On Thursday, March 18, CAAM’s Talent Development and Special Projects Manager, Sapana Sakya, sat down with filmmaker and journalist Ursula Liang to discuss her award-winning film 9-Man and her upcoming film Down a Dark Stairwell. Their conversation explored Ursula’s childhood and upbringing, as well as her inspirations and navigation through making documentaries. At the end of the session, participants had the opportunity to ask Ursula questions about her films and advice about filmmaking.
Ursula is one of the visionary Asian Americans we are spotlighting through our Storytellers 2021 series. Read Ursula’s profile here.
On Her Childhood:
Ursula was born in the state of Virginia, but grew up mostly in Newton, Massachusetts. Growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, a lot of her ethnic and cultural knowledge came from teaching herself and from making her films. She hoped that her films could reach a wide variety of audiences and create discussions both within Asian American communities and among other communities.
Up until after college, Ursula had never been a part of a Chinatown community, so when she discovered the sport of 9-man, a street version of volleyball that has its origins from China, she knew she had to follow the annual tournaments between all the Chinatowns in the U.S. With her filmmaking team, Ursula traveled across the country to film 9-man competitions, and made and distributed surveys among important figures in the community in order to “scout” or map out a narrative for the film. The post-production process proved the hardest, as it was labor-intensive on both physical and emotional ends, especially with the editing process. However, the challenge of making 9-Man, the process of which spanned seven years, prepared her for the making of her second film.
On Down a Dark Stairwell:
In late 2014, the shooting of Akai Gurley, an innocent Black man, by Peter Liang, an Asian American NYPD officer, rocked Black and Asian American communities across the U.S. Fueled by the incomplete and unrealistic representations of the mainstream media, Ursula wanted to emphasize the portrayals of both communities not as monolithic and in strict opposition to each other, but as heterogeneous and diverse in body and mind. Ursula started filming in 2016 and in early 2020, premiered Down a Dark Stairwell, hoping to reach and elevate different audiences and conversations.
On Filmmaking Lessons and Advice:
To her aspiring and fellow filmmakers, Ursula advised to budget a lot more than anticipated, especially for film scores, editing, and editors, costs of which could rack up in the post-production stage of filmmaking. She also shared that communication is critical: “One of the reasons why there aren’t a lot of Asian American films is because there is a fear of communication, because [the public] do[es]n’t think we [Asian Americans] speak the language,” she contended. Filmmakers should strive against having a fear of communication with those from different cultural or linguistic communities, and instead connect with other visionaries as much as they do with their audiences, because film projects will take a long time–hers certainly did. But they are usually worth it; like Ursula said, “Documentaries are for sure the best content coming out these days.”
Don’t just take her word for it–folks can catch Ursula and her work at her website: www.noncompliantfilms.com.
You can watch the full program below or at our YouTube Channel.
This recap was written by CAAM’s Membership and Fundraising Projects intern Lisa Lai.