Harvard student Emily ‘Etay’ Tay wants a career as a professional basketball player. But her Burmese parents, who fled to the United States with just $65 to their name, would rather see her as a devoted housewife.
Basketball is Etay’s ticket to a different future. But there’s more: she also happens to be a lesbian. This is no problem within her team – in fact, perhaps somewhat predictably, her girlfriend is a cheerleader – but how can she explain this at home? “When my mother finds out, she is going to destroy me”, Etay says.
NO LOOK PASS
A FILM BY MELISSA JOHNSON
I was a 6’4″, 127-pound 8th grade girl. Basketball saved me. Eventually, I became the captain of the Harvard University Women’s Basketball team. Sick of clichéd sports movies that were mainly told about men’s teams, I decided to make a film that de-emphasized “the big win” and instead demonstrated basketball as the tool a girl uses to figure out who she is between adolescence and adulthood. I envisioned an irreverent, funny, and deeply emotional film shot in cinéma vérité style. When I met Emily Tay, I immediately knew that this was the story I had been looking for. Basketball had saved her too.
I first saw Emily in February 2008 at Lavieties Pavilion, the Harvard home gym. I had heard about her, “The Asian Sensation,” “A one-woman Cirque du Soleil.” I was in town filming ACT AS IF, a short documentary about my friend and former coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith. While the team practiced in a flurry around me I had to quickly pick a few players to interview. My eye immediately went to Emily. Throughout my 13-year career as a player, I played with and against hundreds of young women, but that number only included a handful of Asians and no one from Burma. Emily jumped and hung in the air like a guy and made daring behind-the-back passes the likes of which I had never seen before in this gym. It was impossible not to stare. My director of photography leaned over to whisper, “You can pick whoever you want, but it’s my responsibility to tell you that the camera loves that girl.”
Coach Delaney-Smith warned me that Emily was notoriously and even painfully shy. And sure enough, when I first asked her to be interviewed, she declined. This piqued my curiosity: What athletic star, ranked Top 25 nationally for assists, brimming with cockiness on the court (at a school known for its ambitious students no less) would shirk the spotlight? What was this kid’s story? After prodding from her coach, Emily ultimately relented. She was my final interview, late in the locker room on a Sunday evening. Her nervousness gave way to an incredible recounting of her life. By the end we were all crying, Emily, myself and even my cameraman. I walked out of the bright locker room into the vacant dark gym, overwhelmed and knowing that I had to make this film.
I want to inspire people to dig deep and find the courage to live the life that they imagine. To wildly go for it, even when they’re scared shitless. Especially when they’re scared shitless. That’s what Emily’s story is about for me. Someone with equal parts talent and fear finding her way. And frankly, I took a heavy dose of this medicine myself in making what is my first feature documentary – my own long-held dream – when I didn’t know how I’d pull it off.
Emily and I are very different. But I was immediately moved when I met her – like, this good part in me recognizes this good part in you. It’s such a relief, isn’t it? To feel less alone. You don’t need to be gay or Burmese or a star athlete to get it. I wanted to help other people feel this kind of connection and encouragement and feel more of it myself.
NO LOOK PASS is a film that needed to be made and just so happened to call upon me to make it. I accept this responsibility as an honor and feel tremendously excited to share it with the world.