Reflecting on 5 Years of the CAAM Fellowship Program

CAAM Fellows 2024
L-R: Andrea Turner, Colette Ghunim, Rafael Bitanga, Stephen Gong, Sapana Sakya, Linghua (Lily) Qi, Tadashi Nakamura, Diane Quon, Bhawin Suchak at Fellowship Celebration held at Abaca restaurant, Sponsored by Nissan, Image Credit: Treehouse Vista Studio

As the Center for Asian American Media begins the sixth year of the CAAM Fellowship, founders, staff, and past mentors and fellows reflect on the impact and evolution of the program.

“The core ethos of the program is to really support the filmmaker, the creative, in their careers and where they are in their filmmaking path – as well as this sense of being a part of a community and supporting one another in that community,” said Sapana Sakya, CAAM’s Talent Development and Special Projects Director.

The program has included 16 mentors and fellows thus far. The year-long program pairs seasoned mentors with emerging documentary filmmakers. The program aims not only to support filmmakers in tangible ways, such as raising funding or completing a rough cut of a film, but supporting these creatives more holistically.

Mentors and fellows meet once a month virtually or in person; the cohort also meets virtually several times over the course of the year. Past fellows received professional development opportunities such as attending a film festival, with support from CAAM. To top it off, mentors and fellows are invited to be an integral part of CAAMFest each year, first through a dedicated Filmmaker Summit,  plus all-access passes to the May festival programs and invitations to industry panels and events. Fellows also learn how to pitch their projects and test their skills at Ready, Set, Pitch! an exercise in talking about their projects to an esteemed panel of judges.

While these are opportunities for emerging Asian American documentary filmmakers to hone their skills, the program isn’t solely focused on outcomes or products. “It’s not just if a project is moving forward,” Donald Young, Director of Programs, said. “It’s how they are doing – emotionally, professionally.”

Origins of CAAM Fellowship

From 2010-2015, CAAM launched the first iteration of the CAAM Fellowship. The idea originated with producer Karin Chien, who was seeing that perhaps for the first time in film and TV, Asian Americans were at top levels of the industry. But while these leaders were on their way up, they didn’t necessarily have support or role models in the community.

Chien approached CAAM, and in a meeting with Executive Director Stephen Gong, Young, Sakya and former Festival Director Masashi Niwano; Chien and the CAAM staff members created the first CAAM Fellowship. 

“In the early 2000s, there weren’t many people around to mentor me as an Asian American indie film producer and I came into the business knowing literally nobody,” Chien said. “I struggled to build connections and to achieve career sustainability. I thought about what I wanted when I started in film and told some friends about my idea. Then Brent Hall, a good friend and co-founder of dGenerate Films [and now CAAM Board Member], suggested bringing the idea to CAAM. The timing was right: Asian Americans were present at high levels in every field of the business. I am forever grateful that CAAM supported the idea for five rewarding years.”

Some of the mentors included “uber-mentor” Angela Cheng Caplan, director Jessica Yu, playwright David Henry Hwang, executive producer Dan Lin (who recently became Netflix’s Film Chief) and many others. Fellows included writer and actress Michelle Krusiec, writer and filmmaker Soman Chainani, editor Harry Yoon, who recently won an editing award for the series Beef and many others. 

“My logline in jest of our original fellowship was, ‘We don’t have nepotism, but we can have mentorship,’” Chien said. “This is a relationship business to its core. Some people are born with those connections. Others gain connections from the private schools they attend. For everyone else, we need to work constantly to create access. A fellowship program with high-level professional mentors accelerates that process.”

 The fellowship focused on all aspects of TV and film, from producers to showrunners to writers. The program paused in 2015 to reflect on what was  needed next. 

“New” CAAM Fellowship

In 2019, CAAM launched the new CAAM Fellowship, focusing on documentary filmmakers. CAAM’s long history with public media, and Sakya’s background as the former Documentary Fund manager and a filmmaker, was a chance for CAAM to deepen support of Asian American non-fiction filmmakers.

