Q&A: Filmmaker Joey Ally on Telling the Stories of Nail Salon Workers

Across the country, hundreds of immigrant women are exploited in nail salons. After reading an exposè titled “Unvarnished,” filmmaker Joey Ally set out to tell this little-known story in a short film called Joy Joy Nails, which chronicles a day in the life of two such nail salon workers. The film premieres April 21 at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Alley chatted with Ms. about the film’s sad timeliness, its message and its compelling characters.

To kick things off, can you tell me in your own words what this project is and what it’s about?

Yeah, sure. Joy Joy Nails is a short film that I made for the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women and it’s about a day inside a Korean nail salon on the East Coast. It’s set generally in the tri-state area on a day when there’s a deep misunderstanding between Korean front-of-house manager Sarah and Chinese manicurist Mia.

You mentioned that this film is a response to a New York Times exposé from 2015. Would you talk a bit about that?

I read this exposé my Sarah Maslin Nir a couple years ago and it details the human rights atrocities that take place inside the nail salon industry in the tri-state area, among which are the use of carcinogenic chemicals without proper ventilation or protection, people living in tenement housing because they’re paid well below minimum wage, and in certain cases, it’s become indentured servitude where the workers don’t get paid for many months. What I connected with in the article the most was the caste systems inside of these places. I saw a classic bully story, particularly as it relates to the experiences of undocumented immigrants in this country. I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to be compelling artistically, but also compelling at a human level. It was a story that I hadn’t seen before and one that I felt needed to be told.

What was your relationship to this topic prior to making the film?

I was raised in the tri-state area and I went to these nail salons growing up, and also as an adult in New York. We as a society are talking about things taking place halfway across the world, like sweatshops et cetera, when this is actually happening our back yard. As someone who has been inside of these salons, that was my way in. That person is massaging your hands, holding them, and if that’s not a human connection moment then I don’t know what is.

Without giving too much away, how do the undocumented immigrant and American Dream narratives operate in the film?

A big part of this film was realizing that what I was doing needed to be extremely intersectional. It was very important for me to listen as much, or more, than I spoke. I brought on collaborators to help make the story authentic and to answer any cultural questions because that was something I certainly didn’t come with. The basic structure of the story is drawn from the experiences of undocumented immigrants in these places. Mia, the Chinese character, experiences abuse throughout the day and she really doesn’t have any options because she isn’t “technically” inside this country. For example, when she needs basic reproductive services, she cannot do that because she doesn’t have any money or identification. The idea of living in a place that does not recognize you and thereby eliminates your basic human rights is terrifying.

And how do these themes play out in the characters themselves?

This is a universal story to me; it’s about immigrants trying to fit into this culture. It’s a objective narrative from the perspective of a Korean main character, Sarah. She is a character who has entered into American culture aggressively, and you see that in every aspect of her personage: the way she dresses, the way she interacts with customers, the way she distances herself from her Korean identity. This is a hard juxtaposition to Mia, who has more recently come to this country, has no language skills and cannot integrate so seamlessly. So the film focuses on two different stages of that process. People come here hoping there will be an opportunity to be seen and heard in a way that they were not in their own countries, or in their own situations. What’s devastating is that in many cases upon arrival, immigrants realize there are no growth or job opportunities, no job training and they’re reviled by society unless they put themselves in perilous positions. In the case of these nail salon workers, they are underpaid and abused.

As a filmmaker, you were tasked with portraying an experience that is not yours. How did you navigate this to avoid stereotyping or being colorblind?

Right, absolutely. That part was massively important to me. Believe me, I was sweating from the moment I realized I wanted to tell this story. It’s a big narrative. For me, it was about starting a dialogue and realizing that I don’t necessarily have to be the person at the forefront of that dialogue. It was important to bring on collaborators. I had Minji Kang, who is an incredible director herself, who agreed to come on as a cultural authenticity expert. She helped me with translations and she was on set with me. It was important to do this film in its original languages because this film should be watched as an authentic representation, not a falsification. The research was extensive; I read everything that was available at the time. This kind of injustice is happening all over the place. There are lawsuits. I also just asked a lot of questions. I asked questions of every person I brought on the team, of my own friends.

What is the advantage of making this story a narrative, rather than a documentary? 

Well, first of all, I’m a narrative director so there’s that [laughs.] But second of all, I made it a narrative because I think audiences connect to narratives differently than they do to documentaries. The audiences for those two genres are different in general. I thought it would be good to give the audience an opportunity to subjectively be inside this character’s experience on this day. I wanted to capture the feeling I had when I originally read the exposè. Narrative is an opportunity to create connection between people in a different way, to help the audience look through a different lens than they normally do.

In an interview, you talked about the low number of speaking roles for Asian American actors. Can you elaborate on why those statistics were important to you?

I’ve noticed the whitewashing because it has not been my experience in the world, and although I’m white, that is not my version of reality. It feels false to me. So a lot of my work now and moving forward is focused on representing my protagonists authentically, in an intersectional way that ensures we’re telling the story together, and in full. It’s not appropriate for me to paste my voice on top of other people’s experiences. The reality is that only 5.1 percent of all named and speaking roles, across film, television and digital, in 2014 were Asian American actors. That’s bonkers. There is no opportunity for good roles for Asian American actors and realizing that came to a head in making this film. The problem is systemic. Just like in life, if you walk into a room, it should not just be a bunch of white people blinking back at you. And that should not be happening on screen either.

The film has wrapped and premieres in a few weeks at the Tribeca Film Festival. Why do think its message is important in 2017?

Oh, man, you know, when I started writing it I was hoping Hillary was going to be our president. We’d be in a very different position now if she was. But we find ourselves in a position where she’s not. We’re experiencing a moment in this country where immigration has reached a critical peak. We’re not doing a good job, there’s so much anti-immigrant sentiment. Now, more than ever, we need to see stories that cover many different perspectives within our country—a lot more immigrant stories. We need to see them and walk in their shoes. This film is sadly timely. I almost wish it wasn’t hitting things so hard on the head. The film is upsetting, and if it’s connecting with our time, then that means the time is pretty upsetting, too.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I hope that they feel for both characters. I hope they feel for Sarah in her strength and in her fight to join this country, and I hope they feel for Mia as she navigates that process and that journey. I want people to feel connected to these characters, to these performances so that they’ll want to see more of them and more Asian and Asian American actors in the future.

And what’s next for you?  

Women in Film is making their first digital series called Flip the Script, which is about gender parity, or frankly, lack thereof. Those will be coming out this spring. I’m keeping busy. The space we’re living in with entertainment is still so whitewashed, and the stories are so whitewashed. With every project I make, I’m asking myself why I want to make it and where it fits into our country. How can I make it at the edges so that we can pull others into the mainstream? That’s what I’m really focused on: telling stories about protagonists that we don’t usually see and hoping that we can all meet in the middle around them. I intend to make more films that cross lines, that are intersectional. The more questions we ask of each other the better.

Alexa Strabuk is an editorial intern at Ms. and has worked as a writer, editor, graphic illustrator and editorial intern for magazines including ELLE, YES!, The Student Life and Mochi. She was recognized by the Asian American Journalists Association for her work as an up-and-coming reporter. Alexa is pursuing a B.A. in Media Studies at Pitzer College with a minor in Asian American studies.
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