During her long time living in the San Francisco Bay Area, filmmaker Debbie Lum was greatly influenced by working as an editor for documentarian Spencer Nakasako. Lum as a youth was transfixed by American and World cinema, but came of age when it was still too rare to see Asian American stories reflected on screen. She pivoted from working on a film specifically about Asian American moms to the tangential topic of adolescents facing pressures both familial and societal while they try to get through school. This led her to Lowell High School in San Francisco and the film that eventually became Try Harder!—and the rest is, as they say, (AP) History.
In Lum’s documentary, high-achieving seniors in a majority Asian American student body share their dreams and nightmares about getting into a top university. The film asks a lot of hard questions of both these kids and the audience, including whether this grind toward higher achievement is even worth it.
And despite the heavy questions, to its credit, the film is not a downer. In fact, Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson calls it “a very funny movie about a bunch of students trying to find their way through a system that is designed to keep them out rather than let them in.” Adds RogerEbert.com, “This smart, savvy documentary does a great job in putting faces and stories behind students who are seen as computers.”
Lum talks here about what resonated for her the most in Try Harder!, what it’s like to “return” to the hallowed halls of a high school for longer than it takes to actually go through high school, and how these students break free from stereotypes about Asian Americans.
Where did the idea to make Try Harder! originate? What inspired you?
The students of Lowell High School captured my heart. At first, I thought I would explore the topic of elite college admissions from the perspective of mothers, especially the stereotype of Asian American “tiger mothers” who push hard for their children’s academic achievement by any means necessary. I had just finished my last documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which explores stereotypes and the fetishization of Asian women, and was trying to get my daughter into preschool.
Around me, parents, especially moms, were stressing out about what they could do to set their 3-year-old on a path that would lead to Harvard. There was a Harvard lawsuit alleging that Asian Americans were being discriminated against. Articles came out about high-priced college counselors urging Asian American students to “appear less Asian” in order to improve their chances with elite colleges. I set off on a path to make a film called My Tiger Mom, filming mothers, principals, psychologists, college advisors—and realized we needed to talk to students themselves.
In all the headline-grabbing reports on the insanity of the college admissions process, the students who are at the heart of the story seem to be the last ones given a voice.
We heard about a program at Lowell High School where kids as young as 14 do graduate-level medical research at the world-renowned University of California San Francisco medical research labs. Once I landed at Lowell, and the students, faculty, and administration opened their doors to us, we decided to switch gears and capture the story of how to get into a top American college through the students’ POV.
Lowell, an iconic San Francisco institution and the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi River, had never had a feature-length documentary made about it. I couldn’t help thinking that, perhaps because Lowell had a large or predominantly Asian American student body for decades, this might have something to do with it. I went to a high school in America’s heartland, more reminiscent of The Breakfast Club, where being Asian American meant being either an outcast or invisible. I was fascinated by a high school universe where being Asian American was the norm. I’ve dedicated my filmmaking career to telling Asian American stories. I’m drawn to original, untold, authentic stories, and this one really resonated for me.
In the last 10 to 15 years, getting into college, especially a prestigious college, has become extreme. College acceptance rates have fallen to single-digits, with Stanford and Harvard accepting between four to five percent of students who apply. Getting into college has become a high-stakes business for today’s tech-centric economy, the difference between having a high school diploma and a college degree, translates into a significant economic gap, the widest in 50 years. A degree from an elite college, the so-called “Ivy Plus” such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a handful of others may mean more than double the future salary of a degree from a less exclusive college.
At the same time, stress and anxiety levels have gone through the roof for high school and college-aged students. What does it mean for teens as they enter young adulthood to see the college journey as one that will most likely lead to failure? What does this mean for our society’s future leaders?
Speaking of stress, how long did it actually take to make the film? From concept to finish.
All told, it has taken us more than five years. I first started researching the topic of “tiger mothers” in the SF Bay Area in 2014. A year later, we met some of the students who would become our main characters as I began interviewing so-called “tiger cubs” or children of immigrant Asian mothers who push for high achievement in school. By the time the next school year had begun, we had decided to take a deep dive into the Lowell story, focusing on one school year from start to finish. With over 300 hours of footage, another year of editing, and the incredible support of film [production] company XTR, we were finally able to push the film out.
When COVID-19 hit, as a mother of three kids in elementary school, I also became an ad hoc dean of our Zoom elementary schools, adding further delays. Like the students we filmed, our entire film crew worked long and hard to make this documentary.
Can you tell us more about what interested you about Lowell enough to make a film about it?
This is the first feature-length documentary about San Francisco’s iconic Lowell High. Established in 1856, Lowell is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi and has long been the crown jewel of the San Francisco Unified School District, its name synonymous with excellence in high school education. Lowell is a college prep school that is free for all, and admission is based not on zip code but [on] academic performance. Over the years, Lowell has also become known as an Asian American high school. Asian American students have made up its largest group of students for decades.
