To a packed room of almost 200 Sundance attendees, publicist David Magdael announced, “I look at 2020 as clear vision, looking forward. We can look backwards, but it’s looking to the future to what you guys can create.” This is CAAM’s 16th year at Sundance, and diversity at the festival has grown. The past few years – with theatrical blockbusters such as Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, and Netflix originals To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Always Be My Maybe, Asian Americans have been asking how to keep this momentum going at the start of a new decade. With the theme of ‘Shouldering the Future’, CAAM’s panel discussion at Sundance brought together leaders in the film industry for a lively discussion about the next steps in diversity and equity.
Magdael moderated a panel discussion with three influential changemakers representing various facets of filmmaking: veteran producer and Gamechanger CEO Effie Brown, veteran documentary editor Jean Tsien (who is working on CAAM’s Asian Americans), and Netflix Director of Independent Film Sheroum Kim. Instead of rehashing the perennial question of how Asian Americans can make it in entertainment, the discussion quickly went to the next level – focusing instead on sustaining investment, nurturing emerging talent, and increasing the diversity of stories.
“We have a little bit of a moment right now,” remarked Sheroum Kim, marking Netflix’s second year participating in CAAM’s annual Sundance event. “I want to make sure that this moment doesn’t just stay a moment but becomes a movement.”
Panelists shared about the obstacles they encountered in their early days. Tsien, who arrived in the Bronx from Taiwan as a child in 1972, told a story about a famous producer questioning her qualifications because of her accent and declared, “I embrace my Chinese accent. I cannot change it.”
Brown recalled a highly publicized 2015 debate with Matt Damon on the series Project Greenlight about diversity behind the cameras. “When you do speak truth to power, there are some repercussions,” Brown advised the audience. “You do have to weigh it, make sure you’re ready to handle it.”
The obligation to the next generation came up often in the discussion. Many panelists talked about the influence of youth-oriented projects and the lack of relatable characters when they were younger. Kim quipped that “In one generation, these movies went from Long Duk Dong to Erwin Kim,” referencing a character in the teen film Edge of Seventeen.
Across the board, panelists praised the next generation. “They’re so bold about what they want, what they need and they’re unafraid. And I think it’s partially because of how they’ve been able to grow up,” says Kim. “For them, seeing Hailey Steinfield and Hayden (Szeto) is not a thing. Seeing Noah Centineo and Lana (Condor), seeing multicultural relationships, that’s their everyday and that want to see their everyday represented.” [referencing the films Edge of Seventeen and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, for which Kim was a production executive]
But many expressed that there’s still more room for change. Magdael brought up concerns with the continuing underrepresentation of Asian leading men. The conversation got real when CAAM board member Paula Madison mentioned that Asian American youth have the highest rates of suicide and bullying in schools and posed the question:
“In shouldering the future, do we feel a responsibility to keep in mind those statistics that I just cited, and understand that in the spirit of creativity we might want to cast an Asian young man or woman a certain a way, or do we have a responsibility to be mindful in how all this is playing out in how they are depicted and demeaned in general media? Do we not have a responsibility to be mindful of that and push hard?”
No one had easy answers, but Brown pointed out building alliances with other underrepresented groups is key for communities of color to break beyond the constant struggle to for better representation. “There’s no way for us—and I mean us as a people all of us,” said Brown, gesturing her hand in an inclusive circle. “We’re not going to be able to make the change we need until we pool our resources together and stop siloing ourselves off.”
Tsien reiterated that mentorship and financial support is key to developing up-and-coming filmmakers, not just for those who are already known but for the newest ones. “Catch them when they’re really young—the high schoolers, the teenagers,” she urged. “We need to support community workshops, to really give them the tools so they can see the possibility to tell their own stories.”
Magdael closed the discussion by telling the crowd, “Take the risk. You will fail but you will also succeed… It’s our time right now.”
‘Shouldering the Future’ panel was one of many Asian American focused events at Sundance. CAAM has partnered with other Asian American organizations such as Visual Communications (VC), CAPE, Kollaboration– and this year also A-Doc and Asia Society to organize an APA Experience– a day-long on the first Sunday of festival to celebrate Asian American makers and artists at Sundance
Special thanks to Karim Ahmad, Director, Inclusion & Outreach at Sundance Institute; Netflix, CAAM Board Members Naja Pham Lockwood and Paula Williams Madison; and the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience organizers for your partnership on this program; Brown Estate generously provided the wine for the Shouldering the Future reception.