CAAM hosted a gathering in 2018 where NOVAC’s Darcy McKinnon was joined by Clint Bowie from the New Orleans Film Society Firelight Media’s Chloe Walters-Wallace and others. This was the first-ever convening of Asian American filmmakers, community organizations, and media arts organizations based in the American South. That is where McKinnon first met filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala.
CAAM started conversations with McKinnon to create a South-focused project for Asian American filmmakers and finally took shape in the form of 2021’s The Sauce Fellowship, jointly presented by CAAM and NOVAC, with Reshamwala and McKinnon as program mentors.
“Around the time of that Southern convening, I was literally a random dude with a backpack, making things out of my backpack lots of times. And then it felt like I got adopted by CAAM and the New Orleans Film Society, and all of a sudden, I was in a club and I’d see the same people here and there. Then I thought, ‘Oh, if more Asian American filmmakers can get adopted a bit by these organisations, then that’s a great first step,’” says Reshamwala of his first thoughts going into The Sauce.
“Our age group was 18 to 24. That is an age where people aren’t necessarily tied into their community-based arts organizations as much, so we started reaching out to schools. So what you see in the locations of our fellows reflects how far we reached; so North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana were very heavily represented. And I think places where we have more work to do include the Mid-South: Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and then also the Mid-Atlantic south region,” adds McKinnon.
Six emerging filmmakers were selected in January of 2021, and throughout the year they met once a month with their mentors and other guest speakers from the documentary field. With them, they developed their film projects, acquainted themselves with the ways of the industry, and the processes involved in making and distributing a film. Through it all, they provided feedback on each other’s cuts while working on their own projects. At the end of a very eventful year, through which each of the six fellows completed their short films, I caught up with them in a virtual roundtable, right in time for the premiere of their films at the New Orleans Film Festival. Sometimes, the mentors chimed in too.
The conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve probably been asked why you applied to the Fellowship. I want to know why you think your application was chosen.
Nash Consing: At the time, I lived in North Carolina. I was born and raised there. They were looking for Asian American filmmakers, so I think I fit the bill.
Melanie Ho: I think it’s because I’m passionate about telling stories from the South and I was looking for a community. I think they saw me and were like, ‘Oh, this is great, we’ll be able to build a community with her.’ I hope that they were able to see the passion that I had and believed that I would make films that are important.
Kei Matsumoto: I think because of my background. They saw that I could bring in a different perspective, being Asian American and Mexican American. You don’t see that very often, especially voices of mixed or biracial people as much as you do, you know, of the other races.
Bree Nieves: The first thing I pitched was something that involves my relationship with my mom and her being the breadwinner of the family as a Filipino woman. So I think that was interesting, the story of a breadwinning mother who is in the military. So maybe that’s why, but I’m not 100% sure. I think it was also like a bit of luck.
Sana Saif: I had a vision in mind going into this fellowship about what the documentary I wanted to make would look like. It was about my uncle, a unique story about an immigrant. We hear stories about immigrants all the time, of them making it big in the West, but you don’t hear the downside of that. I think it’s just one of those topics that isn’t really explored. I think that’s why I might have stood out.
Sarah Tang: It’s kind of funny because Saleem, once told me that he and Darcy were in conversation about the applicants and someone asked him, “Did you pick Sarah because her work looks a lot like yours?” And he was like, “Yeah.” [laughs] I do a lot of stop motion, experimental animation work. And I think that’s a little different, a little unconventional.
Saleem Reshamwala: This is a tricky thing to express. Representation is obviously super important. This cohort is of people who are somewhat “similarly different.” You can’t get away with the same tricks, you can’t just be like, “Oh, I’m an Asian in the South. Here’s a five minute movie about that.” That’s not enough, so this cohort isn’t just about that. It is about being in community together but also forcing each other to dig deeper into what makes each person’s story unique. We believed each of you would do that.
Darcy McKinnon: “There is an understanding of what it’s meant when you say Asian American, and what it’s meant when you say the South. And I think that this group of filmmakers in their work, their identities, their location, and their choices are all broadening that definition that folks might have held.
