They say the personal is political. And the film Who is Arthur Chu? is testament in every way to that statement. It’s featured in this year’s Hot Docs Documentary Canadian International Festival launching April 27 in Toronto.
Arthur Chu, an insurance analyst from Cleveland, won almost US$300,000 on Jeopardy! in 2014 — his haphazard style and forthright manner sparked intense emotions among viewers who called him a “Jeopardy! villain” (and yes there is racism in that, a Tweet — “cheating chinx” — comes to mind).
“I admired his audacity,” co-director Yu Gu writes to me in an email. “[I admire] his courage to try to create a space for himself in a culture that has sought to erase him from the day he was born.”
Gu, based in Vancouver, tells rabble.ca that she was forced to examine her own immigrant background and the paternal ideals passed on to her through Asian cultures which often devalue women.
“I felt there weren’t many films or stories that painted a portrait of an Asian-American person using all the colours available in the palette.”
Directors and cinematographers, Gu and Scott Drucker, caught Chu at the tail end of his TV “random 15 minutes of fame” and then got drawn in. What unfolds is layers and layers of relationships, family history, cultural/racial issues, deep dives into masculinity and misogyny in nerd and mainstream culture and a rough personal journey that at times can parallel your own.
As Drucker pointed out to me: “I was grappling with a lot of the same stuff Arthur was, particularly with the influence of this ‘toxic masculinity’ on my worldview.”
‘Women aren’t on the other team’
What a ride.
Chu decides he wants to leverage this momentary fame to expose misogyny and writes about it in a magazine. His massive Twitter following goes wild. Some urge him to kill himself. Others are plainly racist.
He’s an eloquent and calm debater and speaker and soon, he’s on a talk circuit as well as churning out essays for various sites and online magazines.
“Women aren’t on the other team,” he points out during the 90-minute film. “They are the ball men are [fighting over].”
The editing flow, the intimate shots and scenes between Arthur, his wife Eliza and his family are painfully revealing. The narrative of Chu’s life is laid bare, in careful but honest ways that make this film engrossing.
Interlacing a long one-on-one interview, old videos, Chu’s home life and interactions with his family along with his public appearances, the viewer gets a 360-degree perspective on Chu.
Gu said during the process of editing, Chu’s marriage emerged as a second storyline. Eliza herself is at a crossroads, trying to support her husband, dealing with an illness and then attempting to forge her own identity and work.
“It was important to show the challenges of their relationship as evidence of the true cost of what Arthur was attempting to do,” said Gu.
Asians required to be polite
I am struck by the bracing candour of Chu in his comments, and realized how I never get to see Asian individuals be so frank about the world around them: “We are supposed to be polite and succeed in a quiet way.”
The space allowed us (Asians — such a pan-stereotypical term that covers everyone from Iran to the edges of China and the Pacific) is narrow, confining and debilitating for our own growth. Chu faces that head on and in doing so, provokes the mainstream culture of stereotypes.
That applies to concepts of masculinity as well and Chu is blasting on all fronts on that.
Chu implores us to just try to relate to each other as people. It’s a touching wish.
For the filmmakers, different purposes emerge.
Drucker talks of holding a mirror up to society: “It’s an important time to discuss the theme of viral circulation and how social media can function as a suffocating enclosure, holding our deepest and darkest fears in captivity.”
Gu: “We are a mess — imperfect, works in progress. [Arthur] is full of contradictions, he has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows…I want people to watch and see themselves in their own imperfect glory.”
Chu and his parents have not watched the film. Though, he has given the filmmakers his blessing to screen it.
There are more questions than answers, the marks of a good documentary. Chu leaves us with his own giant query about modern life, embedded in thinking that technological advances and the Internet would free us from our tropes, prejudices and limited beliefs: “[The Internet] is the broken promise of modernity.”
Watch the film, experience the questions. Chu himself has no answers. His life is still unravelling beyond the last credits.
Who is Arthur Chu? is at HOT DOCS April 28, 29 and May 5. Check it out.
And check out these other great Canadian films at Hot Docs: Bee Nation, Manic, Quiet Zone and Blurred Lines.
June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.
Images courtesy of Who is Arthur Chu?