A few years prior, a new organization focusing on Asian American documentary filmmakers was born out of a need and desire to fellowship with like-minded documentary filmmakers. Co-founded by S. Leo Chiang and Grace Lee, the Asian American Documentary Network, also known as A-Doc, seeks to increase the visibility of Asian American documentary filmmakers. Chiang, who recently received an Oscar nomination for his short documentary Island in Between, and Lee, are both CAAM-supported filmmakers.

CAAM has a long history of supporting and funding filmmakers who create Asian American stories, particularly in documentary film. CAAM listened to the needs A-Doc members and found two needs: mentorship, and development funds.

The CAAM Fellowship focuses on one-on-one mentorship through monthly meetings, but also gathering as a group to share laughs, wisdom, and struggles and challenges. 

To bring it full circle, Karin Chien, co-founder with CAAM of the original CAAM Fellowship, was a mentor in the first year of the new fellowship program. Both S. Leo Chiang and Grace Lee have also been mentors in the program. The program was also fortunate to have Jean Tsien participate in the program as an uber-mentor for the first several years. Tsien is the producer on Island in Between, an acclaimed editor and executive producer known endearingly as the “godmother” of Asian American documentary film for her tireless mentorship of many filmmakers in the field.  The program has also worked with several Pitch coaches over the years including filmmakers Mridu Chandra, Vicky Du, Anuradha Rana and Violet Feng.  A full list of the Fellows and Mentors in our program from 2019 to 2023 can be found below. 

CAAM Mentors and Fellows Reflect on Their Experiences 

Karin Chien – 2019 CAAM Mentor, and co-founder of original CAAM Fellowship

Karin Chien
Karin Chien, director of the CAAM Fellowship Program.

Karin Chien reflects on how the fellowship has changed to reflect the needs of the times.

“In 2010, CAAM took a bold step. We started a 5-year professional mentoring program focused on Asian Americans working in every aspect of the fiction industries – film, TV, interactive, and immersive. [The new fellowship and] its year-long commitment is massive, and a meaningful testament to how deeply the nonfiction mentors are invested in this community.”

 

 

Pulkit Datta – 2019 CAAM Fellow

Pulkit DattaFor Pulkit Datta, being in a room with like-minded documentary filmmakers was invaluable. 

CAAM, and their partnering organization A-Doc, quickly became a family of sorts for me. People were genuinely interested in each other’s work, we shared our struggles, solved each other’s concerns, and sometimes, made themselves available to just listen. On top of that, to have a mentor like Karin Chien, who has overcome similar challenges to build a successful career in film, and is so genuinely supportive and helpful, has been incredibly empowering. 

Datta reflects on one of the most impactful moments, being in a room full of Asian Americans and other filmmakers of color at CAAMFest, “ People spontaneously began offering various forms of support to one another – their time, their skills, introductions, resources, even money. It was hard to believe at first, but it became a watershed moment for me. Here was a room full of people that simply ignored the existing systems and gatekeeping practices in place, and said: Let’s figure out a way to give each other what we need to keep moving ahead.”

Vicky Du – 2019 CAAM Fellow

vicky duCAAM Fellow Vicky Du shares her favorite moments of gathering in person at a fellowship retreat in Long Island.

“It’s a really special environment for that many intergenerational filmmakers, producers and creatives to share space together for a few days, to have meals together. I remember Jean [Tsien] drove to meet us, and she brought her favorite Chinese buns and all sorts of food and tea from Queens for us to eat. There was a real sense of kindness and generosity between the filmmakers and mentors. There were no feelings of entitlement or elitism, that things were out of reach. There was just support – financial, emotional, creative – and honest advice, and a desire for each film and filmmaker to do their best.

Jean Tsien became our film’s Executive Producer and I’ve kept in touch or asked for help from other mentors and fellows over the years. There is a genuine desire to help in our community, which has made the filmmaking process, especially at its most challenging moments, much lighter.”

So Yun Um – 2021 CAAM Fellow

So Yun UmSo Yun Um, like other CAAM Fellows, mentioned their appreciation for their CAAM Mentors. Um’s mentor, Nanfu Wang, was particularly helpful to Um as she started her first film Liquor Store Dreams .

