FORWARD Symposium Examines Asian American Storytelling Through the Years and Beyond

FORWARD Symposium

Among the diverse lineup of films and programs, the second day of CAAMFest FORWARD hosted two sessions of the FORWARD Symposium for our filmmaker community. These virtual panels, held on October 15, provided an opportunity for filmmakers and experts to examine CAAM’s 40 year legacy of Asian American storytelling, its place in our present day, and what its future may look like.

In the first session, Past // Present gathered three notable filmmakers: PJ Raval, Renee Tajima-Peña, and Grace Lee. Moderated by CAAM’s Executive Director Stephen Gong, the panelists recounted their introduction to the Asian America filmmaking community, then provided insight on their present views of Asian American storytelling during these unprecedented times.

Through the lens of their current and recent projects, the panelists reflect on how Asian American narratives have been situated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread racial reckonings in 2020. Filmmaker PJ Raval talked about his current project, a web series titled Kapwa, which started prior to the pandemic. Raval recognized a great divide within the Filipino American community, parallel to today’s political climate in the U.S.; however, what differs is how these families have drastic differences in political affiliation, “yet at the end of the day, no one is rejected for it.” From that observation comes this series that aims to explore how different families confront opposing beliefs, all set in the Asian American perspective.

Looking beyond today, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña presented her thoughts on people’s expectations of the chaos that she forecasts in the coming months. “We’re gonna see things really crash. It’s really gonna be all hands on deck.” A bit further into the conversation, she posed the question of how organizations and communities are going to react when the “lights turn back on” after this moment in time. “Who’s going to capture that? Who will be there to document?” Tajima-Peña emphasized the social role that filmmakers hold as larger than cranking out films. Many are thinking about how they will deploy their skills and networks in order to push for change.

As this session came to a close, this panel foreshadowed the next one by addressing expectations toward the future. There are noticeable parallels between the questions and conversations of the past and of the present. CAAM (originally NAATA, National Asian American Telecommunication Association) was started in the early 1980s, out of a desire to figure out how Asian American mediamakers can be empowered and how Asian Americans are also representative of the greater history and present culture of America.

To this day, I don’t think we have drifted too far from those questions. What are we looking for? What does the future look like? It was important to be reminded of the significance of gathering as a community. In recounting similar discussions during an A-Doc conference, Grace Lee told us, “We need these conversations and opportunities to come together because we know we don’t have the answers, but we can’t find them unless we come together and share.”


The second session, Restart // Reimagine exemplified this importance of coming together. This panel for the FORWARD Symposium featured director and filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy; filmmaker, educator, and community organizer Lan Nguyen; and the Senior Program Officer of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms program and former CAAM Festival Director Chi-hui Yang. CAAM’s Talent Development and Special Projects Manager Sapana Sakya moderated the conversation, focusing on what’s being highlighted due to the pandemic and racial reckoning and how these unusual circumstances perhaps made us bolder in demanding a more equitable society.

The challenges in ensuring equity for crew and obtaining the resources that are typically given to the usual set of recipients became evident to Nausheen Dadabhoy as she found herself, after college, pursuing a change in narratives. As a director of photography, whether shooting or not, Dadabhoy was often frustrated, feeling like a token person of color on projects helmed by white filmmakers, without any real power to shape the end product. “I was ‘used’ to get into certain topics told by white people,” she recalls, realizing that she would have to work outside of those systems to tell authentic stories. “We’ll take control and tell those stories since it’s about our own community.” When it came to taking full control of those narratives, the steps towards that came about naturally due to necessity. “Resources are limited. Sustainability becomes an issue. You have to become your own producer, director, [director of photography], and van driver.” Looking at today’s current climate those issues have become even more prevalent and apparent.

Outside of taking ownership of one’s narrative, many filmmakers have jumped on board to document and capture this past year’s various moments, such as the Black Lives Matter protests. With that in mind, Lan Nguyen highlights the importance of consent when covering stories that are outside of our own personal experiences. Nguyen reminds us that consent needs to be consistent throughout the entire filmmaking process, even if, “that means as filmmakers we don’t have power, and as BIPOC filmmakers, we already don’t have power over our own work anyway, so it’s hard, but we have to do these communities right.”

To foster future conversations, Chi-Hui Yang mentions a number of ways to upend and recreate the systems in place, especially putting those filmmakers who lack power and ownership into consideration. Yang starts by suggesting that “new centers of gravity” need to be created. A lot of the conflict comes from having a few filmmakers be nurtured by organizations, and a lot of that is just invisible. The question remains on how to bring more resources and funding to those organizations in order to support a wider range of filmmakers that bring forth non-dominant perspectives. There currently isn’t a solution, but Yang notes that “the current way we operate things now, doesn’t have to be the only way.”

As the FORWARD Symposium concluded, I found that these conversations cultivated an emphasis on the ever changing landscape that is film and media. Alongside CAAM’s 40 years of existence, the legacy of Asian American media in the past four decades has consistently transformed, in part, due to the significance of gathering as a community, either through events like these or through collaborating and sharing our own films and ideas.

The movement to promote and elevate Asian American voices stemmed from the questions proposed by Asian American mediamakers then and those questions are still grounded in the pursuit of representation and equity today.

As I saw in both sessions, new questions will always be asked given our present circumstances. The best way we can ensure the growth and outreach of Asian American voices and stories, is to continue to have these discussions and to continue to take control over stories that represent the Asian American experience.

The FORWARD Symposium was made possible by support of the National Endowment for the Arts. Check the CAAMChannel on YouTube for recordings of these conversations and other CAAMFest FORWARD programs.


Georami Corral is an aspiring filmmaker and a development intern at CAAM.