Give me one word to describe your reaction to your cohort.
NC: I guess it’s a cliché, but I would say inspired.
BN: I was grateful to be a part of a cohort.
SS: I’ll use two words. Very Cool.
ST: Warm. I immediately felt warmly towards everybody. I also instantly knew Nash would be my friend.
DM: Oh yes, when Nash, who was in North Carolina, moved to New York…As soon as he moved to New York, Sarah was like, ‘I got him,’ and scooped him up, right. So they’ve created relationships that I think are gonna extend beyond the bounds of the fellowship, for sure, which is exciting.
NC: Yes, my roommate is actually Sarah’s best friend.
What does being from the South add to your artistic voice?
NC: I think being from the South gives me a really interesting perspective as a storyteller, as a creative. There is identity after identity. In doing this project, I’ve become a lot closer to my Southern and Asian American identity, both pretty underrepresented authentically. Being from the South, I definitely know there are many stories to be told, and in telling other people’s stories, I, in turn, tell my own story. That kind of means everything to me.
MH: It’s who I am, who I interact with, who I grew up with, the food culture I imbibed. And just the kind of Vietnamese or Asian American representation within the South is so different from places that have really large amounts of Vietnamese folks, like California or even Texas.It is my identity, I can’t pull myself away from it.
KM: It tells me that I can find commonality with other people, because I lived in the South and grew up here. There are so many different communities, and yet sometimes you find yourself being the odd one out, or just not having people to share experiences with. So there is that need to touch people’s lives, to connect.
BN: My film is about my childhood in rural Florida, in the Filipino Catholic community in Niceville, Florida. The environment, like the actual lived environment, influences how I feel about my filmmaking. The natural coldwater springs, being close to the gulf. I think of the communities that took root here, coastally. And there is also the impact of the racialized US. I mean, just the fact that the South still harbours lots and lots of racialized prejudice, has impacted the way I show up in the world. So I think that impacts the pieces that I’m interested in creating.
SS: I’ve often been the only Muslim, the only Sunni, sometimes being even the only colored person in my class in South Texas. So I just felt like the main character most of the time, and that was fine. But living in South Texas has really shaped my artwork. I’m a painter as well, and all my paintings are cowboys and portraits of people in the South. I often paint on rusted metal. So it’s all very southern themed, and people wouldn’t think I’m the artist if they saw my paintings. All my family is in South Texas, like within a four mile radius. They make up my stories.
ST: The South is an eclectic place. It has given me a taste for very plain things like singer- songwriters, ballads, cowboy boots, but also this sense of out of place-ness. I look out for things that stick out a little bit. I don’t give a shit about conventions and like to be bold with colours. And there’s very little meaning behind what I choose to do artistically. That comes from the South.
And what is the idea of the South you want to show?
NC: That it’s not all redneck, not just the side that lost the Civil War. I mean, we’re hundreds of years further from that, and even though we still see the impacts of that today, there’s other stories that are meant to be told. Growing up being the only Filipino kid in my class, I always wondered, who’s going to tell my story? So I definitely want people to see Southerners as folks who look like me. The South I show will be Hickory, North Carolina where a Hmong family that’s three generations deep at this point, lives. I want to repaint the South to replace what we’ve known it to be, over and over again.
MH: A nuanced South. I want to make things that show folks who aren’t often on the screen. So folks of colour and communities that they’ve made here in the south. And also the food cultures they’ve created in the South.
KM: Just something that is not the way the media portrays us to be.
BN: The idea of the South I want to show has a lot more to do with community and family. I want to make space in the location rather than looking at it from an angle of patriotism or nationalism that is connected to whiteness. I’m a queer person who is a part of the Catholic community, but also sitting on the outside of a lot of these conversations. So I want to think through the problems of Christian thought in the South. I want to explore beyond just being an AAPI. I am, in between blackness, in between indigeneity. So my films will have to sit between a lot of identities.
