Breakaway: A story about hockey, visibility, and hope

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Screen capture from Breakaway.

In a world where Tilda Swinton was cast to play a Tibetan in Doctor Strange, and Scarlett Johanssen was cast for a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, it is an understatement to say that there is a lack of Asian visibility in Canadian and American popular culture. Despite the fact that Asian Americans make up 6% of the population, only 1% of Hollywood leading roles go to Asian-American actors. In the last 18 years, the only Asian women who have hosted Saturday Night Live were Awkwafina in 2018 and Lucy Liu in 2000.

When we talk about race in both Canada and the United States, it’s usually a discussion that refers to Black folks and white folks. Increasingly in Canada, Indigenous Peoples are included in these discussions but certainly not to the extent that they should be. The rest of us fall into what O’Brien (2008) refers to as “the racial middle” and Al-Solaylee (2016) calls a “buffer group.” We are neither here nor there, and our presence can be manipulated in a variety of ways to ensure that white folks and Blacks (in the U.S.) and Indigenous folks (in Canada) stay at opposite ends of the racial hierarchy. Those of us in the “racial middle” can be weaponized against Blacks and Indigenous Peoples as an example of pulling ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps (Prashad, 2000), or we can be positioned as an example of immigration gone wrong through the inflated housing market or discussions about how “Monster homes” offend Canadian sensibilities. More often than not though, we just don’t exist in the broader social imagination. We are long overdue in recognizing the “harmful invisibility” of Asian experiences in Canada and the United States (Chou & Feagin, 2015), and this invisibility is no different in hockey.

During the 2015-2016 NHL season, of the 983 players who suited up for a regular season game, only four of them identified as having Asian heritage. That’s 0.004%. In total, since Larry Kwong made his NHL debut in 1946, there have been less than 40 players of Asian decent in the NHL. Women’s hockey is marginally better with four Asian players out of the 134 players in the last season of the CWHL (3%), not counting the Shenzhen roster. The NWHL similarly had three players of Asian heritage on their 2018-2019 rosters. You might want to believe that there aren’t many Asian players because “they don’t play” or “they just aren’t good enough,” but a lot of it has to do with the long shadow cast by eugenics and the prejudiced belief that Asians just aren’t athletic (that’s a much longer story for another day). Any way you slice it, Asians don’t really register in hockey culture, which is why Breakaway, a short fictional film about a young Chinese girl who dreams of nothing but playing hockey, is such an important contribution to popular culture.

The first time I “saw myself” in Canadian popular media was when Tim Horton’s released the “Proud Fathers” commercial, where we see an immigrant Asian father come down hard on his son for wanting to play hockey. “Not just hockey all the time,” became a running joke in my household because there was truth in jest. There was a familiarity in the commercial that spoke to many of us (Fun Fact: the son in the commercial used to a own a hockey shop in Richmond, B.C. and sharpened my skates for awhile). When I watched the screener of Breakaway, I saw myself on the screen again but this time the familiarity was uncanny! Directed and written by Jenny Lee-Gilmore, Breakaway, centres itself around the story of Sammy, a young Chinese girl growing up in Vancouver during the 1970s. Sammy idolizes Barry Wong, a fictional Asian hockey player. Sammy exists at a time when organized girl’s hockey is still a distant thought and immigrant families are struggling to establish themselves in their new homeland. Hockey is seen as a low priority in Asian households at this time. When Sammy plays faux hockey in her room while listening to games on the radio, I saw myself as a child…but also as an adult. The details such as the type of food being cooked and the type of dishes in Sammy’s house are all hat tips to Asian households. Breakaway does a great job of making the viewer feel the tensions of both race and gender as they apply to hockey in only 9 minutes. This is a distinction that is often lost in feminist media: race also matters and it requires a different story. Sammy is a recognizable character for many of us who didn’t grow up in a hockey family. We didn’t have skates and sticks just lying around the house. The rink was a foreign place but we knew we wanted to be there. And, we never saw ourselves on Hockey Night in Canada but it didn’t seem to dampen the dream, at least not at that age.

Lee-Gilmore’s mother’s childhood serves as the inspiration behind Breakaway. And, because the hockey world is a small one, her mother, Dr. Kelley Lee-Gilmore is no stranger to Hockey in Society. In September 2018, Dr. Lee-Gilmore penned a guest post for us about her experiences at the 55+ BC Games. What follows is a two-part interview, with two people. Part I features Jenny’s insights about the film and its conception. Part II highlights Kelley’s feelings about seeing her story on the big screen. I think you’ll see very quickly that this is no ordinary hockey family. All photos and screen captures have been provided by Jenny. I cannot thank Jenny and Kelley enough for sharing their time and stories with me.

