Asian Americans in the South — A Remix

Emmy-nominated mediamaker Saleem Reshamwala reflects on attending the first convening of Asian American filmmakers in the South.

Editor’s Note: The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), along with the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) and UNC-TV (Public Media North Carolina), hosted “Beyond Borders: Diverse Voices of the American South” with generous support from JustFilms and the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on February 20, 2018.

Below, Emmy-nominated mediamaker Saleem Reshamwala reflects on attending the convening.

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Confession: At times I’ve been doubtful about unified Asian American-ness as a concept. 

My mom was born in Japan (she’s half-Japanese, half-white), and my dad was born in Mumbai (Indian, and says there’s some Persian in there somewhere). Indian and Japanese cultures are PRETTY DARN DISTINCT (generalizing here, but tell a mixed group of folks from India and Japan that you are starting a party at 7pm, and ask them what time they feel it’s most appropriate to actually show up….There’s some very different cultural norms among my own relatives). 

Illustration by Saleem Reshamwala.

But after 9/11, when the U.S. started holding Muslims in Guantanamo without trial, some of the strongest protesters were from the Japanese American community, especially folks who had been interned or had had relatives interned during WWII. And I started to see the benefits of sharing experiences as an Asian American community. 

And at the first convening for Asian American Filmmakers in the South put on by CAAM, Southern Documentary Fund, UNC-TV, and others, I felt for the first time how much good can have from just having a ton of Southern Asian American creatives in a room together. 

For Asian Americans living in the South, there can be a few distinct pulls at geographic identity: An obvious one is to Asia, where someone in all our families (or family’s past) is from. And then there’s Southern-ness (I grew up eating a lot of Bojangles). But for many of us, there’s another pull, toward Asian American cultural hubs, which for many people means New York or the West Coast. 

As Asian culture and other cultures in the U.S. have been constantly remixed, and Asian American influence has increased in creative fields, it can feel like those coastal spots are the cores, where the street culture pulses, where neighborhoods have been recreated, and where we might feel most like we fit in. G Yamazawa, a Durham, NC-born emcee who is now based in L.A., once told me that when he went to California, it just felt good to look around and ‘not be the only one’ (last year we shot North Cack, a Yamazawa-led shoutout to his home state). 

That feeling of being the ‘only one’ can be real for Asian American creatives in some parts of the South (though the South’s population is shifting pretty dramatically).

I grew up pretty rarely seeing folks who looked like me in general, and even less so in creative communities. For so many of our creatives leaving the South, there can be a sense that once you hit a certain point, it’s time to graduate to L.A. or N.Y.  

I’ve lived in Brooklyn in the past myself, but living in N.C. keeps me close to stories (and characters) I grew up around. Staying in the South is an opportunity to be part of a wave of Southern storytellers coming from a perspective that hasn’t been seen much on the national level. And even though it can feel a little isolating, you’re forced to learn creative ways to tackle all aspects of filmmaking, often teaming up with non-filmmakers and playing multiple roles.

Illustration by Saleem Reshamwala.

But this was a crowded, diverse, room full of working Asian American filmmakers. In North Carolina! Something I had, personally, never seen. One of the things I kept hearing from other people at this event was that it was nice just to be in a room where you don’t have to keep explaining yourself. 

As we move forward creatively, it’s going to be important to keep that feeling as a strength, that feeling of not worrying about if everyone gets it. We get it, and we’re enough. 

Not everyone in the room was a filmmaker, and that actually strengthened the brainstorming (and was a reminder that when your community isn’t too large, being creatively inclusive is a necessary and good thing). At my own table, theatre artist Kimi Maeda told me about touring with her show, and we discussed ways that might filmmakers might use similar tactics of combining screenings with workshops at universities. 

And in the room’s group discussions, we talked about the idea of making swap blocks at festivals—where culture-specific film festivals might make a block of films highlighting films from other cultures—figuring out ways to tap into potential film sponsors who have never donated to the arts before, and ways to keep each other aware of our work online.

Activist panelists talked about ways to support unseen members of our own communities, the need to address anti-brown and anti-Black biases in our own communities, and creative ways to approach intersectionality.

Looking around at lunch and seeing filmmakers like Katina Parker and Lana Garland, both of whom I’d just spoken with on a panel at Durham’s Hayti Film Festival (one of the nation’s longest-running Black film festivals) made me feel really hopeful about future connections between filmmakers in North Carolina. Moving forward, I want to see Asian Americans making a strong showing in the audience at Black and Latinx film festivals so we can build links between different filmmaking communities over time (while catching fresh work by amazing filmmakers). We need to support and show up and learn.

Illustration by Saleem Reshamwala.

Several participants mentioned having had difficulty finding mentorship, both from peers and more experienced filmmakers, and it felt like a lot of those connections were starting to happen in the room. I saw participants making concrete plans to meet up again.

And that’s exciting, because we need more of this.

It’s the South, we’re here, we’re building, and we’re about to make a ton of great films.

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Saleem Reshamwala is an Emmy-nominated mediamaker based in Durham, North Carolina, who has worked with The New York Times, The Guardian and PBS Digital Studios. He also makes a ton of hip-hop music videos, and you can see his work at http://kidethnic.com.

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