Painted Nails, a feature-length documentary film by Dianne Griffin and Erica Jordan, is equal parts immigrant and activist story. Following the daily life of Van Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant and nail salon owner in San Francisco, the film captures first-hand the fear and isolation felt by nail salon workers exposed to the dangerous chemicals in polishes each day. What begins as a day-in-the-life portrait progresses as Van learns the health risks posed by salon chemicals such as Formaldehyde, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), and Toluene known to cause birth defects, asthma, and cancer. By the films completion, she summons her courage to testify in Washington and confronts her fears for her unborn baby.
The film has its New York City premiere at the Village East Cinema as part of the 39TH Asian American International Film Festival Sunday, July 24 at 1:30 PM. Ticket can be found here. I caught up with Dianne Griffin and Erica Jordan leading up to the film’s screening to interview them about their filmmaking process as well as learn more about this pressing issue.
Tell me how you first encountered Van. When did you decide to tell her story?
We were initially fascinated by the proliferation of nail salons in the United States, the women who work in them, and the affordable luxury of a mani and pedi so many women desire. When we entered the nail salons in San Francisco with translator and associate producer Nhung Pham, we realized the story was much deeper. Both of us are interested in creating character-driven documentaries, and we went in search of a nail technician who was willing to tell her story.
After interviewing several manicurists, we met our main character, Van Hoang. She immediately made it known she had nothing to hide and generously invited us to document her inspiring journey over several years. The development of a trusting relationship with Van Nguyen, as the main subject, was the defining element in creating Painted Nails. Van and her husband Triet welcomed us to document intimate moments of their lives, allowing the viewer to witness their personal and political transformation. While making Painted Nails, it became clear to us that Van’s story encapsulates the stories of so many nail industry workers and the millions more women who rely on their services.
The fight for safe cosmetics is a real legislative necessity. Why do you think regulation has not passed?
We can’t supply accurate, current reasons why regulation has not been passed. We understand that the cosmetic industry is vigorously fighting legislation with the money to lobby their side. For more information, please review the attached information from California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and Womens Voices for the Earth. Also, if you have a chance, you might want to listen to an NPR radio show “Your Call” we did with Janet Nudelman from Breast Cancer Fund. This is also a good article by Dr. Frank Lipman on the blog “Voice of Sustainable Wellness”.
There is a real diversity in the nail salon which makes me think of this film as an immigrant story – African American, European, Latino, and Asians all together. Is it unique or surprising to see such a crossover in clientele?
The diverse, cross-cultural environment in Van’s salon, can be seen in many urban nail salons in predominantly working-class neighborhoods in the US. Van’s salon, New York Nails, is located in a once dynamic multi-cultural neighborhood (predominately Latino), which is now becoming gentrified, where residents struggle with exorbitant housing costs. Van’s salon remains a welcoming refuge where women share their experiences with each other and enjoy being a queen for a couple hours. As one customer says in Painted Nails, “I work hard for others and I deserve to have something done for me. That’s why I get a manicure and pedicure.”
While making the documentary, we witnessed an intimate, often non-verbal, connection between manicurist and client. Even with Van’s limited English, her clients feel the caring service she gives through manicuring and massaging of their hands. Many of Van’s regular customers have a sincere respect for her skill as a nail technician and are very loyal to her salon.
While making Painted Nails, we became very intrigued with the decorative art Van and the other manicurists create with great precision on each nail —miniature painting that might include gold stars, flowers, glittering palm fronds, or frolicking blue dolphins. Van’s clients are often interested in receiving or repairing long acrylic or gel nails for these intricate designs. There is a commitment of time and money involved in maintaining these embellished nails. We can not comment on the cultural differences in regards to designs, but we do know the influx of immigrant nail salon technicians with very competitive prices beginning in the 1990’s changed the professionally manicured nail – once only enjoyed by the wealthy and now an affordable luxury for all. Below is an excerpt from an editorial in Essence magazine in 1995, which still seems relevant today:
“Our hands have cuddled babies’ soft bottoms and eased the ache from men’s broad backs. We’ve cooked banquets when no place was set for us at the table. Our hands: hard-working, but cared-for. Polished nails were our pride, our beauty statement. We did them ourselves when we couldn’t pay a professional. But today manicures are affordable and nail coloring an art.”
A great source of information about the history of the manicured nail is in a book by Suzanne E. Shapiro – “Nails — The Story of the Modern Manicure.” The last chapter “Adornment Unlimited – 1990 through Today” is a great resource for current trends in nail designs.
What are the major loopholes that continue to allow for toxic chemicals in nail products? What is the current standing of the “Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act”?
Again, we are not the authority for current information on the details of legislation. Please refer to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for specific quotes. They are a great resource.
Painted Nails is a portrait and an issue based film. How do you see Van’s story inspiring others in the future?
It was our intention to make Painted Nails, a film not only about the toxins in the nail industry, but to share a multi-layered immigrant story. We wanted this documentary to shatter stereotypes and allow the audience to connect with, and care about, another person’s struggles and triumphs on a very intimate level.
We believe Van’s story is extra poignant because she is an immigrant and came to the United States with the assumption that she would be working in a safe environment. Audiences are very inspired by Van’s journey, because she transforms from a nail salon worker to an advocate. She found the courage to speak out in order to protect her unborn child, her own health and the health of her family and other salon workers. Unraveled are the layers of a seemingly shy woman from Vietnam, who realizes she has something powerful to share with the world.