Right now as public debate explodes over selective admission public high schools like Lowell, Stuyvesant [High School in New York City] and Boston Latin, and whether admission based on grades and tests is fair or biased, it is hard to ignore the large numbers of Asian American students at these high-achieving schools. Asian American Pacific Islanders represent a third of the population in San Francisco. Because most AAPI students don’t have the economic means to go to private schools like the majority of white students do, they have become the dominant ethnic group in SF public schools. At Lowell High School, being Asian American is the norm.
In the immigrant Chinese community, where parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins plant dreams of attending Lowell into their kids’ young minds as early as kindergarten, Lowell is the be-all-end-all of schools. Tracking the narrative of the competitive college admissions journey was fascinating from a filmmaker’s perspective, but I was also personally interested in what it would mean for an Asian American student to come of age in a high school where s/he was in the majority, so opposite my own experience.
Once we spent time at Lowell and got to know students, I committed to making this into a feature film because the kids opened up to us. They wanted a spotlight shined on what they were going through and who they were. I sensed a deep yearning for their stories to be told.
The Harvard lawsuit was making its way through the courts, revealing how Asian American students were rated lower on personality by admissions officers. Although implicit bias and studies showed Asian Americans need to score hundreds of points higher than students of other ethnicities in order to be accepted, the courts still did not conclude that Harvard discriminated against Asian Americans. I wanted to understand what was behind this.
But less interested in the right or wrong, I wanted to know the impact on our community and ourselves. I wanted to understand our motivations and understand why we strive and who we are. AAPIs is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., but we make up only six percent of the overall U.S. population. Our stories have occupied the margins of official narratives of America despite our contributions to the American story (from railroads to agriculture to birthright citizenship to the Vietnam War and the list goes on). In the students I met, I sensed a deep yearning to break out of the singular stereotype that they were just the model minority, born to be smart, fierce, nameless, test-taking machines.
The students we followed were so much more than a high test score and a data point. Each one was breaking free of their parents’ hold on them in defining self, wrestling with pressure and growing up, growing into independence. It was this human story at the center of the college admissions frenzy that I wanted to tell.
What were some of the more memorable college application horror stories these kids went through while you were filming?
We had read stories about applying to college and what slim odds students had for elite college acceptance. But we didn’t know how brutal it would be to see students applying to 30 colleges because acceptance was equated not with student effort, but luck of the draw. Getting rejected by 20 schools, or worse, being waitlisted with more work and more waiting, then not getting financial aid, and ultimately not getting to make the decision to choose your own college, was a brutal and demoralizing process.
Students told us horror stories of computer glitches sending out thousands of false acceptances only to be reversed 24-hours later. One of our students got up at 4 a.m. to check whether he was admitted to a [college in the University of California system] because of a staggered alphabetical announcement to prevent system crashes. But at the same time, like soldiers in boot camp, the students went through it all together and wore their scars like badges of courage.
What was it like filming the kids’ prom?
Prom was interesting. Going with a prom date seemed to be the rare exception. Still, the kids dressed up and looked ready for the red carpet in black tie and stunning ball gowns and stilettos. As the girls checked their coats many of them pulled running shoes or trainers out of their purses and then swapped into comfortable shoes. They wanted to hang out, stress-free, with a group of friends. In this upside-down high school universe, known for stress and competition, friendships and community [were] also brimming over. It was a place where our main character Shea noted, “you can nerd out on physics and not get shoved against a locker.”
Although one of our main character’s mom got a hotel room where the prom was held—and waited for her at the end of the dance—many students had a dual life, hiding key details from their parents. One student told me she got into a top-ranked school but told her parents she was rejected just so she wouldn’t be forced to go and face all that stress all over again.
How did the film change from the original idea you had for it, as you were filming or in post-production?
Try Harder! originally began as just one chapter of a personal essay documentary called My Tiger Mom, exploring why as mothers we are obsessed with getting our children into fancy colleges. My producer and cinematographer Lou Nakasako grew up in San Francisco, went through the SF public school system, and heard about the Lowell Science Research Program, an impressive club at Lowell High School where students do graduate-level science research at the nation’s top medical lab, UCSF. Richard Shapiro founded this program along with Dr. Julia Ye (Lowell ’99). Mr. Shapiro is a beloved physics teacher at Lowell, and a true believer in the arts. Having taught at Lowell for 30 years, seeing waves of students come through, he shared my fascination about why so many Asian Americans seem to do so well in school—was it character, grit, parental pressure, cultural pressure, the system, or just a bad stereotype?
Teaching reputedly the hardest class at Lowell, Mr. Shapiro remembered his class in the ’80s being predominantly ethnically Russian and Jewish and said there was a time when Lowell’s nickname was Beth Low’ell. It was when Mr. Shapiro introduced us to Alvan and other students who would become our main characters that we became captivated by them and what they were going through, that this one chapter about the children of “tiger mothers” transformed into the entire film at Lowell. While funders urged me to continue my personal essay, I felt like I could not let the Lowell story go. The time was right to tell this story.
What were some of the unique challenges in making a documentary in the halls of a high school?
