhibiting the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, which illuminates the workers and trades people of Jerome Avenue, one of New York City’s few remaining working class neighborhoods. It will remain on view until Oct. 18 at 1275 Jerome Avenue.
The next exhibit will be “Via PanAm – The Pursuit of Happiness,” which will explore Kadir Van Lohuizen’s voyage along the Pan-American Highway, crossing through 15 countries. The opening reception is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 17, from 6-9pm. It will remain on view until Dec. 13.