Have a complicated identity? America’s future looks ‘A Lot Like You’

Filmmaker Eli Kimaro in her Columbia City home. Her documentary 'A Lot Like You' has won acclaim around the world and opens at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival tonight. (Photo by Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times)
Filmmaker Eli Kimaro in her Columbia City home. Her documentary ‘A Lot Like You’ has won acclaim around the world and opens at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival tonight. (Photo by Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times)

“The bibimbap, is that dolsot?” asks documentary filmmaker Eli Kimaro looking up from the menu of Wabi-Sabi in Columbia City.

She’s trying to gauge the authenticity of the Korean dish in question. This version doesn’t come in the traditional heated stone pot (dolsot), but she goes for it anyway–calling the rice bowl a favorite “comfort food.”

Kimaro couldn’t be more at home ordering Korean food in a neighborhood with an African American history and a growing reputation for international diversity.

Her father is Tanzanian and her mother is Korean. They both worked in international aid and development in Washington DC and Kimaro grew up in a community where being cross-cultural “was the norm.”

But that norm was challenged with Kimaro left home for college. She says she sought to join a Korean Student Union and was met with skepticism from members that saw her first as a black woman, an experience that would be repeated as she was forced to grapple with other people’s assumptions about her background.

Outside of the international community Kimaro grew up in, multiracial families were uncommon in the 1970s. Her film “A Lot Like You” mentions that Kimaro’s parents were married only a few years after anti-miscegenation laws were overturned by the Supreme Court.

By comparison 9 percent of all marriages in the United States were interracial or interethnic in 2009 — double the number in 1980.

A Lot Like You Poster NewKimaro, who identifies as a black woman and a “Tanzkomerican” explores these themes in “A Lot Like You,” which follows her journey back to Tanzania to explore her family’s roots in the Chagga culture while telling the story of her unique childhood.

But the movie, like Kimaro’s background, is complicated. What was intended to be a way of recording the traditions of the Chagga people also became a story of pervasive gender violence within the community. The film ultimately explores Kimaro’s own experience of sexual violence.

Kimaro is proud that the film can’t be “pigeonholed” as singularly about gender violence, mixed race identities or multicultural families. And while it may not be what she set out to make, “A Lot Like You” is resonating with audiences.

The film has won awards at festivals that showcase Asian, black and female-directed films. Locally, it won an “Audience Choice Award” at The Seattle International Film Festival and is opening for the newly resurrected Seattle Asian-American Film Festival tonight (the screening is already sold out).

It’s not lost on Kimaro — who has an Obama poster in her bathroom — that she’s part of a zeitgeist.

“There’s an understanding that you can have a family that spans the U.S. and Asia and Africa or many different continents and have a family gathering picture where you just look like a photo of the United Nations.”

Vanessa Au, a co-director of the Seattle Asian-American Film Festival, agrees that their audiences are hungry for a new kind of film.

“Our movies differ from 90s-era Asian America film, where we were really stuck on generation gaps and model minority stuff …[Kimaro] talks about being mixed race and that’s a theme that’s starting to emerge more in film.”

Kimaro says she’s found an updated version of the international sensibilities she grew up with in DC in Seattle, specifically her neighborhood (she swears she’ll live anywhere … as long as it’s in the famously diverse 98118 Zip code). And she’s thrilled to be opening at an Asian American Film Festival here in Seattle.

“Just the thought that a movie that takes place almost entirely on Mt. Kilimanjaro could help edify our conversation about what the Asian-American experience is… that to me is amazing.”

I watched “A Lot Like You” for the first time the day after President Obama’s second inauguration, following an election that brought a nationwide recognition of the shifting demographics of our country.

The audience included two friends who are in interracial relationships. As the credits rolled, one turned to me and said, “I liked it a lot but it’s hard to say why, it was kind of all over the place right?”

To which I responded, “Yup, and I think that was exactly the point.”

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.