Every year, as a part of the CAAM Fellowship, Asian American documentary filmmakers develop their projects under the guidance of their mentors, and are aided by numerous industry professionals who share their wisdom so the fellows can feel better equipped to finish their films and embark on a sustainable career in which they feel supported. In 2021, CAAM Fellows Elizabeth Ai, Bree Nieves, and So Yun Um juggled a hundred different things in their inching towards the finish line with the support of their incredible Mentors Geeta Gandbhir, Steve Maing and Nanfu Wang. Towards the end of their fellowship year, they reflect upon the fellowship and their journey with CAAM.
For the longest time, I believed you could only be what you saw, and having never seen a Vietnamese American woman making films while I was growing up, I figured my passion for stories would only be harnessed in service of others, never in service of my own stories. Thanks to the work of organizations like CAAM, we’re finally starting to see monumental shifts in our industry, proving that stories from lived experiences and perspectives like mine do matter. Like many children of refugees from working class families, the thought of pursuing a creative career path like this didn’t cross my mind in all my years in grade school so, flashing forward, decades later, into the present day and being asked to write about my CAAM 2021 Fellowship experience, while directing my first feature New Wave, feels so unreal.
Between the social unrest at the start of the pandemic, and the rising violence against the AAPI community, little did I know that this CAAM Fellowship was going to be the life raft I needed to ride out this year’s emotional storm. Sapana and her team have thoughtfully designed a fellowship program that supports the cohort professionally and personally. Even as we were navigating Zoom cohort gatherings, our virtual time together felt meaningful and bespoke. I’m grateful to CAAM for holding space—allowing us to be vulnerable together while also hearing our needs individually. It’s been a dream to spend time with a talented, sensitive, and no-nonsense storyteller like Geeta Gandbhir, who was my mentor through the fellowship. Her guidance during this phase in my journey has been pivotal in helping me make a number of crucial strategic and creative decisions. And last but not least, I feel so fortunate to have the chance to learn about the films and filmmakers, specifically Bree and So, who have poured their hearts into these personal narratives. I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to peek into these amazing artists’ processes and also to be able to call them my friends.
My experience as a CAAM Fellow has led me to gain much more confidence in my point of view, how I observe the world, and has taught me to take things slowly— tackling one thing at a time rather than the big picture, as Will Smith says in his most recent memoir, “There’s only this brick.” (Paraphrasing.)
I know that going from having no mentors to a community of like-minded creatives has offered me an open door into a world where I can work, pay the bills, create, and find joy.
I am grateful to CAAM and to Steve Maing, my mentor, as he has guided me through the ups and downs of the year and the difficulties of getting my film into shape. Having Steve to talk to whenever a problem arose, or I had a question, made me feel like I had someone on my team who saw potential in the work and in myself as a filmmaker. It made all the difference during the tough times in development and production this year.
In working on Arise, My Beloved! Steve really aided me in making sense of the access and my relationship to the sisters, in ways that I never thought to ask myself: questions about my faith, my threads and what I really wanted the audience to take from the work. Sometimes you just need a mirror, and Steve was that.
The CAAM Fellowship has gifted me the right questions to ask, the right answers in my pocket, and a community that I hope to grow with and work with in the future. I know so many doors opened this year because of being a CAAM Fellow, and I would recommend everyone to apply with projects.
So Yun Um
Being part of CAAM’s Fellowship and having Nanfu Wang as my mentor, played a major role in helping me become a better filmmaker and taking my career to the next level. Before I started the mentorship, I had been part of Visual Communication’s Armed with a Camera program where I made my short film, Liquor Store Babies about children of liquor store owners in the greater Los Angeles area. When I felt it was ready for it to be a feature, I began my journey to make my debut feature length film, despite knowing very little about the entire process, especially the financing and distribution aspects of the filmmaking.
I had applied to CAAM’s Fellowship the previous year but was not selected and but last year, I just knew it was the right time to apply again. I like to believe that the stars aligned when Nanfu agreed to be my mentor. From the very beginning, Nanfu and I set our expectations of when we would meet and the areas I would need help in. We were able to meet monthly, in a very efficient manner, considering that I knew I only had an hour or two with her. I provided cuts to my film, and she would provide very concise feedback on how to tell my story better. She taught me how to create a more urgent and driven story and characters. Every scene needs to earn its screen time but when you’re in the thick of filmmaking, you tend to lose sight of that and I’m glad Nanfu was there to direct and assure me on my journey.
Nanfu was also very transparent on the business aspect of the film industry, which was so refreshing to hear. She was open with her own experience and I am thankful that we got along tremendously well. As a person and a filmmaker, I am very direct and generally a no-bullshit-person and it was really great that we were able to talk about anything and everything.
CAAM was there every step of the way in providing guidance and support, even on things that didn’t directly pertain to the fellowship. They planned one-on-one sessions with film professionals so we could all learn the ins and outs of the industry that we were so new to. All of this happened when I needed the support the most, and I truly feel indebted to the CAAM Fellowship in helping me grow as a person, filmmaker, and an artist.