“Having her guidance, just her words really, really meant so much because I was obviously kind of lost. And the strength of what Nanfu is just so good at especially writing V.O. is what I needed help with. And we basically got on the same page. And it was just really great, because we had so much understanding, and we set a schedule, and we met every single month. And so just having that relationship, transparency, just knowledge that I feel like so often is usually gate-keeped or things like that, within the industry. She was so willing to help me grow in my vision and my story and just anything that I needed. 

CAAM was such a great support, especially the entire staff. And so for me, it was so instrumental, having the fellowship because not only did it connect me with Nanfu, but it also helped me just help learn and foster my career as an emerging filmmaker. And that’s something that I really, really needed at that time. I think that the knowledge that I gained, I will never be able to get that anywhere else.. I think that it really is so vital to seek mentorship from people who obviously have been doing it longer, have been doing several films in and helping us emerging filmmakers navigate the space. I think that’s very, very important to demystify the things that we don’t know — the things that we might feel is too daunting or too scary or things like that. I think that is the most important thing, especially as Asian American filmmakers. We can always feel misplaced at times but I think that there is such a good community within CAAM that I always feel like I’m at home.

Hao Wu – 2022 CAAM Mentor

hao wuA longtime CAAMFest filmmaker and SXSW award-winning filmmaker, Hao Wu shares how being in an Asian American-specific program creates a different type of bond.

“It was my first time being involved in a fellowship program specific to the Asian American community, and the experience was refreshingly unique. I was happy to see that the cohort grew to bond tightly as we worked on both the creative side of the projects and the personal challenges for independent documentary filmmakers. I hope that we can see more programs like this, and more funding support, to continue to help elevate AAPI filmmakers and build more intra-group support.”

Marjan Safinia – 2022 CAAM Mentor

marjan safiniaFor Marjan Safinia, Asian American filmmakers are creating documentaries in a unique time where stories are flourishing, while being able to stay connected as people, not just filmmakers.

“The fellowship allowed us to get really deep, to a much more profound and vulnerable connected space. I was really uplifted by watching filmmakers grapple with their work, and to be able to give back my wisdom and lessons I learned the hard way, to help them along the way.

I’m thrilled that we find ourselves in this moment where AAPI communities are lifting each other, bolstering each other, managing to break through, linking arms in a way. It’s a tremendously exciting time to have found this community.”

 Norbert Shieh – 2022 CAAM Fellow

norbert shiehFellow Norbert Shieh says he benefited from the wealth of knowledge from industry leaders, and the willingness of mentors and others to share personal experiences, advice, and job leads. Shieh worked as a DP on documentaries directed and produced by two of the CAAM Mentors, Hao Wu and mentor Su Kim..  

“Documentary filmmaking can often be an independent and lonely endeavor. The CAAM fellowship came at a time during the pandemic that brought solidarity for us as filmmakers when the industry was completely upended, there was an uptick of AAPI hate crimes, and the weight of the social injustice from COVID was bearing down on us all. The fellowship was a safe space to speak freely as creatives and as AAPIs about what was going on.

My favorite aspect of the CAAM Fellowship program was the part where the fellows and the mentors gave back to the community. This came in the form of putting together and co-moderating one of the Filmmaking Summit panels. We put together one called, “How it’s started. How it’s going,” which touched a varying amount of subjects from the ongoing impact of the pandemic, to discussions on mental health within the film industry. It’s paying it forward for the next generation of filmmakers and helps spread the knowledge.

I’ve kept in touch with my cohort with check ins every few months. We support each other by giving feedback on edits or help to answer industry questions.”

Kevin Truong – 2022 CAAM Fellow

Kevin TruongKevin Truong credits CAAM as the first organization to provide financial support for his documentary film, Mai American. After that, his project received support from the Sundance Institute, BAVC, A-Doc, and the California Film Institute. Truong also won the DocPitch at DocLands Film Festival during his fellowship year.

“The overall experience was amazing, and I feel like our cohort was especially close. I found an amazing film family in the other fellows, mentors, and everyone at CAAM.

