Cinema Asian America: Kimberlee Bassford On Her Documentary, ‘Patsy Mink Ahead Of The Majority’

by | May 16, 2011 at 6:34 AM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

One woman you’ve probably never heard of, the Hawaiian-born, Japanese-American politician, Patsy Mink, is responsible for numerous achievements that should be more widely recognized. She’s the first woman to run for US president, in 1972; the first woman of color to be elected to U.S. Congress; and the author of the ground-breaking Title IX legislation.

This month, to help celebrate Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month, the Asian-American collection on XFINITY On Demand highlights Kimberlee Bassford’s ground-breaking documentary profile of Mink, “Patsy Mink Ahead of the Majority.”

A riveting portrait of one of the most important — and least known — figures in American politics, “Ahead of the Majority” is a fascinating and personal look at Mink’s struggles and incredible achievements. We sat down with filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford to discuss the making of her documentary.

Your film is a portrait of a woman whose contributions are present in conversations and legislation about politics and gender today, but whose life and work, from the 60s to 90s is little-known to many. You were born and raised in Hawaii; was Patsy Mink’s presence and legacy there quite different than on the U.S. mainland?
Patsy Mink was well-loved in Hawaii, particularly by her constituents on her home island of Maui and on the rest of the neighbor islands. She was certainly a trailblazer locally, having broken barriers as Hawaii’s first Japanese-American woman to practice law and the first Japanese-American woman to win political office here. However, her accomplishments weren’t well-known even among local circles. Part of it was that she didn’t toot her own horn. I think another part of it was that she was always an outsider within the local Democratic Party, particularly early in her career in the 1950s through 1970s. The party leadership did not embrace her and instead tried to oust her from office several times. She was seen as too independent, too ambitious. Some of it also probably had to do with her being a woman in a practically all-male arena.
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Why was it important for you personally to make a film about Patsy Mink?
As an Asian-American woman born and raised in Hawaii, I knew of Patsy Mink but sadly didn’t know much about her story until she died in 2002. It was only then that I realized she was the very first Asian-American woman and first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress. And it was also then that I learned that she was the co-author and driving force behind Title IX, legislation that I directly benefited from at the time as a female graduate student at UC Berkeley. As I read about Patsy Mink’s life, I became more and more intrigued. I knew somebody had to make a film about her so that younger generations of women would know her story, learn from her struggles and be inspired by her accomplishments.

Your film was completed during the 2008 presidential campaign, when the discussion about women in politics, in particular, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, was front and center. Knowing that Patsy was the first woman to run for the presidency in the 1960s, what were your thoughts during this time period?
Patsy Mink was one of the first women to run for the U.S. presidency when she entered the Oregon Democratic presidential primary in 1972. She ran on a platform to end the war in Vietnam immediately, but a secondary goal of hers was to instill in the public’s mind the notion that women could be viable candidates for president. In the film, I included a news interview with her in which she stated that she hoped someday we would have a woman president. I share this sentiment and was encouraged by the fact that Hillary Clinton was a strong contender in the 2008 presidential campaign. In some ways, it seemed we had come a long way as society in these last 36 years. Yet at the same time, I noticed there was a gender bias in the way that the media treated Hillary Clinton (and Sarah Palin) during the campaign. Even among my friends and acquaintances, I found that people spoke about the female politicians in gendered ways, focusing on their physical appearance and judging them to be too assertive or aggressive. These were the very same challenges that Patsy Mink faced decades earlier.

Is it no coincidence that such a powerful, forthright and pioneering Asian-American politician and leader like Mink was from Hawaii? The Asian-American community in Hawaii is quite different and is much larger a percentage of population than in the mainland. Do you think this kind of environment was key to shaping who Patsy Mink was?
Definitely. I think Patsy Mink’s self-confidence, her sense of justice, her respect for diversity and her belief in equality all came from growing up in a place where many cultures lived together. She certainly witnessed discrimination against the Japanese community during World War II, which coincided with her high school years. But for most of her childhood, she never felt limited by her ethnicity or gender. She sincerely believed in the American ideals she was taught in school, those of equality and justice, and they stayed with her throughout her life.

You went to school at Harvard and UC Berkeley, and are now based in Hawaii. As a documentary filmmaker, can you tell us about the filmmaking scene in Hawaii? What kind of stories and projects are on the minds of filmmakers there?
I’d say that the filmmaking scene in Hawaii can be divided into three main groups: the industry folks working on network TV shows like Hawaii Five-0 or on Hollywood films coming to shoot on location; the commercial folks who focus on commercials, corporate videos, educational videos and weddings; and finally the independents like me who initiate and work on their own narrative or documentary film projects. This last group is growing, I think in part due to the new film school (Academy for Creative Media) at the University of Hawaii. There are so many stories here in the islands, and it seems most indie filmmakers like me gravitate towards stories that explore or reveal the cultural richness here, whether they be Native Hawaiian or Polynesian in nature or about the Asian-American community.

What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

Right now, I’m in production on the documentary “The Animated Adventures of Judo Girl,” about Teshya Alo, a 13-year-old girl in Honolulu who is a judo and wrestling phenomenon and who wants to win World Championship gold. The documentary mixes vérité footage of real life Teshya with sequences of her as Judo Girl, an animated character representing Teshya’s inner world. Part athletic journey and part coming of age tale, the film introduces the world to an elite athlete striving for gold and a mixed-race Polynesian girl just discovering the joys and challenges of life. The trailer for the film can be viewed on my website at http://makingwavesfilms.com and on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AErHW3CH8qs. I’m also in development on a film about female inmates who are healing themselves and the community through writing and performance. In all my projects, I find girls and women who are heroes, not in the traditional sense, but in their willingness to push boundaries, to stick to their convictions and to do it with courage and grace.