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Screen capture from Breakaway.

Part I: Jenny Lee-Gilmore

Tells us about your relationship with hockey.

My relationship with hockey is a big part of my relationship with my mum.  I started playing when I was 11. At the time I lived in England. My mum introduced me to the sport. She used to take us public skating for hours. One day she saw a poster saying that there was a local women’s team looking for players. My mum got very excited as she hadn’t played for about twenty years. She joined the team and I loved watching her play and seeing how happy it made her. She was a total badass. Soon I wanted to learn myself so I attended early Sunday morning practices with her women’s team. Unfortunately, there were no girl’s teams at the time so I had to join the local boys team. There were only a handful of girls and we felt a bit left out. We had to change in an equipment closet, we barely got any ice time, and some of the boys were not very friendly. It felt unfair but there was nothing we could do about it.  But I still went to all the practices – my mum would collect my younger brother and I from school once a week, and we’d drive like crazy about an hour down the motorway to the rink in Milton Keynes. She helped coach our teams too and was the only mum on the ice helping.  The rink became our second home. There was a lot of driving.  My parents drove us all over the country to play games – Cardiff, London, Slough, Nottingham, Bracknell, Peterborough. During school holidays, we attended hockey camps in Sheffield. My dad started playing too and one year we even all signed up for a family hockey camp.  Looking back, it was a big part of my childhood in England.  I think it was my mum feeling homesick and wanting to feel Canadian again.

Then we moved to Vancouver, when I was aged 13, and one of the first things we did was sign up for minor hockey. I joined the Vancouver Angels. It was a completely different experience for me. I loved being part of an all-female team where I felt included for the first time. My mum was actually my coach for a couple of years. My parents continued to drive me all over the place for practices, games and camps. I got to play rep hockey one year. When I turned 19, I actually joined my mum’s adult women’s team.  Being teammates, as mother and daughter, was really special and we even won the Division 1 championship that year (see photo). I don’t play hockey at the moment, because I’m so busy, but I am really glad that I can skate and will probably play again in the future.

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Jenny Lee-Gilmore behind the scenes of Breakaway.

How did Breakaway come about as a film project?

I was entering my 4th year of the UBC Film Production program. I was struggling to come up with an idea for a script. I wanted to make a film that I felt passionate about and had a personal connection with. My mother started to tell me snippets of her childhood when her love of hockey started. I found her story so endearing. Although she grew up the 1970s, there were many elements of her story that I found relatable and relevant to today’s climate. I wanted people to hear her story and to make a film that offered a diverse and different perspective of 1970’s Vancouver and hockey culture.

In what ways does the lack of Asian representation in films, and especially sports films, affect you personally?

I grew up in rural England until age 13. Being mixed race, I never saw people that looked like me on TV or in film. I remember the exact moment I saw an Asian face on screen for the first time. It was Sandra Oh in The Princess Diaries. I remember being so surprised that someone in a movie actually looked similar to my mother. On screen representation is so important as it helps shape our connection to existing culture, how we view ourselves in relation to society, and our sense of self. With so little Asian representation, I felt invisible. Like I didn’t matter. I didn’t even think my voice or stories were worth sharing.

In terms of sports films, and specifically hockey films, there is even less diversity. There are plenty of great films about athletes and teams winning against the odds. I am pretty sure my mum has seen every film ever made about hockey. However, almost all are about white masculinity. This reinforces the belief that hockey is not really for everyone.  There are so many other important sports stories to tell and I wanted to take the opportunity to tell an original one.

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Jenny Lee-Gilmore on the set of Breakaway.

What did you find most challenging about creating this film?

Letting go of control was a challenge for me. Having a personal story and sharing my mother’s story is not something I took lightly, I wanted to do it right and be proud of what I was creating. Most importantly, I wanted to honour my mother while also making an entertaining short film. Sometimes I like to do things alone to make sure it’s done right. I had to learn to trust my team members and I’m so happy I did as it’s impossible to make a film alone. I learned how much better an idea can become by allowing other perspectives and inputs.

The other challenge was resources. Breakaway is a student production which means we had limited money, time and resources. I had to sacrifice certain creative elements due to limited resources such as locations or shots. Many members of our team were also enrolled in other classes at UBC. Having to balance making a film with our other assignments was often overwhelming. With that said I feel extremely lucky with the resources I did have access to. I had an amazing crew who volunteered their time, an incredibly talented cast and unwavering support from my parents. They financed the film and even did an amazing job catering the shoot!

How did you go about casting the actress for Sammy?

