How Ursula Liang Learned to Make Documentaries Without Going to Film School

The New York filmmaker learned by doing, to create documentaries that illuminate the experiences of East Coast Chinese communities.

Ursula Liang knows a good value. Although she knew early on that she was interested in producing video, she didn’t want to saddle herself with tens of thousands of dollars in debt—per year—for film school. Instead, she looked for employment where she could learn on the job. Her first position was as an assistant at ESPN The Magazine, where she wasn’t just answering phones, but constantly observing the decisions that were being made all around her.

By 2006, she worked her way up to editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, where she learned some basics of videography from Shayla Harris (co-director of the recent PBS documentary The Black Church). “She was still very much a print person and sort of getting her head around the mechanics of how to shoot and work the camera,” says Harris, noting that Liang “retained this tenacity that I think she had as a journalist, always being sure to ask questions and get to the heart of the matter.”

Liang took advantage of her employer’s educational benefits to study Spanish and editing. She also immersed herself in the film community of New York City, buying a $100 pass to a series of documentary screenings and talks called Stranger Than Fiction (rebranded in 2019 as Pure Nonfiction at IFC Center). She credits other Asian American filmmakers, like Marilyn Fu and Azon Juan as her mentors.

But she was clear-eyed about the struggles of the journalism industry, especially the legacy media companies. When the Times started offering buyouts, she decided it was time to pursue her vision of independent filmmaking. “I decided to volunteer for a buyout,” Liang explains. “I used some of that money to apply to making the film. And that gave me a little bit of cushion.”

Ursula Liang family photo
Ursula Liang (in red) with sister, brother, and parents in undated family photo. Image courtesy of Ursula Liang

The project she had in mind was inspired by another lifelong passion: volleyball, a sport she played while growing up. Liang was raised in a mixed-race (her mother was born in Germany and her father was born in the United States to parents from Beijing and Guangzhou) family in Newton, Massachusetts—a town just seven miles outside of Boston, but with one Chinese restaurant, it was a world away from Chinatown. She comes from a long line of doctors and nurses. Her father was a doctor and also an ebullient storyteller and an oil painter who took her to museums and origami classes as a child. After graduating from the University of Michigan where she majored in African American Studies and Psychology and played club volleyball, she joined a city league in Boston, where she learned about the Freemasons. “Some of the teammates that I ended up playing with were like, ‘Oh, wait a second. You’re Chinese, you should come play with us in this league,’” says Liang.

Her older brother Peter was another a talented high school volleyball player, honored in the Boston Globe’s All-Scholastics section. He also moved back to Boston after college and joined the men’s Boston Knights team, which played the fast-paced Chinese variation, 9-Man. The game was a holdover from the days when U.S. restrictions banned Asian women from immigrating, keeping Chinatowns largely bachelor societies. Through these experiences, she learned that this league was much more than a sport. “As a storyteller, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a great story,’” Liang realized, recognizing that the original players of the game from the late 1930s were getting advanced in age. “I really didn’t necessarily think it was my story to tell,” she admits, adding that “nobody else was telling it, so I felt forced and compelled to make the film.”

By that time, Peter had moved to California, where their sister Stefanie (part of the Grammy-nominated band Alphabet Rockers) also lives. While visiting, Liang introduced herself to New York filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal after the screening of Wo Ai Ni Mommy at CAAM’s 2010 festival (then called the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival or SFIAAFF). “I said, you know, if you need any help with anything, here’s my information. I’ll send you my resume,” recalls Liang. “We met together, and I worked with her for a year for free. She really taught me everything.”

But the way Wang-Breal remembers it, the learning went both ways. Liang taught her insights from the world of journalism. “She thinks so differently than me, more outward facing and about putting myself out there,” says Wang-Breal, who also hired Liang as a co-producer for her next documentary, Tough Love.

Even without attending grad school, Liang built a network of other filmmakers, many of them Asian American and women of color, which helped her direct and produce her first documentary 9-Man, about the tight-knit men’s volleyball circuit based mostly in North American Chinatowns. Harris, the video producer she met at the New York Times, was also a former high school and college volleyball player and went along during the beach tournament scenes for 9-Man. By the time the film was completed, she had deepened her connections with other filmmakers and developed her relationship to Chinatown communities. “For me, someone who grew up as a mixed-race person, every bit of membership or exclusion that I experienced in the making of that film was really felt in different ways that were beyond the filmmaking part of it,” says Liang.

Ursula Liang CAAMFest
Ursula Liang with composer Scott Jung and Justin Lam at the 9-Man screening during CAAMFest 2015

In 2015, 9-Man was screened at The New Parkway Theatre in Oakland as part of CAAMFest. “After I made 9-Man I was like, I’m not making another Chinatown film,” vowed Liang. While she enjoyed getting to know the Chinese American community and eating dumplings for lunch after shoots, she felt it was harder to get funding for Asian American narratives and worried about being pigeonholed.“As we all know, indie filmmaking is not a place where you can have a very sustainable career and especially making stories about the Asian American community,” Liang notes.

But less than a year later, she grabbed her camera to film another urban Chinese community, this time in Brooklyn. There were social media posts—in English and Chinese—encouraging people to protest the conviction of a Chinese America New York police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed Black man named Akai Gurley. “ I didn’t really plan anything in advance. But when I got out of the subway, I turned a corner and I saw this enormous sea of people protesting, and it just sort of blew me away,” she explains, feeling at the time that the demonstration would be a significant event in Asian America. “The scale of the protest was unlike anything I’d seen before in my life.” Particularly compelling was the NYPD officer at the center of it all: Peter Liang. They shared a last name, and Ursula’s brother had the same first name. At that point, she felt like “all the signs were pointing” her towards documenting this moment.

Liang and her camera began spending time with both Chinese and Black activists, who were often on opposing sides of issues and sometimes on oppodsite sides of the street. The result is her newest documentary, Down a Dark Stairwell, which follows two marginalized communities thrust into the uneven criminal justice system together. It will make its broadcast premiere on PBS April 12. This verité-style film provides a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into some of the in-group conversations as well as the attempts to build understanding between the two communities.

Ursula Liang,
Filmmaker Ursula Liang, Illustration by Andre Sibayan

Currently, Liang is serving as a consulting producer to Tad Nakamura’s Third Act. Does that mean she’s getting pigeonholed? “I don’t think people are necessarily thinking of me as an Asian American director. Or maybe they’re just not coming to me at all because they think that there’s not an Asian American project to bring to me,” she says. “In conversations with people, I try to emphasize that I have a lot of other experience, that I have a fashion and art background.”

That design background often reveals itself in Liang’s choice of statement eyewear, like the asymmetrical Masahiro Maruyama frames she wore during the interview. She first spied them in a fancy optical boutique in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Then like the good Chinese person, I found them cheaper online by ordering them straight from Japan,” she laughs.



Join filmmaker Ursula Liang in conversation with CAAM’s Talent Development and Special Projects Manager, Sapana Sakya on Thursday, March 18, 2021. This program is the first in our new series, Storytellers Sessions.  The event is free to CAAM members and $10 for non-members. Join or renew as a CAAM member today to receive free admission to this program.