‘Middle Way’ a conversation starter

As a graduate student, Tori Jennings was influenced by The Middle Ground, written by the environmental historian Richard White. The book chronicles contact between Native Americans and French explorers from the 17th to 19th centuries.  The middle ground White describes was a negotiated space in between two distinct groups, neither of whom had power over the other.
“The middle ground is looking at two groups coming together and both wanting to take something away from the interaction,” said Jennings, anthropology coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

This concept came front and center for Jennings one day while talking with Matthew Brown, a journalist and documentary filmmaker with whom Jennings had become acquainted over the subject of backyard chickens. Brown was interested in creating a film on Hmong culture in Portage County. Two years later, the result is Finding The Middle Way, a thought-provoking film that has been a catalyst for conversations in the region and around the state about Hmong culture specifically and race in general.
The first step in creating the film was earning trust and buy-in from the Hmong community. “You can’t just knock on people’s doors, especially the Hmong people, who have a history of being treated poorly,” Jennings said. “The first thing I saw was if we could use students to introduce the Hmong community to the project then maybe we could get buy-in. We also went to the Hmong American Association of Portage County (HAAPC), which includes many elders. We knew we needed buy-in from them.”
Those elders were at times reluctant to submit to interviews by main interviewer Pa Thao and UW-Stevens Point students, so the team enlisted Song Cheng and his brother Soua Cheng, then president of HAAPC, as cultural consultants. They helped convince interview subjects to cooperate and provided feedback as the film took a shape that was somewhat different than the team envisioned at the outset.
“We wanted this to go beyond the narrative of the ‘Secret War’ and include a lot of the intergenerational issues between young people and elders, which is significant,” Jennings said. “That became a smaller portion than what we originally had thought it would be. What Matthew ended up delivering, about a third was about the ‘Secret War.’ That’s what people wanted to talk about.”
The talking continued once the film was completed and shown in public venues. Nine showings have been completed to date, with more than 600 people in attendance. In addition, approximately 120 DVDs have been distributed to Hmong associations, public libraries, schools and other organizations. The film has elicited strong reactions.
“At the first screening here at UW-Stevens Point there were Hmong people in the audience, and I will always remember the statement one person made,” Jennings said. “A woman stood up and said ‘Finally, our voices are heard.’ That is what has meant a lot to the people who are a part of it and who have watched it since.”
Jennings noted the film has also drawn emotional responses from viewers of German descent. “Oftentimes people who are German talk about how they were ostracized after World War II, and this allows them to connect (with Hmong people) through that,” she said. “It creates human space and empathy.”
Seven UW-Stevens Point students assisted in Finding the Middle Way: Julie Lee, Qeng Lee, Maiko Lor, Pa Thao, Deng Vang, Pachear Lor-Vue and Yeng Vang. Jennings hopes the film will inspire other Hmong students to produce their own films exploring their culture.
Other UW-Stevens Point personnel involved in Finding the Middle Way include co-producer Kristy SeBlonka, Assistant Professor of Education Maysee Yang Herr, and Sue Clark Kubley, adviser of the university’s Hmong and Southeast Asian American Club (HaSEAAC).
For more information, visit hmongvideo.org.