Who were our mothers before they became our mothers? This is the invigorating question behind Kristy Choi’s experimental documentary, Herselves, which examines who Choi’s mother was and who she could have been. As Choi became more interested in filmmaking and storytelling, she realized how little she knew about her mother’s life as a young woman. The facts that she had were sparse. She knew that her mother had lost her father before immigrating to Los Angeles, that she had lived with her older sister after she arrived, and that at some point she met Choi’s father and moved east. But she had never investigated the why and how of her mother’s trip. Before she got married, before she gave birth, before she had the double weighted identity of wife and mother, who had she been?
“I was ashamed that I didn’t know the color, the tenor, of my mother’s life for the years she was before she was my mother,” said Choi. “I would like to invite all viewers to ask themselves why there are these gaps in history, memory and knowledge. Why are you afraid to ask these vulnerable questions? “
For Choi, whose mother immigrated to America in the mid-1980s, that fear came from a guilt she believes applies specifically to second-generation children. “I was afraid that figuring out the challenges my mother faced would make me feel deeper guilty and ashamed of the privileges I was born with,” Choi said. In some of her earlier work, she instead focused on generational communities outside of her own, examining how people of color fought for environmental justice. However, as she shared the stories of other people and other communities, Choi realized that finding answers – including those she feared – was the only way to know what it meant to be her mother’s daughter.
Choi uses the film to try to illustrate her mother as a person in her own right with light strokes. But Choi’s frame of daughters is difficult to escape. At one point in the film, an avatar of her mother Insun looks straight into the camera and gently rebukes, “You have set my worth in relation to my motherhood.” To decouple her mother and to re-imagine her: In this vision of the past we get lively, dreamy insights into a young Insun karaoke on plush vinyl seats and ride a Disneyland carousel. Your face is a place of content wonder. What matters is that she is alone.
These scenes, Choi tells us in a voice-over, actually never happened: Her mother’s reality in America did not include the kind of independence that Choi himself values. “Thinking about the concept of having my own space, being in control of my space, my time and my surroundings, is so important to my ability to do things,” said Choi. “The idea that my mother never had – and maybe never thought about it – really impressed me. My mother has such an eye for art and I keep thinking about what she could have done, what her sensitivity as an artist could have been if she had been able to be alone. “
Examining her mother’s life forced Choi to reconsider her ideas about what it meant to be an artist and a mother. Instead of viewing motherhood as limiting, she began to view it as a path of creative power. “I think a lot about how motherhood can be for first-generation people their art, their craft, their way of creating joy and beautiful experiences,” said Choi. Her daughter is the place of growth that is carefully tended, and she is now training a lens for the gardener. The question that moves the film is a quixotic preoccupation: we can never really understand who our parents were before us. But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding them, Choi believes.
The imaginary scenes emerged from conversations Choi had with her mother, and Choi describes the film as a “living document”, part of a constant dialogue between the two. “Sometimes I go singing karaoke alone,” Choi tells her mother in a scene in which the young Insun’s avatar dances and sings. “Do you think that’s funny?”
Insun laughs wistfully and instead says to her daughter: “I couldn’t be as brave as you.” Choi quickly reminds her mother that she was the one who moved to a new country on her own.
Choi said it was important to her that the film was a collaboration between the two and that she wanted to undermine the roles of interviewer and subject. In one scene, Insun holds the camera to its own reflection and carefully designs its own frame. The moment is a daughter’s reminder that ultimately her mother is the master of her own image.