The 2014 CAAM Fellows and Mentors flew from all over the U.S. to gather in San Francisco for the first time in March, thanks to the support of Southwest Airlines. A. Moon, a current CAAM Fellow, reflects on her longtime relationship with CAAM, the Asian American filmmaking community, and learning about balancing life as an experimental filmmaker with a day job.
My first connection with CAAMFest, then known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), came many years ago, when, as a college student, I decided to submit a short experimental video I’d directed and produced for the grand sum of $98 to the call for entries. At the time, I had no familiarity with CAAM (then known as NAATA), San Francisco, the Asian American filmmaking community, or indeed any Asian American community. My work was accepted by the festival and programmed with a group of shorts by women. Not only was this my first screening at an international film festival, I was invited by festival co-director Paul Yi to participate in a panel discussion at the festival, and I got to pass time in the guest lounge drinking smoothies, eating Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and playing Jenga with young directors who’ve now become superstars in the Asian American filmmaking community. In the intervening years, CAAMFest has often screened my work, and its past and present staffers have helped me bring my work to new audiences in the U.S. and abroad.
As a CAAM Fellow this year, I came to the festival with the directive to “network” as this trip was intended to function as a professional development experience for me. As an experimental filmmaker—one with a day job unrelated to my art practice—I often question whether or not it is possible for me to have a “career” in this field. (I once told a new acquaintance that I was an experimental filmmaker, and he responded, “What an interesting hobby!”) The only experimental filmmakers I know with proper careers are those teaching in art or media departments, for whom developing an exhibition or screening history is part of their progress toward tenure.
Sitting down to lunch and then an initial mentoring session with my fellow CAAM Fellows (an accomplished writer, a director who has won a Student Academy Award, a Korean film industry veteran, and a highly recognizable film and TV actress), I wondered how issues relevant to their professional development could possibly be relevant to me. But happily, and perhaps surprisingly (though, as I note, I was not sure what to expect from any of this), über mentor Angela Cheng Caplan, a Hollywood talent manager, no less, had a broad and individualize-able vision of what we should and could achieve in the context of our fellowships. After attending this session and in the following morning’s panel discussion, facilitated by producer Karin Chien, all of the fellows, I think, shared a sense of inspiration, possibility, and even responsibility.
Cheng Caplan started by asking us to introduce ourselves to her and our cohort of fellows. She explained that she thinks of her clients as storytellers (or “world creatives”). She asks them: “What can only you do? Why are you writing this? Why are you the only one who can tell this story?” She encouraged us to define ourselves but to do so in a way that permits us to grow. (“It’s like playing in [the right sized] sandbox.”)
She encouraged us to choose models for our careers (“Whose career would you like to have?”), to make a timeline with milestones, to schedule check-ins with ourselves, to make a commitment to reaching those milestones, and to not dream too small (“Aim for the moon!”). She went on to emphasize the idea of diversifying: being prepared to work across different media as markets and technologies shift and as new opportunities arise.
These themes were expanded upon by the participants in the panel discussion, which was attended by a diverse audience of young folks hoping to break into the industry, industry veterans, academics, and film fans. Diversification was seen as means to create other opportunities for fulfillment and success and for earning an income. Former fellow Soman Chainani, who has just published a best-selling young adult novel, told us he tried to have a steady source of income apart from his creative work. While writing, he worked nights as a tutor. Johanna Lee, also a former fellow, worked as a day trader in Manhattan after attending film school. She says she never questioned whether it (i.e., success in the entertainment industry) would happen for her. The detours she took provided material for her as a writer and filmmaker. She ended up producing a documentary about day traders. The film opened up new doors within the film industry for her.
Chien summarized the key takeaways from the discussion: diversify, be flexible, find spaces that support risk taking, invest in yourself, and remember it’s okay to take detours. I think it was Cheng Caplan who said that in the end, it’s about living an interesting life—one in which you are happy and fulfilled. This advice can be embraced by all of us who struggle to balance a creative practice with more mundane commitments.
A. Moon is an experimental filmmaker and 2014 CAAM Fellow. In 2014/15 she will be a Fulbright Scholar to Turkey.
Travel to CAAMFest for all participants in the fellowship program was generously provided by Southwest Airlines.
Main image: (From front left): Claire Aguilar (former Mentor, ITVS), Johanna Lee (former Fellow, TV Writer), A.Moon (Fellow, Experimental Filmmaker), Sapana Sakya (CAAM Public Media Director), Michelle Krusiec (Fellow, Actress and Writer); Back row starting from left: Kim Delevett of Southwest Airlines (Sponsor), Stephen Tao (former Mentor, Executive, Bad Robot), Soman Chainani (former Fellow, Author and Director), Karin Chien (Fellowship Director, Producer), Angela Cheng Caplan (former Mentor, Talent Manager), Soojin Chung (Fellow, Producer), Kiyong Kim (Fellow, TV Writer), and Soham Mehta (Fellow, Director). Photo credit: Michael Jeong Photography.