Collaboration was the theme for this year’s CAAM Filmmaker Summit, a fitting celebration of the community that held our backs and inspired us through the pandemic. The conversations that took place over the three days of the summit, of course, spoke to the power of community but also proved to be a meditation on the many ways in which Asian American creatives can and should, through their work, hold on to what is inherently unique about our stories and resist the pressure to assimilate into the mainstream.
Session 1 – Having One’s Back: Mentorship Within the Documentary Community
On May 19, the 2021 CAAM Fellows, Bree Nieves and So Yun Um, hosted the “Having One’s Back: Mentorship Within the Documentary Community” session where they took to the mic and interviewed their mentors, Geeta Gandbhir, Steve Maing, and Nanfu Wang, asking about their early days and how they found a foothold as Asian American documentarians. Each of the mentors remembered their days of starting out and expressed gratitude for the guidance their mentors extended to them. “I think anybody who has helped me or influenced me is a mentor, irrespective of the time I have spent with them. Sometimes it’s just one conversation. They might not remember me but they have changed my life,” Wang said as she remembered her university professors, filmmaking lab instructors, and classmates.
For Gandbhir, mentorship is a means of holding the door for everyone who comes after her. It is not just a professional guidance and advice-giving relationship but a more holistic relationship that focuses on mental well being and health. It is a passing of the torch but not as foregoing responsibility but as an action that makes sure that our collective voices stay loud. “It is important to get out of the way but keep nudging your mentees along,” Maing added.
The mentors also spoke about starting out as immigrants wanting to tell stories that are unique to their own experiences. A lot of Asian American storytelling is non-linear and it can be hard to forcefully make them fit into the mould of mainstream narratives. All the mentors advised the mentees and the audience to keep working hard to dismantle the colonial lens, both as an individual artist but also as a member of a larger community.
The panel ended on an assuring note as the mentors admitted to often sharing the same anxieties and fears as emerging filmmakers, even after years of filmmaking. The need to hold each other, help the other walk through distress, and talk each other off the ledge is forever imminent and can be mitigated only when we hold onto our convictions and one another.
It is the same spirit of camaraderie and forming alliances that reverberated through the A-Doc Happy Hour that followed.
Session 2 – Beyond Resilience: More Than One Lens
May 20 started with Firelight Media’s Marcia Smith opening the “Beyond Resilience: More Than One Lens” in a bid to bring forth the “unstoppable future” that awaits documentarians of color. CAAM’s Director of Programs Donald Young moderated the panel that included Stanley Nelson, Grace Lee, Bernardo Ruiz, and Cameo George.
Inspired by Ava DuVernay (who famously said, “I have to create and be a part of the change that I want to see, and so, after I go through the period of being on every panel and being in every article about diversity, I stopped doing that a couple years ago, and I said, no more panels.”), the panel centering their intentions on action to a problem that affects all creatives, especially creatives of color. That of the lack of diversity in the leadership of public television, which translates into content that is not reflective of the demographics of this country.
The conversation around public media looked at a future, while keeping an eye on the past, in which diversity of programming is not seen as an add-on but as the core founding principle. The panelists noted that PBS’ present corporate leadership doesn’t meet this moment that demands equitable content that reaches the most diverse and the broadest audiences. The problem, as identified by the participants, who have all worked with PBS in some capacity, is systemic. George, who is the newly-hired Executive Producer of PBS’ American Experience, mentioned that there is a sharp disparity between publicity budgets of the documentary projects. This basically translates to a large chunk of the audience never coming to know of programming that they may have loved.
The panelists agreed that there was an urgent need for public media to break out of its inertia and create new spaces for independent creatives of color. Its failure to do so will result in these talents being poached by streaming platforms who are always in need of quality content.
The fiery and thought-provoking panel was followed by a happy hour organized by our collaborators at Reel South and NOVAC, where mentor Darcy KcKinnon presented the exciting works in progress from our Sauce Fellows, the new generation of Asian American makers from the regional South. The tireless and phenomenal work of our friends at Reel South was celebrated as they spoke about the Hindsight pipeline, in collaboration with CAAM and Firelight Media and debuted an exciting trailer with introductions to each of the six makers and their projects in the series.
Session 3 – A Time For Remembering
The Summit’s third and final day saw curator Abby Sun moderate “A Time for Remembering” panel with critic Daryl Chin, festival programmer Brian Hu, and filmmaker Meena Nanji.
Through a delightful conversation, the panelists looked back at the 1980s and the strong cultural register that got formed around Asian American identity through the decade. The conversation harked back to filmmaker and author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictée (1982) and how it shaped the ecosystem of Asian American experimental films from the era.
Nanji, who is an alumnus of the California Institute of the Arts, remembered the 1980s as being a pivotal time in her education of films through her introduction to the radical art movements of the 1950s and 60s. Chin looked back at his work with Film Culture magazine and spoke about his performance art through the 1980s. He spoke of the experimental art that emerged out of the decade which he was acquainted with through his curatorship of the Asian American Video Festival. Sadly, very few of these were archived within a formal context. Hu argued that the decade and its informal archiving has led to the creation of a unique relationship of the community with the archives. “It requires us to have a different kind of cultural investigation to find and discover these products,” he said.
Resonating with the mentorship panel where the CAAM Fellowship mentors spoke about the need to hold on to one’s artistic uniqueness, the panelists noted how there was a time in the 1980s when artists, who started out as being radical disruptors, aspired to be considered “normal” and longed to be co-opted within the mainstream. “This moment is the moment for people to want to be underdogs,” Nanji noted when talking of how we can mould the artistic present around the 1980s but not resemble it completely. Audiences wondered if with the influx of streamers and various other outlets, whether there exists an appetite for the “experimental” anymore.
Thankfully, Hu argues for this appetite. “We romanticise the past’s appetite for experimental film,” he said, “in fact, this instant gratification of streamers probably gives us more thrust to go looking for more experimental stuff.” The panelists, like in the Beyond Resilience panel, agreed that there is a need to force distributors and funders to take notice that there is always an audience for stories and narratives that lie outside of the usual conventions of storytelling.
Asian American stories need to exist in full—from the mainstream to the loneliest niches. Instead of covering up differences, each of our uniqueness needs to be able to tell a story and find a home for it. Just like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha continues to inspire filmmakers and artists like Rehana Zaman, we need to form a community that celebrates the individual as much as the collective. Thankfully, all our panelists from all the Summit panels are in complete agreement.
Bedatri Choudhury is CAAM’s Program Consultant.