Wednesday, October 13, 2010

TOP SPIN: Interview with co-directors Mina T. Son and Sara Newens

SDAFF Programmer Eric Lallana interviewed Mina T. Son and Sara Newens, co-directors of the short film documentary TOP SPIN. The story centers around table tennis prodigy Ariel Hsing.

EL: What was the inspiration behind your project TOP SPIN?

MTS: We read a New York Times article about the Bay Area being this hotbed of future table tennis champions. Our immediate reaction was that the topic would make an awesome documentary.

SN: As Mina mentioned, we read an article about the rising popularity of the sport in the New York Times. We quickly realized that the competitive nature of table tennis is not widely recognized in the US, as it is in most countries abroad. We knew instantly that film is the perfect medium to expose the dedication that a lot of young players have.

EL: There's a scene where the Table Tennis prodigy, Ariel Hsing, shows that her fingers on her playing hand (right hand) is more crooked than her left from all the time dedicated to playing table tennis. What was it like covering her practice sessions and how many hours did you spend shooting those session.

MTS: Though we had observed at least one of Ariel's training sessions before filming began, it was still pretty overwhelming. The practice session at the India Community Center (ICC) - the gym where you also see her weight training with several other kids - was especially chaotic as it was our very first day of shooting, but not only that the place is massive and there were kids and ping pong balls everywhere. We had our fair share of getting pelted by those tiny plastic balls! Sara was manning the camera on that first shoot and was a star! One of the most challenging things about these practice sessions was to get the shots we needed but also not to interfere with Ariel's training. In fact, we only had a small window to shoot this entire film - ten consecutive days - and we were able to film only two or three practice sessions and not all of them in their entirety. So in the end, I think we spent about a total of five hours shooting the practice sessions.

EL: What have been the reactions from family and friends on "Top Spin" and festival goers throughout the country?

MTS: The response we've gotten so far from everyone has been wonderful. We think it's mostly because of Ariel and her parents, Michael and Xin, being so amazing. One of the reasons this film works is because they wholeheartedly welcomed us into their lives. They were very natural and comfortable in front of the camera, which makes a huge difference. There's also something about the sport of table tennis itself that speaks to everyone - young, old, across ethnicities. It's a rather complex sport, but anyone can essentially play it. Through making this film, we've definitely become table tennis advocates and we'd love it if "Top Spin" helped take the sport to the next level in the U.S.

EL: What attracted or enticed you to pursue an interest in filmmaking?

MTS: Growing up, I always enjoyed painting, drawing and photography, but I thought of these as hobbies, not viable career options. It wasn't until a few years after I had graduated university when my mom became ill and I had some time on my hands that I was introduced to filmmaking and I made my first short documentary about my experience looking after my mom. It left a profound impact on me and my family to see our story on a big screen and from that moment on, I was hooked.

SN: After several unfulfilling years working in the news industry, documentary filmmaking seemed like the logical first step into a deeper, more meaningful kind of storytelling. I made my first short by throwing myself into an intensive hands-on workshop in Mississippi, and was hooked. Not only did I find a creative outlet for my own ideas, but I was able to share the empowering story of a talented young musician who refused to ascribe to the blues tradition of her hometown. It also became an incredibly rewarding experience as a woman to give a voice to a young female, which also became the impetus to tell Ariel’s story in Top Spin.

EL: Is there something else like a hobby or interest not film related that you would be happy to share with San Diego Asian Film Festival goers?

MTS: I love playing tennis (not table tennis, unfortunately) even though I'm not very good. Although I always like to say that I could have been a real 'contender' had I been exposed to the sport at a young age. If only! Actually, both Sara and I are huge fans of watching tennis and we are big Rafa fans.

SN: Hmm. Well, I like to cook and I like to sing (though my guitar skills leave a lot to be desired). Mina and I also do a mean electric slide... but I'm not sure that we want to share (as in demonstrate) this with SDAFF filmgoers until the after party!


Check out TOP SPIN as part of the film shorts program Young and Restless on Friday, October 22nd at 5:10pm. Afterwards chat and meet with Mina and Sara during the Q&A session.

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