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Loni Ding, Social Documentarian

Loni Ding -- documentary filmmaker, university teacher, and media activist - died on Saturday, February 20, 2010 in Berkeley, California. She exemplified the best in the way social documentarians can expand the public sphere. She did this by working to create public institutions to showcase underrepresented voices in American life, and by creating work that not only raised awareness but encouraged meaningful discussion and debate. Her film work had immediate and long-lasting impact, including influencing Congressional action on redress for Japanese-American internment during World War II.

A tireless advocate for social issue documentary, she played a central role in the creation of the National Asian American Telecommunication Association (now Center for Asian American Media), ITVS, and the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and trained a generation of mediamakers in the Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies department at UC Berkeley.

Starting out as a community arts activist in San Francisco, Loni became a media maker in the early days of community television as a producer of programs made with, for and about the people she met. From her earliest days, the lives of "ordinary people" and their struggles for social justice was the passion of her life and subject of her films, which connected past and present, and which she saw as tools for education, legislative change, community mobilizing, and public understanding.

Island of Secret Memories is a short film made for middle school children. It is a story of Asian immigrants detained on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay that is told from the point of a young boy looking for his family's past -one that resonates with immigration debates today. At the other end of the spectrum, Ancestors in the Americas is an epic account of how Chinese, Asian Indian, Japanese, Filiipino, and Korean immigrants have challenged and overcome legal, economic and social exclusion - and how their experiences are part of larger movements claiming civil rights and social equity for all Americans. (Loni was working on the third episode of the series at the end of her life.)

In an interview I did with Loni in 1992, she said, "I am interested in people's voices and faces and their own, distinctive way of being. Coming forward, being seen, being heard and given a vehicle. A vehicle that, on one hand, is realistic and shows them as they are but that also has the transforming quality of art. That gives them a frame in which they can be appreciated.

"I remember someone saying, 'If you stare at someone long enough, you could fall in love with them." That seems to me to make a lot of sense, because mothers have children who are not all beautiful! I say that the camera can do the same. The camera can and does do the same, depending how you frame people and how much time you give them and the attitude with which you approach them."

She also said, "Working in the media is not any different than other areas which have significance for the general public. It deals with power and has an effect on revealing what power relationships are like, or allowing people to get enough consciousness of what is going on that they could make some important choices."

Working with Loni over the years, I began to think of her as a kind of warrior - always going into action for what she believed in. So I asked her how she thought of herself. She was, she said, still the little girl shuttling between her parents' herbal medicine shops - one in San Francisco's Chinatown, the other downtown - on the trolley. Going between two worlds with wide-open eyes, registering the faces, gestures, and scenes all around her. A warrior with open eyes and and open mind - that's how I will remember Loni.

Loni knew the power of public media "to inform, connect and convene" from the start, and she worked for public media open diverse voices and for the media policies necessary to sustain it. She was a leader who spoke truth to power and believed that media was a tool by which communities may realize the power that resides in them. We will miss her.