The street dance style known as popping combines mechanical motion with fluid artistry. At the risk of overgeneralizing, it’s truly “teaching to the choir” to explain hip hop gyrations to Filipinos, one of the most rhythmic and musical cultures to branch out of Genesis. What’s new and bold in popping is Devon de Leña, age 33, and her self-funded documentary “Battle Grounds: the hard hits of female poppers” now streaming on vimeo.
“Battle Grounds” follows Angel Alviar-Langley across gender, ethnic and artistic boundaries in her quest to found the first female popping competition in Seattle. The story takes place in urban patches of Seattle flourishing between the treads of Amazon-driven gentrification.
The film won Devon an Emerging Filmmaker Award at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, Best Short in the Best Shorts Film Festival — LA, Official Selections in San Francisco Dance Film Festival, LA Femme Film Festival, Chi-Town Film Festival and Seattle Asian American Film Festival.
Though the story is about Angel, Devon herself has emotional conflicts to plumb. She’s the product of an interracial marriage that crumbled when she was ten. She relates, “When I got the opportunity to film Angel and the ‘What's Poppin' Ladiez?!’ event, it seemed like an ideal project.
"Angel identifies as queer, mixed (white/Filipina) and a woman and was struggling not only with her identity, but also her connection to other female poppers. I'm not a dancer, but I could connect to her struggle of isolation and desire to be in connection with people that could reflect and honor her creativity.”
Growing up in a white suburb outside Seattle, she didn’t blend in with the local community of her mother, Judy de Leña, and was devalued then dismissed by the Filipino culture of her father, Dixon. Soon after his divorce, Dixon left his brood of five daughters with their mother and moved to San Francisco. His departure ignited a desperate longing in Devon to reconnect with her Filipino heritage but the affection wasn’t returned.
“As a mixed person, it's a constant struggle to find belonging inside of myself and trust that I am a whole person. I often felt marginalized from both sides of my identity. I didn't feel belonging in the white community and never felt like I was enough in the Filipino community,” Devon says of her youth.
She derived from her rootless youth the ability to reinvent herself into an adult who can pass freely into whatever new world she puts in the frame. “I see my work as a filmmaker as a culture-shifter so that more people can turn on movies and see their multi-faceted pieces of themselves reflected not through one dimensional stereotypes but through authentic and complex beings.”
The encouragement critics and filmgoers gave her for “Battle Grounds” and her personal journey have solidified her commitment to writing and directing with a purpose: “I'm a huge fan of media but can't often find characters or people in films that represent my personal identities. My vision is to weave stories of identity, resilience and imagination together so that we can cultivate authentic representations of people living at the intersections and fringes of our society.”
Stories of neglected groups aren’t the only people missing from Hollywood. The entertainment industry also needs more Devons and the empathy and social justice she brings to the profession as well as the screen.
Anthony Maddela also grew up in Seattle. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
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