There’s Always Something: First Time Experiences at Tribeca and New York City

CAAM First Person Lauren Lola

New York is a city made up of a lot of different meanings and significance to people. That even goes for those in my family. When my maternal grandmother immigrated to this country from Germany, New York was the first bit of American soil she ever set foot on. Whenever my paternal great aunt was in town from the Philippines, she would spend evenings recreationally playing piano in the lobby of The Algonquin Hotel, drawing crowds around her – including the likes of Charles Munch, at one point – each and every time. Knowing of these histories in my family and enamored by the allure of New York in general, it’s a city I’ve been wanting to visit ever since I was a teenager. It’s just that the opportunity to go never really came up.

Cut to a year ago, when I did a two-month gig as a story consultant on an early version of the script for Reimagined Volume II: Mahal, a VR animated short film centered on Filipino folklore, written and directed by Michaela Ternasky-Holland. Little did I expect that a year later, not only would it be making its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival, but also that I would go to New York City and experience the film, the festival, and the city itself for the very first time.

Lauren Lola NYIt’s not that often that I get to travel and be an observer on behalf of the Center for Asian American Media, much less to a major film festival. But it worked out in a lot of ways. Not only did Mahal premiere at Tribeca, but so did the works of several other friends of CAAM, as well as from the Asian American community at large.

Since it was my first time going to New York, I did a lot of planning in advance, from studying the map of the areas of the city that I would be in, to understanding how the subway system works. One can prepare so much, but there’s no avoiding the occasional curveball life throws from time to time. 

For instance, as much as I was also paying attention to the forecast for New York in the week leading up to my departure, I was still not ready for the daunting yellow sky and evil-looking sun caused by the smoke from the Canadian wildfires, to welcome me as my flight touched down at JFK. The pilot even announced to us how we might smell smoke, in an effort to assure us that it was coming from outside and not within the cabinet. This was a flight coming out of a state that had seen one too many wildfires within the last five years alone. Echoing a neighboring passenger on my flight from San Francisco, “We’re used to this.”

For East Coast folks, not so much, as reports swirled surrounding its uncommonness and what people can do to protect themselves from the smoke – advice I’ve heard one too many times by now. There was a part of me that was worried as to whether it was going to be like this the entire time I was there. Thankfully, that turned out to be not the case. Okay, so this was less so of a first time experience, but more so the first time experiencing it in an environment where such effects of climate change are pretty uncommon. 

Taking the subway on the other hand… that was a true learning experience. Put together a map of BART side by side with a map of New York’s subway system, and it goes without saying that the latter is much more complicated than BART. It’s older, it has more than two lines running at each station, and it was undeniably intimidating to look at for someone whose experience, for the most part, has been with BART and MUNI. But then I got used to it pretty quickly, and this is how: If you focus less on the big picture – and by that I mean the map of the entire subway system – and more so on where you’re going, then you’ll have an easier time of navigating your way. 

The subway came in handy with getting to the different events I attended for Tribeca. Quite a few of the films I saw were world premieres, and being present for them felt that much more special. 

That’s notable in the case of the world premiere of H.P. Mendoza’s new film, The Secret Art of Human Flight; the story of a grieving widower who finds new meaning in a questionable guru, who guides him in learning how to fly. He’s been a longtime friend of CAAM, and we’ve been honored to support and showcase his work over the years at CAAMFest and beyond. To witness his latest work be warmly received at the beginning of a new chapter for his career was just incredible.

Q at Tribeca
Panel discussion following screening of “Q” at Tribeca, Image Credit: Lauren Lola

Same can be said of the world premiere of the documentary, Q. Director Jude Chehab was a 2020 CAAM Fellow. Her film tells of a religious order within the Muslim faith, and her mother’s unwavering allegiance to it. Early clips I’ve seen of the film felt more focused on the order itself, but what I wound up seeing in the final cut was a compassionate act of understanding for the filmmaker’s mother. It’s fair to say that not all the eyes in the room for that first screening were dry.

One of the most memorable parts of the festival was watching Mahal for the first time, which was featured in Tribeca’s Immersive program. Slip on an Oculus set accompanied by headphones, and you’re suddenly amongst beautifully animated surroundings, that seamlessly switches back and forth between a village here on earth, and the cosmos in which the children of the late creator god, Bathala, wrestle with their grief in their own ways. In solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, which is still on strike as of this writing, I won’t speak too deeply of my involvement in the project. What I will say is how amazed I am with how Ternasky-Holland took the feedback I had given her, and then reworked the story into something more personal. 

It was amazing to see so many CAAM affiliates at Tribeca, and that even includes seeing one at one of the panels. Filmmaker Nardeep Khurdi – whose film, Land of Gold, won both the Narrative Award and Audience Award for Narrative at CAAMFest 2023 – was one of the speakers at the panel, Untold Stories: Diversifying the Narrative – BIPOC Protagonists by BIPOC Creators. Beyond the scope of filmmakers whose paths CAAM has crossed in some way, it was also wonderful seeing Asian American filmmakers whom we haven’t worked with before have their time in Tribeca. I watched director Kate Tseng and producer Carolyn Mao talk about how they successfully pitched their film, Marvelous and the Black Hole, at the Untold Stories live pitch event back in 2019. It was also special to see Pixar’s Elemental as Tribeca’s centerpiece film, as the Peter Sohn-directed animated feature incorporates a lot of experiences that are notable within many Asian immigrant families.

Because of the fact that I was in New York for the first time, it was only natural that I did some sightseeing in between Tribeca events. Of course, I visited well-documented landmarks like Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and Grand Central Terminal. There were also places that I visited that maybe aren’t as historically or monumentally significant in that way, but still meant a lot to see; like locating the apartment that was once home to the late composer, Jonathan Larson. 

Times Square
Times Square, Image Credit: Lauren Lola

I, of course, had to visit the places that played such significant roles in my relatives’ stories, and the fact that I went to them this year of all years feels very predestined. After all, it’s been 30 years since my great aunt died, and my grandmother passed away last fall. 

It was meaningful to both fly into and out of JFK Airport, where my grandmother flew to from Germany just a few months after it opened. It was also equally as meaningful to visit The Algonquin, where the staff who were present there at the time were so intrigued by my great aunt’s story as I told it to them. It’s been long said to remember where your ancestors came from, but I think it’s just as vital to remember where they have been, too. While the interiors of both the airport and hotel have been renovated over the years, and the odds of meeting employees at either of those places to have crossed paths with my relatives were near nonexistent, it doesn’t undermine the reality that I have now walked where they once did in significant moments in their lives.

I came to New York to both be the eyes of CAAM in attendance of the Tribeca Festival, all the while experiencing the public showings and gatherings for a film I worked on during pre-production. Out of it came a range of moments varying across those that are typical for a tourist, and moments more meaningful than I could have ever imagined. A majority of them were first time occurrences for me, and whether it was taking the subway for the first time or having chats with the wait staff at The Algonquin about my great aunt, as my grandmother would say, “There’s always something”— a fitting sentiment for a city as active as New York. I’m so glad to have gone on this trip on behalf of CAAM, and whether it be for work or leisure, I’m already anticipating what first-time experiences await me for the next time I go there.

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