Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1974 Italianamerican documentary about his parents, NYC-based filmmaker Chai Dingari made a film to share the story of his parents’ 1994 journey to the U.S. from India. Called Hyphen American, the 13-minute short documentary features his family — his mother Kanakadurga, father Sreenivas, and younger sister Spoorthi. Dingari’s film was recently highlighted by the South Asian American Digital Archive.
If your parents immigrated to the U.S., or you made the journey on your own, the story shared in Hyphen American is one you can probably relate to — there are so many stories like it, each one with its compelling and unique details and moments. In telling their story, Dingari’s parents speak in English and Telugu, and they touch on broader discussions related to issues of health, dowry and the isolation that immigrants can experience in a new country. The filmmaker and his sister also share their thoughts on their identity, tying in their generations’ experiences to the story of their parents’ journey.
Read on to find out more about Dingari’s experience making the short documentary Hyphen American, and watch the film below.
What made you want to tell the story of your parents’ journey to the U.S.?
I’ve heard the story through bits and fragments over the years, but only as facts and dates. I started thinking about their move here more recently, as I am now around the same age that my mother was when we made the trip. I wanted to put myself in their shoes and get a feel for their emotional states as they went through the decision-making process.
Why did you call it Hyphen American?
The direct inspiration for this project was Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican, a 49-minute documentary he put together after Mean Streets about his parents and their Italian heritage. They tell the story of their immigration to this country after World War II and the particular struggles that their Sicilian community in Little Italy went through. I’ve always related to his work and I think the themes that he portrays with regards to Italian-Americans translates beyond demographics to all immigrant and outsider cultures. I wanted to make a film that portrayed my own parent’s story, which is forty years removed from the Scorsese film, and show the differences and also universal similarities between them. I was originally going to call my piece South Asian American, but decided to go with the broader Hyphen American for a more general immigrant/diaspora connection. I hope it’s able to portray an experience that’s both specific and universal.
How long did it take you to film Hyphen American?
I filmed it over two consecutive weekends, and it took about two months or so to edit and score the film.
How did your family feel about being in the film?
They knew I was thinking about a project like this, but I didn’t really tell them too many details before shooting it. They live in Pennsylvania and I visit them about once a month or so, and on one visit I just sort of showed up with a lot of film equipment. But they are, and always have been, very supportive and definitely were excited to help out with this. Even my sister, though I don’t think she appreciated when I made her stand out in the snow and pose for about 30 minutes in full traditional dance garb to get what ended up as a six-second shot.