Documentarian Spencer Nakasako has an unusual technique: he lets his subjects do the taping. “I give them basic instructions,” he says. “I let them film on their own for the first two or three weeks. I ask them to treat the video like a diary.”

Nakasako, who’s 42, won an Emmy for 1995’s A.K.A. Don Bonus, the camcorder journal of an 18-year-old Cambodian refugee who was then a high school student in the Bay Area. For his most recent project, Kelly Loves Tony, he handed a camera to two Laotian teenagers he met through the East Bay Asian Youth Center in East Oakland, California: Kane Ian (Kelly) Saeteurn, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and Nai (Tony) Saelio.

The movie opens with 17-year-old Kelly graduating from high school with honors. Her boyfriend, Tony, holds the camera as she talks about her dreams of going to college, getting a degree, and landing a good job. But within a few minutes we learn that Kelly is pregnant and that Tony, who works at the youth center, is a former gang member who’s facing deportation for his past activities.

Kelly and Tony took turns shooting each other and themselves, working their way through 120 hours of videotape in a year and a half. “At first it made us kind of nervous about filming our lives and stuff,” recalls Kelly. “It wasn’t fun fun, but it was an experience.”

In one scene, an increasingly irritated Kelly, suffering from labor pains, encounters several sets of locked doors at the local hospital and finally orders Tony to turn the camera off. After she’s given birth to her son, Andrew, Kelly refuses to drink a cup of ginger tea offered by her mother, rolling her eyes at the ethnic Mien tradition.

Tradition also dictated that she move in with Tony’s family to assume the duties of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law and help take care of Tony’s seven siblings. Kelly, who must juggle these responsibilities with her college courses, likens the experience to doing “ten loads of laundry. Dirty laundry–and it’s all piled up at one time and you have to finish it within two hours.”

The video, which took over a year to edit, has its funny moments, such as a series of shots of Kelly holding Andrew and imploring him to sleep. “Is he about to go to sleep?” Tony keeps asking. Kelly finally replies, “No, but he has a surprise for you.” In the next scene Tony is changing the baby’s diaper.

At one point Nakasako broke his own rule by shooting a heartfelt discussion between Kelly and Tony. “At that point the relationship was getting really hard on them,” he says. “I said, ‘Why don’t I come and film you? It’ll be one of those talk-out kind of things.’ I wasn’t there to instigate a huge argument. But I think that stuff just started to come out that they hadn’t talked about.”

By the end of the video, with the help of the youth center’s director, Dave Kakishiba, the two have worked things out and Tony has avoided being deported, though Kelly has become pregnant again and has had to quit school. Today the couple and their children, two-and-a-half-year-old Andrew and 18-month-old Jennifer, still live with Tony’s family. Kelly has a data-entry job, and Tony continues to work at the youth center.

Kelly, especially, has received a lot of feedback from audiences at the screenings she’s attended. She says it’s a strange experience to see herself on the big screen. “It makes me feel like, my goodness, I did that. It was hard because I am seeing myself and how I was. It kind of brings back the pain….Some people say that I inspire them. They see what I’m going through.”

Despite the nature of his subjects, Nakasako insists he has no ethnic agenda. “People have this misconception that I’m an anthropologist or social worker or something,” he says. “I just look for really good stories. But because of the places I hang out in and the people I come across, it just happens that they’re younger and southeast Asian and they have something to say.”

Kelly, Tony, and Dave will be present at Saturday’s screening of Kelly Loves Tony, which will be shown with Masahiro Sugano’s Hisao and Steve Yamane’s Jumping at Shadows as part of the Asian American Showcase. The screenings start at 6 at the Film Center of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Tickets are $6; call 312-443-3733 for more.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tony Saello, Kelly Saeteurn photo by Michael Chin.