Margot Francis (2002)

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Haunting nature of the archival images prompts the viewer to consider the role of the visual in mediating family history. Fung’s comments about ‘fortuitous’ technology provoke us to notice how seemingly random visual ‘mistakes’ can act as points of condensation for personal and political consciousness.

In a recent interview, Fung noted that AIDS cultural politics have provided the intellectual context for re-examining the discursive aspects of thalassemia, which is also transmitted through blood. Specifically, Douglas Crimp’s observation in the essay “Mourning and Militancy,” a reflection on the importance of considering both the emotional and political tolls associated with AIDS, provided the conditions for deciding to make such a personal intervention. This history, along with the eugenic tone of the Michener slideshow, reminds us how racialized and sexualized populations continue to be ordered in the social imaginary through discourses of hygiene located in the blood.

Reactions of the medical establishment to the emergence of thalassemia differed sharply from its response to AIDS and HIV. British researchers were eager to teat unusual new cases of thalassemia, so Fung’s sister Nan was referred to England to be treated by noted hematologist Sir Ronald Bodley Scott during 1963-64. Nan’s treatment resulted in a dramatic improvement in her prognosis, but her examination by doctors at a teaching hospital can be juxtaposed with the racialized perspectives that shape medical knowledge.

The video explores the objectifying lens of medical instruction, including the classification of those affected by thalassemia as having “mongoloid” features – a racist tern which associated “mongrel” Asian facial characteristics with the features of Down Syndrome. But Fung’s treatment of this objectification is sensitive and complex, he shows how his sister’s few opportunities for public recognition were structured through the medical gaze. As Nan’s mother Rita Fung comments, when Nan was presented to medical students, she “liked all these things, you know, (she) liked to show off.”

In Sea in the Blood, Fung brilliantly fashions an evocative narrative, inviting viewers to re-examine the frames of certitude that ground our understanding of our selves and our relations to those we love. Central to the work is Fung’s narration of a sequence of events that brought his relationships with both Nan and Tim into fleeting contact. In this moment, the joint themes of intimacy and complicity are most fully articulated. Here the experience of a youthful and fully relished queer independence collides with death and betrayals.

In an e-mail text, Fung’s surviving sister Arlene comments, “I grew up with death in the house. The funerals were always happening in those days. I knew each step of the whole ritual by heart as a child. The smell of all those fresh flowers.” An uncannily sunny image of her mother’s garden floats in the background, behind the text. Despite the painful nature of these reflections, Fung’s restrained emotional narrative never veers into easy sentiment. Instead, both the visual and auditory accounts eschew the literal – inviting the viewer into a form of witness that goes well beyond simply hearing a story previously unknown. Instead, the tape asks us to consider how we fashion the ‘truths’ of familial memory from deeply discrepant worlds.

One of the root words for ‘complicity’ is complex, and part of the etymology of complex is compass. Sea in the Blood presents a form of autobiographical videomaking where the compass of memory acknowledges irreconcilably different stories – while at the same time allowing the emotional resonance of those dissonant narratives to strike a bearing. If autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where a videomaker understands the personal journey to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes., then it is the compass of our bodies, and the bodies of those we love, that pay the price of these crossings.

Sea in the Blood leaves one asking what it might mean to take in this narrative, not as part of the endless flow of stories and images found in the multitude of Toronto film and video festivals – but as what Walter Benjamin (in his Storytelling essay) called a form of “counsel.” If most family histories cannot bear to admit disparate stories, we are fortunate to have artists such as Fung who insist that we do. Sea in the Blood suggests that it is only through acknowledging our complicity within these differential narratives that we can engage the contradictions of both memory and love.

(The author wishes to acknowledge Joe Hermer for his intellectual companionship and assistance in writing this review)

Margot Francis is a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and writes about sexuality, race an the nation in the work of Canadian visual artists.