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An Interview with
Martha Burr
(Co-Director/Co-Producer of "Shaolin Ulysses")
Filmmakers Extraordinaire (from left to right): Mei Juin Chen and Martha Burr

Shaolin Ulysses, is a refreshing documentary by filmmakers Martha Burr and Mei-Juin about the odyssey of five Shaolin kungfu monks who emigrate to America from the famed Shaolin Temple of China during the 1990s.

The documentary takes a rare human approach focusing on the individual monk's character and very personal, sometimes funny experiences as they strive to make their life in America. Burr, the editor of Kung Fu Qigong Magazine goes behind the mythical god-like romantic stereotype of Shaolin monks in flowing robes and physical Matrix-style kung fu mastery, and portrays the monks as complex, living human beings, and surprisingly, with a sense of humor.

Burr and Mei-Juin follow the monks as they set up bases to teach Shaolin kung fu in Texas, and in Las Vegas, Nevada with aspirations to coach America's future Olympian kung fu stars. The camera captures poignant scenes with an engaging young female student who dreams of someday acting in a kung fu movie with Jackie Chan, meanwhile using her new kung fu skills to defend herself against the bullies in high school. The camera also follows a monk's East meets West adventures as one of his students shows him the Las Vegas scene.

Shaolin Ulysses was screened to packed audiences at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, and is scheduled to be presented at the Asian American Film Festival in New York at the Asia Society July 25th. Shaolin Ulysses will also be aired on PBS-TV in 2003.

Filmmaker Martha Burr chatted with AsianConnections Team about her experiences in making this outstanding documentary.

AsianConnections: How did this project come about?

Martha Burr: I have been an editor at Kungfu Qigong magazine for tha past 5 years, and knew all the Shaolin monks in the U.S. from interviewing them and doing stories on them. I'd also done several Shaolin special issues, devoted entirely to Shaolin kungfu, which were very successful, and visited Shaolin Temple in Henan, China several times.

I also have a background in music video and studied filmmaking at NYU. I was friends with my film partner Mei-Juin, who was already an established documentary director with her last feature The Worlds of Mei LanFang (2000) showing at the Berlin Film Festival and winning the Best Documentary award for Women in Film. Both of us were interested in the culture clashes (or synthesis) of East and West cultures, and the Shaolin kungfu monks story in America seemed a perfect springboard to explore this.

We came up with it one day at lunch, researched it for about a year, traveling to NY, Texas and Shaolin Temple in China, then applied for a funds from ITVS, the Independent Television Service created by Congress to promote diversity on public television. We spent another year shooting more material, and finished editing last month.

Click to see images from the film!

AsianConnections: What were some of the challenges in producing your documentary?

Martha: The biggest challenges were getting the monks to talk about the hardships of America, because they still have close ties with China and the Shaolin Temple there. We knew there were many more hardships than they were willing to talk about, but sometimes we couldn't draw everything out. Also, although all the monks here speak decent English, once we turned the camera on they were very shy about it. Finally, we had to do most of our interviews in Chinese to get them to relax and tell better stories. We were so happy that Li Peng wanted to do everything in English, especially as the part about his family in China is in Chinese.

The biggest challenge may have been in editing the film down to an hour for PBS TV length, when we had so much great material. We shot 100 hours of footage, and have so many great stories and characters that didn't make it in because of length. The last month of editing was the hardest.

AsianConnections: The documentary focuses more on the personal journeys and experiences of the monks, which is different than most other martial arts documentaries. What was your inspiration for this approach?

Martha: We wanted to make a documentary that was about human character and experience first, although the martial arts was a very important aspect of the story. But our themes about cultural interface, and especially Chinese culture meeting American culture, was one of our main topics for exploration. There seemed to be an inherent drama around the question of would these Shaolin monks come to America and be corrupted, culturally or spiritually, or would they prevail and change America?

The answer was neither in black and white, but their five separate journeys were truly that - journeys. We also liked showing the monks as real human beings, not romantic figures in robes meditating on a misty mountain ledge, as many Americans like to think of the Shaolin monks. Their complexity seemed more interesting than the myth, though we tried to provide the myth of Shaolin as well, for context. Many people are also overly serious about the Shalin monks, when the monks themselves can be quite funny, with a great sense of humor, which we tried to bring out.

There is a certain surreal quality to their journey here, and that was also a quality we wanted to touch on. The myth of Shaolin, and Shaolin monks, will be around for a long time, but we wanted to do a little cultural deconstruction and delve into some of the deeper issues of Shaolin in the modern world.

AsianConnections: What has the reception to your film been? Where can people view the film?

Martha: We had a great reception at the world premiere at the LA Film Festival. Nice short reviews in the local press (LA Weekly and New Times), and we had a good buzz among the industry too. Our evening show at the Sunset 5 Laemmle was sold out, and people were very enthusiastic! We had a long Q&A after the screenings, with more questions than we had time to answer. We are talking to several distributors right now to package the film, and it will show on PBS sometime in the next year, though we don't have exact dates yet.

AsianConnections: What are your future plans? Will you do a follow up documentary?

Martha: We are looking at a number of ideas for future docs, probably still exploring aspects of Chinese culture, and perhaps another martial arts themed doc. We'd love to do one on Wudang kungfu next, and balance the Buddhism and Shaolin with Taoism and Wudang style kungfu!

Our film will also show next month in New York at the Asian American Film Festival, with a screening at Asia Society on July 25th. Mei-Juin's previous film, The Worlds of Mei LanFang, will also screen at the festival July 20th. We are also looking to several festivals in Europe for late summer/early fall, but are not confirmed yet.


AsianConnections wishes to thank Martha Burr for contributing her valuable time for the interview, for which this would not have been possible.

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