Filming at the largest public high school in San Francisco was always challenging. We re-lived high school in the filming of this story, shooting over 300 hours of footage, meeting hundreds of students and faculty during casting and production. Our core team, producer/cinematographer Lou, field producer Lauren Kawana, and myself spent almost two years at Lowell and continued to track our main subjects as they went off to college. Each school day we spent an incredible amount of leg work to get access to find the moments that were spontaneous and authentic.
We were a small lithe crew filming at the whim of very responsible yet very busy teenagers, who believed that getting into college was far more important than making a documentary. During school hours they had no downtime, thus we had no downtime. Not knowing how their story would turn out, we followed more than five students to see who would get accepted at their dream school or not. High school is a lot harder than it was when we went through it. By graduation, we were exhausted.
Editing was and perhaps always is, the most challenging part of making documentaries. In post-production, we had to make hard decisions to eliminate storylines and balance the narratives of five students against a backdrop of a unique high school that was a character unto itself. It required a lot of hard work and deft editing by amazing editors, Andrew Gersh, Amy Ferraris who was also co-producer, and Victoria Chalk. Scripts are written in post and doc-makers are beholden to their characters’ reality in telling an authentic story.
Three of our students are Asian American, one is biracial black/white and another is white. Along the way, some suggested we cut out two of our Asian American characters. I felt strongly that this was an injustice to the story of a high school that has been predominantly Asian American for decades and the time was overripe for Asian Americans to occupy center stage as protagonists in the story.
Telling Asian American stories—about marginalized communities that sometimes go counter to the mainstream —always presents challenges to how we tell stories. It required deft editing and lots of patience to do justice to the students in our film and their stories.
What do you especially want PBS audiences to take away from this film?
Try Harder! takes audiences on a journey to experience what it feels like to finish the last year of high school, and, against impossible odds, try to achieve one’s high school dreams, sometimes succeeding but often failing. I’d like students, parents, educators, and viewers in general, to get through to the other side of this stressful, difficult journey.
High school has changed in the last decade, and today, academic pressure is the leading cause of stress in teens over “fitting in” or “looking good.” Getting into a brand-name college can feel like a life or death matter to students and perhaps even more so to their parents. In the Bay Area, many high school principals are on suicide watch and many students finish high school feeling cynical that trying hard isn’t enough.
Success through education has been foundational in our society and particularly in the Asian American community where educational achievement is the lifeblood coursing through our communities veins. For immigrants who have historically been in survival mode, striving to succeed through education has been the means—and at all costs. There has been a lot of sacrifice. For our community and society at large, we often strive with little time for reflection.
I hope Try Harder! can be a mirror that allows viewers to reflect on how this process has impacted who we are, why we strive, and our relationships between young people and parents. I hope audiences [learn] the students of Lowell are much more than test scores and high-ranking GPA. I’d like the human factor in the “college application industrial complex” to come to the fore.
Where do you find inspiration or who/what has influenced you as a filmmaker? What movies and art could tell us more about who you are?
I always dreamed of making narrative films, growing up behind the St. Louis Cinema in America’s heartland during the original Star Wars generation. I saw Poltergeist at a drive-in. We spent summers on Oahu, where my father was born and raised, and on Saturdays watched recycled Hong Kong period martial arts movies for $1 a ticket. My father also took us to the Oscar contenders, Spielberg blockbusters and age-inappropriate art house films like Ran or Picnic at Hanging Rock that burned into my consciousness and inhabited my dreams. My mom, who grew up in New York City rebelling from her traditional Chinese parents, dreamed that her children would be artists and curated avant-garde cinema for an art collective she ran. We didn’t have hundreds of TV channels or Tik Tok, Kindle, and pushed news feeds. Cinema was an immersive experience.
When Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever came out, I loved how African Americans were always front and center in his films. Growing up, I always felt like being Chinese American was front and center in who I was and how I saw myself. Being different—being a minority—was my worldview. After college, I traveled to Taipei, and remember vividly the first time I saw City of Sadness, Hou Xiao-Hsien’s masterpiece set in Taiwan in the 1940s. I had never seen a Chinese face in a movie wearing anything other than a historical period costume. It was the closest any movie came to touching on something that actually happened in my own personal history. Up to that point, movies had always shown me someone else’s point of view. I’d been studying Asian cinema abroad, learning about Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the fifth generation Chinese films like Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum, and was mesmerized by Shohei Imamura’s The Eel and Back Rain.
I came back to the U.S. and made San Francisco a transplanted home. I met Spencer Nakasako, who co-directed, co-wrote, and starred in Life is Cheap But Toilet Paper Is Expensive. Spencer was straddling the worlds of fiction and documentary and hired me to work as an editor on his ground-breaking documentary, a.k.a. Don Bonus in which he gave 17-year-old Cambodian American Sokly Ny a video diary to film his own story. Spencer schooled me in Asian American cinema, Loni Ding and Wayne Wang, how to hone narrative in three acts in a documentary, how to make a film through grit, authenticity without fancy camerawork but dedication to a story and a character.
— Independent Lens (@IndependentLens) April 8, 2022
Telling Asian American Stories That Resonate: Filmmaker Explores Why These High School Students Are Stressed Out | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Craig Phillips for www.pbs.org