Profile: Melissa Johnson “No Look Pass”
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Emily Tay, a gay woman, first-generation American from Burmese immigrant parents and a basketball player for Harvard, might have very specific circumstances, but the messages that spring from her experience are universal.
A new documentary about Tay, “No Look Pass,” screens at Images Cinema on Saturday, April 7, at 2:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with director Melissa Johnson.
Johnson began filming Tay in her junior year at Harvard, though the bulk of the film covers her senior year in college and her first year in the real world. Over that period of time, Johnson captured about 300 hours of Tay’s life on film, which she had to pare down to 90 minutes— that’s 18 seconds per hour of film shot.
Over that three-year period, Tay’s story offered myriad points of interest and Johnson found that part of her job was to find a common ground for all the different threads.
“You can lean the story in different ways when you have a lot of options, as we did,” Johnson said, “but I always wanted to tell this not fundamentally as a gay story or a sports story or an immigrant story specifically, but more an American dream story about this really fascinating, funny, irreverent, talented, vulnerable, extraordinary young woman living her version of the American dream, which is very different than her parents’ versions. Within that, I wanted to tell a fundamental story about growing up and I think that’s what it is.”
The central theme of Tay’s story — being who you want to be — struck Johnson as a universal one.“She says at one point, ‘No one knows who I am here, so I can reinvent myself.’ We’ve all had that feeling at some point, in a new town or at a new school or a new job, and the exhilaration of saying that is something that you don’t need to be gay or Burmese or a basketball player to relate to,” said Johnson. “I think Emily is very accessible as a person, even though she has this extreme talent and this very unusual situation where her parents came from and her particular story. Her story is very specific but her feeling is very accessible and general to a lot of folks.”
Johnson — a former Harvard basketball player who measures in at 6 feet 4 inches — met Tay while filming a short documentary on coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.
“When I walked into the gym for a long weekend of shooting, immediately my eye went to this gorgeous Asian-American girl who was hanging from the rafters and throwing these ridiculous passes straight out of the Harlem Globetrotter’s playbook,,” she said. “My director of photography leans over and he says, ‘Okay, you pick whoever you want of the current players to interview about Kathy for the short, but it’s my responsibility to tell you that the camera loves that girl.’” Johnson interviewed Tay for that project, and while she found that session was mostly useless to the short film, it heralded in a burst of ideas that pushed Johnson in a direction that she hadn’t expected.
“I had literally walked out of the locker room, where we had conducted an interview late on the wintery Sunday night, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt,” Johnson said. “I just knew this was the film I wanted to make and in a much bigger way. I went back to campus, I live in NYC, a couple weeks later and took her out for coffee and said, ‘I have this crazy idea, what do you think?’ and that’s where it all started.”
While Johnson chronicles Tay’s navigation of the world of women’s basketball and her professional goals, which were intertwined with those of her roommate and best friend, Katie, Tay’s sexual identity runs directly up against her family one, and that provides a lot of the personal tension within the film. As the filming progressed, neither of Tay’s parents apparently knew of her homosexuality and though Tay presents the film as her way of coming out in one scene, Johnson understood that she had to proceed gingerly with the issue, while still being supportive of Tay. “I told Emily that I am happy to support her, however she would like, giving them the film, or facilitating that, but really, it’s got to be a moment between parents and their child to sort that out,” said Johnson. “It was incredibly tense and stressful shooting this film and knowing that they didn’t know or they knew, but didn’t talk about it ever.”
This was the center of multiple late-night conversations between the director and her subject, and it was such a heavy burden at points that Johnson began to seriously wonder if she needed to stop filming.
“I was unsure,” Johnson said. “These aren’t actors, these are real people’s lives and I don’t want to cause damage to family relationships. That’s something I take very seriously. It kept me up at night.”
When she was able to take an emotional step back, Johnson realized that these were all the components of why she had wanted to do the film in the first place, to capture the process of a young person striving to take the reins of her own story. Johnson also realized that, far from being intrusive, the camera became something that gave Tay strength that she was eventually able to direct toward familial conversations, as in the last scene of the film where a confident Tay speaks frankly to her parents about her professional goals and views of living in contrast to theirs.
“Emily told me that she was so excited to be able to talk to them the way she does in that scene, because it’s almost like having a camera there enabled that kind of conversation that she couldn’t have off camera, couldn’t do in real life,” she said.
“At the end of the day, in order to have clear conscience about it, I had to always be in communication with her and say, ‘I’m not interested in making this film and have you be upset with me at the end of it for not telling your story right or well, so I have to have your permission to keep after you, because I am by nature a worrier, to know that you are okay and you want to proceed with how we are doing this.’ ” An additional fear came in the form of Tay’s girlfriend, Angela, who she meets halfway through the film and who posed a particular challenge because she served in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect when they filmed and was only repealed shortly before the release. Even that didn’t quell Johnson’s fears.
“Literally, it was two days before our premiere that we thought it was safe enough to remove the blur effect on Angela’s face. We had her face blurred for a long while, because we knew with certainty that the repeal would kick in, in September and she wouldn’t be kicked out or lose her benefits or something serious like that. It was a huge risk. When I wasn’t worried about Emily and her situation with her parents, I was worried about Angela and her career.”
More than even the gay issue, though, what attracted Johnson to Tay as a subject for a film was the core of Tay, herself, whose integrity seeped into every aspect of her decision- making. One of the most significant signposts is Tay’s decision for her professional life — she ties it with the prospect of playing with her best friend, Katie, over all other opportunities, and fulfilling her emotional and intellectual interests in life, rather than fame or fortune.
“She could have gone Division One if she hadn’t been with Katie, but she wanted to sacrifice that to have her friend with her, she wanted that experience,” Johnson said. “She perhaps could have made a WNBA team, been a little more highprofile, but she wanted the experience of traveling and experiencing different cultures in Europe with Katie.”
“This is not someone who’s not traditionally ambitious— she has very clear goals and she is ambitious — but she didn’t play by the rules that most other kids at Harvard do, the I’m going to put myself first, my friend can’t make the team, whatever, I’m going by myself, I’m going to go to the absolute best, and push to the max and put everything else second — it’s a very different framework that she operates in.”
Johnson notes that the irony isn’t really ironic at all — rather it’s a lesson that everyone might heed and follow. In being true to herself, Tay ended up getting exactly the life she wanted. As measured against her parents’ desires, Tay realizes that the one way to be happy in life is to not live it for someone else.
“What is she looking for? Is she really looking to be a huge superstar? Is that really what’s motivating for her? She wants to win, she wants to be compet-itive, she wants to do her best, but that’s not it,” Johnson said. “What she’s really looking for is home. She’s looking for her home, and ironically, of all places to find it, in this small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, with a woman who grew up in Ventura, Calif., 45 minutes from her, same age, it’s incredible that way.”