SS: I keep coming back to the immigrant thing. We come here from Pakistan, to the South. Is it much different from back home? Like, the weather is very similar, the landscape in the region I’m from, in Pakistan, is similar too. I think I just want to share, in my films, how we’re more similar than we are different. And art really helps capture that, especially documentaries.
ST: The South has been boiled down to this monolithic image of whiteness, racism and bigotry. And the fact is, when we view the South in that way, then it erases my experience as a Southern person. Because then I’m only ever a victim of the South. And I’m not. I grew up there, it’s all I know. So I feel like I’d like to reclaim the South for myself. And I’d like to be able to recreate the South in my own image even when a huge part of my experience in the South is all racism and bigotry.
How has The Sauce Fellowship inspired your voice? What is your biggest takeaway?
NC: We know representation matters, but to see people next to me, who are my age, who look like me, to have mentors guide me, it’s great. This is what the industry will look like. For the last like eight or nine months, we have all been together, going through everything that’s happened this year. When the Atlanta shooting happened, we had an emergency meeting. And not only were we able to be together as filmmakers, but we were just able to be there as Asian Americans from the South, looking at Atlanta. That is the core memory of this fellowship for me. Because, at the time, I went to UNC Chapel Hill, a predominantly white institution, and I couldn’t mourn openly. We were all able to basically have a crying session, which I think was really helpful for all of our processing as we all tried to navigate our space.
I’m very new to the documentary community, I’m very new to the journalism community, and to be able to foster these relationships, whether it be through my mentors, or through my peers, is invaluable.
MH: When we were presenting our initial ideas, Saleem and Darcy kept telling us to be weird.
SR: I think I literally said, ‘Let’s get weirder’ multiple times during this residency. And they did! They got weirder in a great, beautiful way.
DM: My eyes would tear up every time we’d meet because they’re so great. It was just so great to be able to be in process with these emerging filmmakers, who were nervous and excited. And to witness their process of discovery, and to be on that ride with them was just really, awesome.
MH: I’m an experimental filmmaker and it was huge for me to hear that from folks that are running the programme. So I think that’s a huge takeaway for me. To just have fun with it. I really am excited to work with my cohort fellows on future projects. I hope that we have the chance to create something really fun and really, really exciting, really meaningful.
SR: Oh man, I was getting Uncut Gems vibes from some films, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding vibes from some, and Jim Jarmusch vibes, and that’s a very wide range. That was super fun to have. People are going to be surprised by these films.
KM: The most valuable thing was to not be scared of shifting perspectives. My film is mainly about my sisters and my mom and one comment that I got was, maybe I should focus a little bit more on my parents. Because their story was so beautiful. I was trying to not make it about me at all, but then someone said maybe I should be more included in it. I learnt how to take constructive feedback, and really apply it to make changes for the better.
BN: It taught me that even if you think you have a really solid idea, you should probably follow where your heart wants to go. Then my uncle passed away and it was very traumatic but it led me to creating a new piece. And then that ended up being really awesome.
Seeing how well-rounded the mentors were, was really cool to me and kind of reminded me about how much of a hustle this industry is. But you could still be doing something creative, and pay the bills, and that’s totally awesome. Having a cohort with competitive stories is also really important, because it lets you dial down and figure out what you want to say, because you have other people saying what they want to say. It’s compelling.
SS: I think it helped me focus on what I want to do. I never had that before. Like this whole thing I’m talking about, like making films that capture the immigrant experience, the children of immigrant’s experience…I didn’t have that before coming into this fellowship. And now I kind of know that that is what I want my films to be about. I will definitely be applying to a lot more fellowships after this, because I didn’t know what fellowships were before this one.
