Arts & Life, Features, Film & Television

CSULB graduate Jess Kung on their documentary short ‘Faith Alone’

Jess Kung’s documentary short “Faith Alone” began as an assignment for a documentary production course during their senior year at Long Beach State in 2019.  

Cars and trucks drive along a freeway with snow covered mountains in the background
A glimpse of the multiple road trips to the Bay Area the crew of “Faith Alone” would take on February 2019. Photo Courtesy of Taylor Vcarin-Harrell.

Now, the short is representing CSULB and competing with the likes of filmmakers from University of Southern California and New York Film Academy on KCET’s Fine Cut Festival for prizes like valuable equipment, and to be part of an emerging filmmakers showcase at Cannes Film Festival.

“When I made this movie, I wanted to put my all into it,” Kung said.

The documentary paints a portrait of The Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Silicon Valley, where Kung’s mother, Helen, is a minister. It chronicles the issues that come with being transgender, including the rest of the LGBTQ community, within the church.

They unveil the curtain on the social politics that go into being someone who doesn’t exactly align with the Methodist Church’s ideals. This bore a great deal of social ostracization for them as a place that was assumed to be home turned into a place to hide and cry. 

Despite the discouraging outside forces, Helen works towards uniting her church. 

A female minister in a purple shirt with the white collar
Helen Kung, minister of The Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, sets up for an interview for “Faith Alone” on February 2019. Photo Courtesy of Jess Kung.

But, Kung still believes that the church is a flawed institution. 

Communicating personal stories from outside of their own head was a challenging task. The stories were something Kung thought about for a long time and communicating every part of them was vital to the crew’s understanding.

“It’s a personal story and it’s the kind of thing you want to get right,” Kung said. 

Other hurdles Kung faced included pitching to a panel and the team while juggling classes and work. The team was made up of producer, additional cinematographer and assistant editor Taylor Vracin-Harrell, editor and sound recordist Tricia Baumgartner and cinematographer and assistant editor Isaura Aceves.

Two women with a camera look at a script
Taylor Vracin-Harrell (left) and Isaura Aceves white balance a shot for “Faith Alone” on February 2019. Photo Courtesy of Jess Kung.

The stories Kung wanted to tell had to begin with learning how to make documentaries. 

“The form we could learn that best at, at Cal State Long Beach, was in the film department,” Kung said. 

But they don’t consider themselves a filmmaker.

Kung’s passion for audio production runs much deeper. Audio storytelling wasn’t something that was difficult to adapt to at CSULB, it was meant for them. 

“I was always drawn to podcasting because the form lets you express things in really specific ways,” Kung said. “But I think the reporting I’m interested in is the same and when I write and when I try to make stories, they’re along the same lines.”

Kung’s work at DIG Magazine explored Long Beach’s drag scene and transgender health at CSULB.

Notes on a wall
The crew of “Faith Alone” organizes their scenes on April 2019. Photo Courtesy of Taylor Vracin-Harrell.

Their aha moment arrived when they were still majoring in film. They knew they weren’t as invested in fiction writing as much as non-fiction.

“It’s not like one is much more stable than the other,” Kung said, joking about screenwriting versus journalism.

Kung used 22 West Media’s equipment to record monologues for their documentary, which earned the publication an “honorary credit” in the film. 

CSULB graduate Tara Thomas worked alongside Kung as art director at 22 West while Kung was editor in chief.

“They wrote a lot of articles as well,” Thomas said. “I think it really highlighted the diversity we appreciate in 22 West.”

A woman sits on the ground holding a boom mic with a dog
Taylor Vracin-Harrell recording sound in “Faith Alone” as Kung’s dog, Yue Kung, stands by for assistance on February 2019. Photo Courtesy of Jess Kung.

Kung nurtured their passion for audio production under the supervision of student media coordinator Danny Lemos at 22 West. Lemos said Kung’s vision of the publication created an impact for the better and that all he had to do was approve the changes.

One day, Lemos was taken by surprise while listening to one of his favorite podcasts, KCRW’s “The Document.” 

“I remember driving along the 405 and then hearing the end of the podcast,” Lemos said. “And it said ‘We’d like to thank our associate producer Jess Kung,’ and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I freaked out!”

What began as a National Public Radio internship after graduation became a full-time position for Kung. Today, they produce NPR’s “Code Switch,” a podcast dedicated to themes of race and culture and how these factors function in our communities. 

Kung strives to see different perspectives of life in their work and the fact that the media enables this was enough to win their heart. 

“I feel like I’ve always been interested in documenting my life to an extent, but I think we all are,” Kung said. “We just found different ways of doing it.”

This article previously contained an incorrect name for a class. A correction was made on Sept. 14 at 5:54 p.m.

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