Cinema Asian America: S. Leo Chiang Talks Directing ‘Mr. Cao Goes to Washington’

by | January 24, 2013 at 4:50 PM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

"Mr. Cao Goes to Washington."

As the new year begins, and another round of political gamesmanship in Washington DC kicks off, Xfininty On Demand‘s Cinema Asian America is proud to present S. Leo Chiang’s new, award-winning documentary, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington.” A portrait of former Louisiana congressman Joseph Cao, Chiang’s eye-opening, hour-long documentary follows the iconoclastic and ideologically complex Vietnamese American Representative from New Orleans, as he navigates the tricky waters of American politics, and the divide between the South and the Northeast.

The first Vietnamese American to serve in Congress – and the first Republican to be voted into office his New Orleans district in more than 100 years – Cao is a fascinating figure, one propelled into office partly by the politics of post-Katrina New Orleans, and also his own post-partisan style of politics. With a curious and adventurous eye, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” is a fascinating look at how American politics works; not always how one expects it to, but invariably full of contradictions, surprises and inspired moments.

What to you is most interesting about Joseph Cao?
LC: When I first learned about Joseph Cao, I was immediately intrigued by the thoroughly unusual circumstances around his election. How was it possible that a Vietnamese-American Republican could win a congressional district that is 65% African-American and 75% Democratic, especially in the polarized, ultra-partisan political climate of today? As it turns out, Joseph himself is also a man of fascinating contradictions–a soft-spoken former seminarian who aggressively sought public office, a devout Catholic anti-abortionist who supports immigration reform and gay rights, and a Southern Republican Congressman who voted for President Obama‘s Health Care Reform. I was very curious how someone like Joseph Cao would fare in Washington DC during this particularly divisive period in the American political landscape.

Discover more Cinema Asian America filmmaker interviews.

Your previous film, “A Village Called Versailles,” looked at New Orlean’s Vietnamese American community after Katrina, and the political mobilization that resulted from the storm’s destruction. Was Katrina a catalyzing moment or was there strong civic and political participation from the Asian American community in the region previous? How do we connect Cao’s rise with the larger story of his community?
LC: In New Orleans, Katrina definitely shifted the attitude of Vietnamese Americans towards civic participation. It also changed how the New Orleans community at large perceived the Vietnamese Americans. Prior to Katrina, no Vietnamese Americans in Louisiana had ever attempted to run for public office. No Vietnamese American leader had built up enough political capital outside of the community to stand a chance of winning an election. In the impressive rebuilding of their neighborhood and their successful fight to shut down the Chef Menteur Landfill, the Vietnamese American community gained new recognition and respect from the rest of New Orleans. Cao was able to capitalize this new found respect during his election, and while it was not the only factor for his victory, I do believe it contributed greatly to his win.

Creating a portrait of a public figure, and in particular, a politician comes with many challenges. Did you have different approaches to documenting and gaining access to Joseph Cao the father and community member, versus Joseph Cao the politician?
LC: Like any politician, Joseph’s work days were heavily managed by his staff, and he was rarely alone. I had access to most of the public events, but in order to make a successful character study like “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington,” I needed to capture the intimate, behind-the-scenes moments. Joseph, for the most part, was very open, but one of his key staff members was not so keen on having a camera around. She refused to cooperate and at times was downright hostile. Luckily, I was able to gain the trust of his other staff members, who went out of their ways to get me into closed-door meetings and allowed me to ride in the car with Joseph as he drove himself from one event to another in New Orleans. The interviews I captured while riding with Joseph turned out to be some of the best, most revealing material we had. Compared to the challenges I had gaining access to Joseph the politician, it was far easier to capture Joseph the family man and the community member. Joseph’s wife, Kate, was very supportive, and I already had relationships in the Vietnamese American community from making my previous film, “A Village Called Versailles,”  so I was able to hang out with Joseph and his family on many occasions.

The film’s title references Frank Capra’s 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington;” did you look to any films in particular as models or inspiration for your film?
LC: During the production process, Joseph’s key supporters constantly compared him to Jimmy Stewart‘s character in “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington”–in that they were both unlikely outsiders who challenge political cynicism of Washington with their idealistic passion. It prompted me re-watch ‘Mr. Smith.’ In some ways, the naivety of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (the film itself, not the main character) towards the American political system really stuck out to me this time around. As Joseph’s story started its downward slide, I began to see the documentary as the antithesis of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where our idealistic protagonist was NOT able to overcome the entrenched Washington political partisanship and was sent home a little less idealistic.

What are you working on now?
LC: I am in production on a new documentary, “Out Run,” about LGBT candidates running openly for political office in the developing world. My film partner Johnny Symons and I are heading out soon to Manila to follow a transgender woman running for the Filipino Congress. We are hoping to complete the film in 2014. Check it out at outrunmovie.org.