New chapters in the immigrant story: Director Daven Gee (left) and Tupac Savaaedra (center) capture, on stage, Dhana Poudel (left) performing a scene from "Romeo & Juliet" with Jennifer Orellana. (Photo courtesy of filmmaker)

Daven Gee Docs on the New American Family

Michael Fox November 17, 2009

Oakland gets a ton of bad press but it’s a dynamic melting pot that’s on the leading edge in some surprising ways. Daven Gee and Deann Borshay Liem have found a motherlode of fresh subjects, and are shooting two documentaries in the big city spotlighting the latest refugees in search of the American dream (Dhana & Indra) and a globe-spanning extended family connected by a single sperm donor (Family 2469). Both films illuminate the changing face of the country as the 21st Century unfolds.  "I’m interested in the changing shape of American culture, especially by generations of immigrants," Gee says.

Gee, a filmmaker and fixture in the Bay Area film community from his days on staff at Film Arts Foundation, has been moving at a rapid pace since he returned from a teaching stint at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. More than a year ago, he and Borshay Liem embarked on a film about Oakland International High School, a brand new, English-only school for immigrants and refugees. The first school of its kind outside of New York, with students from 25 countries who speak 19 languages, it’s seen as a potential nationwide model by such heavy hitters as the Gates Foundation.

"It marks a new chapter in the American immigrant story," Gee says.

Gee and Borshay Liem originally envisioned a hugely ambitious film about the institution before honing their focus to two students, one born in Bhutan and the other in a refugee camp in Nepal.  "We’re seeking the right balance between exploring the school and exploring the background of some of the families," Gee explains. Approximately 60,000 Bhutanese now live in the U.S., including 5,000 in the Bay Area. With the plethora of high school films coming out or in production, Gee is optimistic that Dhana & Indra will stand out in part because of its Bhutanese characters.

In the course of earning the trust of Indra and Dhana and their families, the filmmakers had to respond to the real-world issues that trump any film.  "These families arrived in the summer of 2008 and then the bottom fell out of the economy," Gee says. "It’s really intense spending time with them, giving driving lessons and taking them to job interviews and finding part-time and summer jobs for the kids." At the same time, Gee reports, "Indra and Dhana are very cosmopolitan and worldly in their associations and references. The kids are far less sheltered than most American kids of their age that I know."

Gee and Borshay Liem are co-directing and co-producing Dhana & Indra —we’ll catch up with her separately, before the festival premiere of her nearly completed In the Matter of Cha Hung Jee —while Gee is helming Family 2469 solo. "It grew out my relationship with some friends who knew I was a sperm donor," Gee explains. The entry point is the Sperm Bank of California, while the film revolves around seven kids between the ages of one and six in five different families—two in Oakland, two in Milwaukee and three kids in one family in Sweden—who call one another sperm brothers and sisters.

Four of the families are headed by two moms, interestingly. Despite the geographical distance, a remarkable bond has been created. Gee says, "Would five households headed up by gay men choose to relate like this? Probably not. [The lesbian mothers] have very developed and very compassionate ideas about wanting their kids to identify with the other children as family and seeing each other as family. As the women have gotten to know each other they realize they really care about each other."

The Sperm Bank has been around 20 years, and the first meeting between a child and his donor-father occurred recently. The children in Family 2469, when they attain a certain age, will likewise be offered the chance to contact their donor. Gee would like to be there. "One of my hopes," he confides, "is that this is a longitudinal piece in the vein of 7 Up. I say that carefully. It’s a mammoth work."
For more info about Dhana & Indra, visit

Notes from the Underground

Gannett will distribute one million free DVDs of Megan Mylan’s Academy Award-winning documentary short Smile Pinki in newspapers this Sunday, Nov. 21. ... Jennifer Kroot’s documentary It Came from Kuchar, which screened last weekend at Other Cinema, will receive a limited theatrical release after the first of the year, including an engagement at the Roxie. ... San Francisco is one of the eight cities where, on Jan. 28, the Sundance Film Festival will screen selected entries from its lineup. The local venue will be the Sundance Kabuki, of course. ... Focus Features’ 2010 slate includes Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff as a troubled Hollywood actor who receives an unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) at his Chateau Marmont abode. ... The Oscar shortlist of 15 films in the running for the five Best Documentary Feature nominations is due any day.

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