The Austin Chronicle

TV Eye

Home Movies

By Belinda Acosta, December 8, 2000, Screens

Nowhere are hearth, home, and family celebrated during the holiday season like they are on television. From glittering holiday specials and seasonal cartoons to holiday-themed episodes of Ally McBeal and Touched by an Angel, television casts the holiday season in a cheery and mostly affluent light. Oh, sure, I love my Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as much as the next tail-end baby boomer, but because my own family and close friends are far away, I've had time to reflect on the fact that all hearths, homes, and families are not alike. For some, having a home is the most precious gift during any season, and "family" can be found in the most unusual of circumstances. Two upcoming documentaries remind us of the meaning of home and family and offer a thought-provoking alternative to more traditional holiday fare:

The Forgotten Americans (Sunday, Dec. 10, 8pm; Thursday, Dec. 14, 9pm; Friday, Dec. 15, noon & 9pm, Sunday, Dec. 17, 5pm, PBS): Austin-based documentary filmmaker Hector Galán's The Forgotten Americans focuses on the struggles of people living in "colonias" along the Texas-Mexico border. It is another in a long line of Galán's works, which expose audiences to previously undocumented histories. Colonias (Spanish for "neighborhoods") date back to the 1950s. Originally built as temporary housing for migrant workers, the areas have become a shameful example of exploitation and neglect of the working poor. The Forgotten Americans tells the story of several colonia residents over a year. The stories are similar: Developers bought tracts of land outside the city limits, divided it into lots, and sold them for as little as $500 down and $25 a month. A good deal, a dream come true, thought many of the Mexican-origin workers, eager to realize the American Dream. Then came a heavy rain and the discovery that they were living on a 100-year-old flood plain or in a dried-out lake bed. In many cases, municipal services that most Americans take for granted were promised, but never provided, meaning that colonia residents often lived with limited or no access to water, sewage systems, and navigable roads. When colonia residents began to fight for these services, they discovered that since developers didn't legally plot the land inside city limits, the city had no obligation to provide basic services to the colonias. In other cases, some residents discovered that there were no official records of their transactions, thereby making the deeds to their land worthless.

"When legislators say, 'We don't want people to be living in these conditions in the colonias,' it assumes that they had a better choice," says David Arizmendi, executive director of Proyecto Azteca, one of several grassroots organizers interviewed for The Forgotten Americans. "[That] assumes that they're living in these terrible conditions because, somehow, that's what they chose ... when, in fact, the alternative [to the colonias] is being homeless."

Though attention to these living conditions has sparked legislative action, the colonias remain a problem. There are 1,500 colonias in the border states (Texas has the highest number) and over 500,000 residents. Colonias are home to the poorest of the poor, but, as The Forgotten Americans superbly reveals, they are also home to determined individuals, who have faith in the American Dream.

First Person Plural (Monday, Dec. 18, 10pm, PBS). Filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem came to the United States as Cha Jung Hee in 1966 at age nine. She was one of thousands of orphaned Korean children adopted by white families in the U.S. following the Korean War. Though traveling to her new home was traumatic, she adapted to life as a typical girl growing up in California. But as an adult, the past began to haunt her. Memories of her early life in Korea began to resurface, memories that didn't coincide with the facts of her adoption. Liem came to discover she wasn't an orphan at all, but that she had a family still very much alive in Korea.

"I remember going up to my mother and telling her, 'I'm not who you think I am. I'm not Cha Jung Hee,'" Liem says in the film. When Borshay Liem began to unravel the mystery of her past, the truth shocked her and her family. Her real name was Kang Ok Jin. The child who was supposed to be shipped abroad to the Borshays was reclaimed by her parents, and the adoption agency sent Kang Ok Jin instead. The Borshays were not told of the change. Suddenly, all the dreams and fragments of memory that previously made no sense to Liem became startlingly clear.

"The day I left Korea, the director of the orphanage took me to the airport. He didn't say a word the whole time. Finally, when it was time for me to board the plane, he turned to me and said, 'Don't tell them who you really are until you're old enough to take care of yourself.'"

Liem's autobiographical debut film tells the heartwrenching story of a woman grasping for her past while remaining loyal to the loving family that raised her. Memory, assimilation, culture, and family are intimately explored in First Person Plural, as is the poignant result of the request she makes of her natural and adoptive families.

"I thought that if I could actually see them come together in real life, somehow both families could live within myself," she says.

First Person Plural, which is part of PBS' POV (Point of View) series, played in Austin earlier this year as part of the Reel Women Film Festival. It had its world premiere at the 2000 Sundance Festival and received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Frontier House

Didn't make it on Survivor? Too old for The Real World, Road Rules, or Making the Band? Too much pride for Big Brother? Perhaps your chance to enter the world of reality-challenge television has come with The Frontier House. The new program comes from PBS, which brought viewers The 1900 House earlier this year. While that program was shot across the pond, The Frontier House will be shot in "a beautiful valley in a remote corner of Montana," according to PBS press material.

The premise is similar to The 1990 House: Participants commit to living six months as a family might have during the 1880s. Although the Bowler family of The 1900 House walked into a fully appointed replica of a Victorian era house (and lived there for only three months), the families selected for The Frontier House will have to build a roof to cover their heads, using period tools, sweat, and backbone. After that, there will be the task of farming 160 acres, tending livestock, growing food, and surviving the weather from late spring (May) through early fall (October). The only modern elements will be the camera crews who will record the experience for production, and, as in 1900 House, video diary cameras are set up to allow individuals to record their personal reflections.

Unlike 1900 House, three families, or family groups, will be selected for The Frontier House, meaning individuals and extended family members can apply. There's no million-dollar cash prize for surviving frontier life; the event is not a game show in the tradition of Survivor or Big Brother. The unique experience is the reward, although small stipends to cover an average family's loss of income during the six month period is likely. For more information and for an online application, visit The Frontier House Web site at Applications are accepted through January 11, 2001.

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