ST: I think it’s made me feel a certain type of legitimacy around my voice that I’ve never held before. I mean, there is the imposter syndrome thing that so many of us feel all the time, forever, and will probably always feel that. Having people like Saleem, Darcy and the other filmmakers in the cohort who are making really incredible work…to have them in my corner validates my voice, inspires me. The camaraderie that I feel between all the people involved. I have this kinship with Melanie and Nash, I feel really tied to them as collaborators. I know that on the next thing I make, even if they’re not on set, I’m going to be texting them about it, asking for their input, you know, basically. That goes for every other fellow as well. I feel like the mentorship that Saleem and Darcy have provided has been really invaluable for me. I’m not somebody who has a lot of ties to the Industry, the capital I industry. I don’t know if they realise it, but I’m going to be in their inbox probably forever. And I hope that’s okay.
Imagine there are no restrictions on budget, theme, or anything else. What is your dream project?
NC: I think one of my dream pieces would be to do a self-reflective film about me, going back to the Philippines, and understanding who I was before I existed here. I would love to be able to go back, and to learn myself, and to learn my history and my family’s history. And I want to be able to document that, not only because it’s important to me and my entire family, but also for other kids that grew up in similar circumstances that I did, that are not as connected to the roots as much as they would like to be.
MH: I don’t know if there’s a specific topic right now. But for me, I would really love to work with my friends from undergrad and the people in this cohort. If I could possibly, in any way, get them together and have us all work on a film together on a topic that interests all of us, I think that would be a dream for me.
KM: I would say, expanding on my idea, and interviewing other mixed, biracial people, and having many voices in one project where people are connected through this one shared thing of being from the same cultures and backgrounds, but seeing how different they can be when they grow up in different parts of the country.
BN: I’m actually working on one of my dream projects right now. I essentially live dream by dream. So I have top level dreams, then I have tangible goals. The dream for me is to continually make films about women of colour in the Catholic faith, make them funny and show my voice. And then hopefully, from there, I’ll come up with another dream.
SS: My friend met this man at Whole Foods, where she works. He’s a painter that paints landscapes of Antarctica as they erode with time. I want to make a film about him, about him creating this artwork about environmental change. So I would love to fly out to Antarctica and make a documentary about him. That would probably be what I would use my endless budget towards: my travel and a good film camera.
ST: I was talking to someone recently about Teslas and how they have these crazy, insane cameras like dash cams and backup cams, and there’s like 16 different angles or something. I would really love to film an entire movie using a Tesla utilizing all its angles and the weird colour grading that it does. I think that’d be really crazy and funny.
Parting words from the mentors?
DM: My goal as a filmmaker is to work with people that I like, to re-employ them and create a team that feels like it works well together. And I think we’ve already seen some of that starting with the fellows. Another thing which is specific to The Sauce, as a programme of CAAM and NOVAC, is that there’s a direct connection to PBS. We all collectively know that PBS is one of the most treasured institutions that preserves independent storytelling and voices. We also know that they need to engage with diverse makers, both in terms of background and in terms of age. So PBS is going to benefit from having these voices as part of their system.
SR: They’ve inspired me so much. I want to get back to that space of fearless creation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past couple years and being with these fellows just made me want to work in that genre-less, strange, “figuring things out as I go, where I don’t have all the right pieces, but that’s where something magic happens” space. It was inspiring to be around them.
Watch The Sauce Shorts at the New Orleans Film Festival
The Sauce shorts will have an in-person premiere screening on Saturday, November 6 at 12:30 pm ET at the Broad Theater. Many of the fellows will be gathering in person for the first time to attend the premiere of their shorts! All the films are also available to stream in the following week.
CAAM is proud to partner with the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) to support the professional development of these next generation Asian American filmmakers in the American South. You can also watch The Sauce fellows’ films for free by registering on the New Orleans Film Festival website and Sauce fellow Briana Nieves’s short film Malditas will be presented as part of the IF/Then South Shorts work-in-progress virtual screenings at NOFF. Finally, The Sauce shorts are in partnership with the WORLD Channel, stay tuned for streaming dates in the near future.
The Fourth World by Nash Consing
my mom (mẹ con) by Melanie Ho
Sushi Nachos by Kei Matsumoto
Uncle Zaman by Sana Saif
God can’t give you double eyelids by Sarah Tang
The Sauce Fellowship Program is made possible with support from the Ford Foundation and PBS.