Q&A: Filmmaker Ursula Liang on 9-MAN

STF Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen in conversation with filmmaker Ursula Liang, editor Michelle Chang and film subject and athlete, Wayne Chow, following the screening of 9-MAN. © 8 Salamander Productions, Simon Luethi

This post was written by STF blogger Krystal Grow.

Sports journalist Ursula Liang waited for years for someone to recognize the phenomenon know as 9-Man in Chinatowns across North America, but eventually picked up a camera and started shooting herself.

Liang’s interest in 9-man volleyball is both personal and objective. As a German-Chinese sports journalist whose brother was deeply involved in the game and the community that surrounded it, she sensed the drama on the blacktop courts and empty parking lots where most 9-man games are played. She was invested in the culture surrounding the game, but with no allegiance to any particular team, she was able to tell a bigger story in her film – one about Chinese-American identity, the unique history of Chinese immigrants and their struggles to establish something truly their own.

In her first film, Liang dives into a distinctly Chinese-American game that has exploded into a community of dedicated players striving to maintain a connection to their culture. Logistically speaking, the rules of 9-man are more rigid and complicated than a standard, 6-person volleyball. Though players don’t rotate positions, they can make contact the with the ball twice in a row. While these variations have attracted volleyball players from around the world, it’s another set of rules that have remained a key point of contention among and outside the 9-man community.

‘Content rules,’ as defined by a group of 9-man elders and passed on through the generations, states that only Asian Americans are allowed to play. There are various percentage rules that define which position a player can occupy, and if a player’s racial integrity is questioned, they must present proof of their Asian heritage to tournament officials or be barred from the court.

Liang said the content rules were initially enacted to maintain the cultural significance of the game, which originated during the early days of Chinese immigration to North America as a way for Chinese men to build community during a bleak period of Chinese-American history. As the years have passed, younger generations of Chinese men, who spend their lives outside the tight-knit Chinatown community, see 9-man as a way to reconnect.

The cultural significance of 9-man makes the annual Labor Day tournament far more than a game. It is a yearly statement of the game’s legacy and the feverish loyalty of the men who play. By following a few select teams from their off-season practices through the final round of the grueling 4-day tournament, Liang captures the elements that make the best sports movie riveting, and the most effective documentaries captivating: drama, suspense, surprise and characters the audience can truly root for.


Raphaela Neihausen: How did you come to know about 9-man, how did you start shooting this film, and how did you come to this project?

Ursula Liang: My brother played 9-man. He played a lot of sports and so did I, but when I saw him play this sport, I saw the importance it took in his life. He came to it in his 20s, and the 9-man community became incredibly important to him. I saw that there was something else there greater than just a sport. I’d been a print journalist for most of my life, and this is my first film.

Neihausen: Let’s clap for that.

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Monday Memo: Doc Community Mourns the Passing of Bendjelloul

This week SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN director Malik Bendjelloul passed away.

This week the documentary community lost the Oscar-winning filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who died from an apparent suicide at the age of 36. Bruce Weber of the New York Times penned an obit of Bendjelloul, while Realsceen’s Adam Benzine rounded up some tributes made to the director. Adam Schartoff released an interview conducted with Bendjelloul on his Filmwax Radio podcast. At Indiewire, Paula Bernstein also reported on Bendjelloul’s passing. Michael Dunaway remembered the director in an encomium published at Paste Magazine, and Xan Brooks did the same at The Guardian.

At Screen Daily, Colin Brown took a look at the doc lineup at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Daniel Walber of Nonfics.com had a great piece on the festival’s history of ignoring docs, and Basil Tsiokos provided an overview of docs screening there for his What (Not) to Doc blog.

At Nonfics.com, Christopher Campbell had a chance to interview director Joe Berlinger about his new documentary television series on Al Jazeera America, The System. At Realscreen, Kelly Anderson also spoke with Berlinger about The System, and at the International Documentary Association (IDA) website, Darianna Cardilli also profiled the series.

This week Stranger Than Fiction is hosting a screening of the film 9 MAN from director Ursula Liang about a streetball game often played in Chinatown. The film will screen on Tuesday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at the IFC Center in Manhattan, and will be followed with a Q&A with director Liang. For more information or to purchase tickets please go here.

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Stranger Than Fiction, the weekly documentary film series hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and presented by IFC Center, begins on Tuesday with a retrospective screening of SANS SOLEIL (May 6), Chris Marker’s 1983 masterpiece. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum names it one of the key nonfiction films of our time and describes it as “a film about subjectivity, death, photography, social custom, and consciousness itself.” The screening will be accompanied by a conversation with filmmaker Jem Cohen, who cites Marker as a key influence on his own work. This presentation coincides with a month-long retrospective “Chris Marker & His Legacy” on Sundance NOW Doc Club, also curated by Powers.

The season bring many new films from STF alum to the IFC Center. Joe Berlinger‘s WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (May 13) follows the trial of the infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, using the courtroom action as a springboard to examine accusations of multi-faceted corruption within our nation’s law enforcement and legal systems. Acclaimed documentarian, Doug Block, has supported his career over the last two decades with a side business of videotaping weddings. In 112 WEDDINGS (June 3), he tracks down and interviews the more memorable of his 112 wedding couples. Marina Zenovich‘s ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (June 17) revisits the key players involved Polanski’s controversial and complex sexual abuse conviction.

9-MAN (May 20) gives a glimpse into Chinese-American community through an athletic game that has been played exclusively Chinatowns across America since the 1930s. THE FRONT MAN (Thurs, May 29) is a non-fiction rock ‘n roll comedy love story about an everyman middle-class musician burdened by the desire for stardom.

The spring season closes with a special Wednesday screening of THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP (Wed, June 25), director David L. Lewis’ portrait of Nat Hentoff, a pioneer in music criticism, who has spent more than six decades championing jazz in the pages of the Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, Down Beat, and numerous other publications. A New York story, the film won the DOC NYC Metropolis Grand Jury Prize in 2013.

The STF spring/summer season will take place weekly at the IFC Center for the next eight weeks. All screenings are Tuesday night at 8:00 pm, besides the special Thursday, May 29 screening of THE FRONT MAN, and the Wednesday, June 25 screening of THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP. Each event includes a discussion with the filmmakers, followed by a gathering at a nearby bar. The STF titles for May 27 and June 10 will be announced shortly.

Tickets are available for individual shows or season passes can be bought for $99 for 9 films.

With a season pass, you receive many perks including a free DVD from Docurama; free popcorn at every STF show; assurance that you never miss a sold out show (as long as you arrive by 15 min. prior); and the ability to transfer your pass to a friend, if you can’t come.

Click here to buy the Spring/Summer Season Pass.