Casting Sammy was pretty challenging. We knew we had to cast a wide net to fill such a specific role. We reached out to local acting schools, girl’s minor hockey associations and posted on Facebook and other social media platforms. Not only were we finding an actor of Asian descent but someone who could play hockey. As soon as Kailee Lowe walked in the door, I knew she was meant to play Sammy. I think one of her mum’s friends tagged her in our Facebook post. Kailee is a local hockey player with the Vancouver Angels. She had never acted prior to the film but was a complete natural and took direction so well. We hit gold finding her and it was an absolute joy working with her.

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Sammy (played by Kailee Lowe) cheering on her favourite team.

What do you hope people take away from Breakaway?

A sense of hope. The film is a comment on gender, race, class and how that intersects with sports but take that all away and it’s a story of hope. It’s about a young girl who has a dream that seems so out of reach yet due to her resourcefulness she manages to get a little closer to that dream.

I want people to connect and relate to Sammy’s struggles in their own way. I think there are a lot of people who might see themselves in Sammy’s story. And I also would like people who have privileged positions in sport, in hockey, to reflect on how they might make it a more welcoming, more accessible social space.

How can people help support the film?

We have a Facebook page where we post all our latest news. I love hearing people’s feedback on the film and how they connect with the story from their own personal experiences. Breakaway is currently doing the festival circuit and will be playing locally at the Whistler Film Festival from Dec 4th-8th 2019. We will post upcoming screenings on our Facebook so stay tuned! [Editor’s note: Breakaway is premiering at the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival on November 11th. It is a sold out premiere.]

Kelley & Jenny hockey

Kelley Lee-Gilmore (left) and Jenny Lee-Gilmore (right) with their league championship trophy.

Part II: Kelley Lee-Gilmore

How close is what we see in Breakaway to your childhood?

There are some details that are directly from my childhood – my obsession with hockey, the family pressures, and my feelings of sadness that hockey was a world beyond reach for cultural, gender, and financial reasons. We lived a few blocks from the Pacific Coliseum, where the Vancouver Canucks used to play, but it might as well have been on the moon. People like me just didn’t get to go inside. The radio became my “season ticket.” That part is true. I grew up with Jim Robson’s voice under my pillow.

What is perhaps less like my childhood is the film’s gentleness of tone. Growing up Chinese in the 1970s, in East Vancouver, was really harsh and painful at times. My brother was abusive and then my parents divorced. We ended up living on welfare and in social housing. These experiences would have been too heavy for a short film about a little girl and her love of hockey. There are hints of this but the purity of her love for the game is what is at the centre of the film.

How did you feel the first time you saw the entire film?

It was emotional. Jenny is a talented script writer and story teller. And, she has an eye for set design, which made it very evocative of our 1970s home. Beyond feeling proud of how she achieved this as a student, on a shoestring budget, and a mere four days of shooting, I felt validated. I know well the classic Canadian hockey stories like Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, have read the biographies of many NHL greats, and heard the stories of lots of young players on Hometown Hockey. These are great but none were my story. Indeed, few stories of Canadians I read or heard growing up even featured Asian people. Or we were portrayed as perpetual outsiders and not part of the Canadian narrative. We weren’t the model minority yet. We were invisible. The film made me visible and it was really moving for me to see if for the first time.

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I loved when you tweeted that your story is now Jenny’s story. Tell us about working with your daughter to try and capture this aspect of your life on screen.

It was a truly collaborative work. Jenny was the perfect person to tell my story. As well as being my only daughter and knowledgable about our family history, she gets a lot of the nuances about culture, race, and gender politics. She was born and grew up in a part of England that is not diverse. She was one of a few girls who played hockey in England and was given 30 seconds of ice time each period on a boy’s team. She is intuitive but, interestingly, she also related to a lot of the issues in the film. When we first talked about the film, I described vignettes from childhood memories. She took those and wove them into Sammy’s story. I provided some small details, like what food to have in a Chinese family’s kitchen, and what expressions people used in the 1970s (not “Yo”). But I also stepped back and let her find the narrative. There was a lot of material omitted because of the length of the film and the need for a clear arc in the story. I had to let go pretty early on. I would love to work on a feature length film if the opportunity ever arose someday. There are so many other scenes in my head that would be wonderful to bring to life including how Sammy eventually does get to play her beloved game.

Works Cited

Al-Solaylee, K. (2016). Brown: What being Brown in the world means today (to everyone). Toronto, Canada: Harper Collins.

Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2015). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

O’Brien, E. (2008). The racial middle: Latinos and Asian Americans living beyond the racial divide. New York, NY & London, UK: New York University Press.

Prashad, V. (2000). The karma of Brown folk. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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