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October 4-10, 2006

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'The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam'

Disappearing act: For her documentary 'The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam,' Anne Marie Fleming had to uncover her family's mysterious past.

Pacific Pleasures

Anne Marie Fleming documentary 'The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam' shows at Pac Rim Festival

By Laura Mattingly

'IN SOME WAYS, I completely reanimated this life that had completely been lost," says Anne Marie Fleming, writer and director, researcher and animator of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, a documentary about her great-grandfather, which shows on Saturday and Monday as part of this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival in Santa Cruz, which shows runs Oct. 5-11. A magician and world-renowned vaudeville celebrity of the early 20th century, Long Tack Sam, had somehow slipped between the crack of the East and West into complete obscurity, until Fleming's documentary proved that some family secrets are worth dredging up.

Fleming spent six years interviewing relatives, professional acrobats and historians of magic and eventually taking her journey to China, the birthplace of her great-grandfather. The film functions as a family scrapbook that provides fragments of information alongside intriguing holes in the historical record. The Chinese-born Long Tack Sam married an Austrian woman, an unthinkable feat at the time, which their friends refer to as a "great love." Their two beautiful daughters became performers as well, and were often the main attractions of the magician's shows. Many people Fleming interviews can still remember witnessing the family's dazzling feats. But the more people Fleming asks about who her grandfather was, what family he was from and where he learned his trade, the more varied answers she receives, causing Fleming to strongly suspect Long Tack Sam to have been perpetually creating and re-creating his own history and mythology throughout his life. Fleming presents the many treasured pieces of her family history by using comic books, old photos and various techniques of animation, giving the entire film a quirky, tactile quality. It is a joy to view.

Some of the animation technique Fleming uses is experimental, inspired by a film Fleming saw transforming the paintings of artist Jack Shadbull, involving the re-creating of a photo's background and then repositioning the foreground figures, cutting them out and moving them in the fashion of paper dolls. "I ended up working with a whole bunch of animators and artists, which I don't usually do," says Fleming. "I usually do all my own stuff, so I ended up with all of these different techniques and all of these different styles, which I think kind of suits the subject matter perfectly."

The hodge-podge of techniques evokes the spirit of her great-grandfather's show. As an animator, Fleming considers herself to be carrying on the family tradition, likening her great-grandfather's amazing feats to her own ability to transform the image for the sake of captivating an audience. Ultimately, the film provides a lesson in the phenomenon of resurrection. To make it, Fleming swam against a tide of language barriers, the passage of time and the sometimes irreparable fragmentation that results from an immigrant experience where each individual embraces the aspects of their old lives that their new home allows while burying others.

Movie Times The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival, plays Saturday (Oct. 7) at 7pm and Monday (Oct. 9) at 4pm at the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. For a full festival schedule, go to

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