APA Experience at Sundance 2019 with “The Road to Decolonization” Panel

A group of diverse individual media makers and CAAM staff, board members, and panelists of "The Road to Decolonization" panel at Sundance 2019.
CAAM staff, board members, and panelists of "The Road to Decolonization" panel at Sundance 2019. Photo by Czarina Garcia.
CAAM's Sundance 2019 panel filled the room with laughter, hope, tears, and lively discussion.

It’s late January. The ground is covered in slick black ice and snow banks pour over onto the sidewalks. At every corner you turn, you’re bound to find an independent film enthusiast, a filmmaker, or maybe a celebrity because we are in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, one of the largest independent film festivals in the world.

Five people sit on stage on the left side of the photo; the CAAM logo is displayed on the screen on the right. Panelists at CAAM's Sundance 2019 panel, "The Road to Decolonization." Photo by Sapana Sakya.
Panelists at CAAM’s Sundance 2019 panel, “The Road to Decolonization.” Photo by Sapana Sakya.

On Sunday, January 27, 2019, the community joined CAAM for a thoughtful and lively panel titled “The Road to Decolonization.” The panel took place as part of the 15th annual Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City.

Moderated by David Magdael, a seasoned publicist (founder and CEO of David Magdael & Associates) and supporter of Asian Pacific American media, “The Road to Decolonization” brought together a diverse collective of minds into the Kimball Arts Center. 

Karim Amer, director of the Sundance 2019 film, The Great Hack; Marya Bangee, the executive director of Harness; Abigail Disney, chair and co-founder of Level Forward; and Tilane Jones, Vice President of ARRAY, took over the stage for 90 minutes of hard hitting, intense conversation. The room was filled to capacity with many sectors of the independent film world, including filmmakers, artists, activists, community leaders, philanthropists, and colleagues from the media arts community.

A year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, Disney co-founded Level Forward. “We’re trying to get a critical mass of women and people of color, and everybody else who’s been left out of the picture on the screen, off the screen, behind the camera and every other way represented in telling their own stories.”

Karim Amer’s said “We’re in a moment where we have to embrace who we are, but we also have to understand that we come from a lot of great places and a lot of great cultures and stories and races. We don’t really have to prove anything to anybody…I want to be respected for my heritage and who I am.”

Tilane Jones echoed Amer’s thought by telling the audience that a filmmaker shouldn’t automatically be asked what his or her experience is as a person of color but rather, that filmmaker should be asked to talk about his or her experiences as a filmmaker. ARRAY was founded by filmmaker Ava Duvernay, and distributes films by women and filmmakers of color. Jones added that what all the panelists seem to be saying is that “decolonization of the industry is multi-dimensional. It starts from the artists, from when you start to write your script, what your writers rooms look like, it goes into production and what your crews look like, it goes into who you choose as your distributor for the work that you’re creating. And also in your audience and your advocates.”

The day brought everyone together. Applause, cheering, and encouraging finger snaps filled the room in between the panelists’ words. Panelist Marya Bangee said she became especially involved in finding ways to amplify conversations from diverse communities when her “life was completely turned upside down by the 2016 election.” She adds: “How do we dig deep within our own communities of color to discuss our own prejudices, listen to each other?”

Coming from one of the world’s most recognizable last names, Disney, broke the mold to speak of a very different story. “Privilege is poison,” she told the crowd. “If you are too fragile to talk about it, it’s going to eat you alive.” Disney continued by sharing her story about feeling marginalized, but in a different context. She was a girl in a family of boys from a very patriarchal family. “Marginalization, no matter how it happens, feels personal,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve made an effort to be a listener. I’m actually starting a project where I’m going to be trying to talk about white fragility to other white people because I feel like it’s the barrier right now to having a genuine conversation.”

The room was captured by her. Disney pointed the finger at herself telling the audience that as a woman born into privilege, she promises to leverage that advantage for everyone’s fight. Now, who wouldn’t applaud that? 

Questions and discussion around business models, sustainability, and audience support came up. Amer asked, “if we don’t push to make this into a sustainable business model, that’s my worry…two years from now, that was a cool trend, then it’s over.” Jones’ response was: “We continue to organize, we continue to get together, we continue to become a movement. This is a movement. We have to look back to our past, people politically and in eery form have gone grassroots and created organizations and movements. Take every single level of that and make sure that’s the cycle we’re pushing.”

Both Amer and Jones talked about facing the internal history of the United States, including acknowledging slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. “Acknowledging indigenous history and peoples is such an important part of reckoning that this country has to have,” Jones said.

After a few closing remarks from the panel, a few questions from the audience spurred on and further bonded the community. Comments, personal stories, and anecdotes from audience members such as CAAM Board member Paula Madison, producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson of Always in Season, a resident from New York’s Chinatown, and a community advocate triggered emotional responses from many in the audience. 

+ + +

– Lansia Wann is a guest blogger for CAAM. She is the former publicity manager for CAAMFest and currently travels between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. She has worked on several film productions, at the Sundance Film Festival, and occasionally produces a festival-only radio talk show.