A-Doc Convening at Ford in New York

NYC A-Doc convening
50 Asian American filmmakers and industry members gathered in NYC for a strategic meeting as part of the Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc).

The year-old Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc) recently had its first strategic planning meeting at the Ford offices in New York with more than 50 Asian American filmmakers and industry members in attendance.

CAAM, also originally started by filmmakers and activists in in 1980, participated in this meeting to support A-Doc in developing their strategic direction with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

Everyone arrived that morning eager to see old friends and meet new ones. Well-known role models in the community like filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña (No Más Bébes), editor Jean Tsien (Plastic China), sound-recordist J.T. Takagi (Strong Island), Joan Shikegawa, formerly of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Rockfeller Foundation, filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir (I Am Evidence) and Meena Nanji (View From A Grain of Sand) were among the attendees.

A-Doc leaders, filmmakers Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs) and S. Leo Chiang (Out Run) set the stage for the day’s proceedings with a brief history on how the network came into being. The Ford Foundation’s Chi-hui Yang welcomed everyone to the Ford building and spoke of the many people in the room not just filmmakers but also people from Foundations and film organizations across the country that work to support the network.

Facilitator Diane Espaldon promptly put the group to work with two questions:

What is the biggest challenge you face today as a filmmaker?
How can we work collectively to meet that challenge in the next 3 years?

As participants with varying experience and backgrounds discussed their responses, it was clear many had common challenges. Filmmaker, Sonia Kennebeck (National Bird) brought up the ever-present challenge of fundraising and sustainability as a filmmaker. While emerging maker Nausheen Dadabhoy (An Act of Workship) expressed the need for mentorship every step of the way and CAAM-funded filmmaker Adele Pham (Nailed It) chimed in that this is especially crucial since many Asian American filmmakers do not come from a family or an immediate community of artists or media makers.

Veteran documentary filmmaker and professor Tajima-Peña brought up the inevitable glass ceiling that all filmmakers, especially Asian American ones, seem to bump up against once they have achieved a certain level of experience: the difficulty of moving to prominence in the field.

South Asian filmmaker Sarita Khurana (A Suitable Girl) brought up the catch-22 of Asian American makers deemed either too issue-oriented and at other times not social-issues-focused enough. She described the lack of space for filmmakers to create an individual vision without the need to conform to outside expectations of what an Asian American filmmaker can do.

Given these challenges, it makes sense that A-Doc was created, but now that there is a critical mass of Asian American filmmakers coming together, the next big question now is what is the focus and how does the work get accomplished?

As participants reported out from their smaller groups during breakout sessions, focusing on topics such as intergenerational mentorship, advocacy, the soul of Asian American storytelling, growing the marketshare for Asian American documentaries, and more, there were plenty of creative ideas on how to tap into Asian American funding avenues, how to create effective mentorship situations taking advantage of the A-Doc networks being built.

Filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir spoke of giving back to the community through mentorship and how mentoring someone for her has been about finding fulfillment in helping someone find the resources to take the project to the finish line. She also confessed that her selfish reasons for mentoring is to train producers and directors who she is confident can do the work well since she trained them herself.

Another strong thread that emerged was one of creating not only allies within the current funding entities but also creating better options or restructuring the current status quo of how filmmakers receive funding, recognition and or exhibition for their films.

During the closing, Tajima-Peña called on younger filmmakers to speak to their own experiences being a part of the A-Doc network. As several folks stood up to testify, it was more than clear that there is a deep need for this community of filmmakers – more than the actual work of making documentary films a reality, it is for the need to be nurtured by those who’ve come before to move the collective stories forward.

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Sapana Sakya is the Talent Development & Special Projects Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).