I really credit CAAM for being the first to really see something in my project, see something in me as a filmmaker. Really, they took a risk, investing time and resources in us as artists. And I will be forever grateful for that. 

The preparation and the amazing coaching that we received before [Ready, Set, Pitch!] helped me in my career as a filmmaker. I had never done a pitch before. I actually went on to participate in another pitch. I had an amazing opportunity to be a part of DocPitch at DocLands and I actually won the audience pitch award. I credit that to the training I had from ready set pitch.”

Pallavi Somusetty – 2022 CAAM Fellow

Pallavi SomusettyCAAM Fellow Pallavi Somusetty had several short films under her belt, but had never made a feature-length documentary. The fellowship helped to kickstart the next phase of her filmmaking career, boost her confidence, and give her a cohort of fellows to bond with. Pallavi’s film in progress, Coach Emily, won the DocLands DocPitch Industry Award, alongside her cohort member Kevin Truong in the same year.

“Everything in my career kind of bloomed from the initial exposure of being in the fellowship. CAAM and especially my mentor Marjan took a chance on me and saw something in me and in my footage. I know I didn’t have a say in who the other fellows were going to be, but I am so grateful that I got to learn alongside Norbert and Kevin. It never felt competitive when we were all in it together, uplifting each other. Such a collaborative experience where you’re not looking out only for yourself but invested in each others’ growth meant we struggled and celebrated together. I feel that the connection that CAAM fellows make is lifelong, with the give and take continuing throughout our careers.”

Jason Rhee – 2023 CAAM Fellow

jason rheeFor Jason Rhee, the CAAM Fellowship not only provided a community that eluded him in the Midwest, but gave him an opportunity to attend CAAMFest—his first film festival, made even more meaningful because of the Asian American focus. 

“One of my favorite aspects of the fellowship has been the trip to CAAMFest. I can say that it was my first genuine film festival experience, and to have that first experience surrounded by incredible AAPI filmmakers and the AAPI community in San Francisco was nothing short of amazing and transformational. I was deeply inspired after hearing the journeys of other filmmakers and to watch their films on the big screen. 

 On the last night of our stay during CAAMFest, I was able to have a long chat with another fellow as we walked around the docks of San Francisco. I was at a time of real uncertainty and felt like I couldn’t share some of the difficult problems I was having with the filmmaking process. The fellow created a safe space for me to not just vent about those issues but to hear from them about a similar experience that they had gone through. Just through that experience alone, I felt less alone and I felt less of the overwhelming pressure of trying to carve out the best future for my film. Conversations like that have continued throughout the fellowship program, and I’ll carry these experiences for the rest of my career.” 

Andy Sarjahani – 2023 CAAM Fellow

Andy SarjahaniAndy Sarjahani started as a CAAM Fellow in 2023 and emphasized the importance of community, of including people like himself who are Iranian American within the CAAM sphere, as well as the overall support from mentors, other fellows, and CAAM staff.

“It was just like a sanctuary coming to the meetings we had. Of course, there was Ready, Set Pitch! And of course, there was CAAMFest, which were incredible opportunities for us as filmmakers. But for me, collectively, it was just the sense of community and looking forward to convening with my peoples. I think [I] surprised myself with how I’ve grown. Anytime you put yourself in a group with other people who are doing things differently, you’re gonna grow. 

The CAAM community in general has been immensely supportive of me as a filmmaker and my work. I feel like I have CAAM as an organization has my back. And that’s it’s an incredible feeling. And I know they do because they’ve shown it through their actions. 

The Future of the CAAM Fellowship

As CAAM is in its fifth decade, the fellowship is no longer just about forging new paths, but continuing to build the resilience of the creative community in an ever changing media landscape, as well as the political and cultural challenges.  

“The fellowship is really a part of CAAM’s grander vision of, if we care for this community of filmmakers, great work will follow,” Young said.

Sakya hopes that the fellowship can continue to evolve and support the needs of the Asian American documentary community. “I really hope that the CAAM Fellowship program is a new model for cultivation of creatives and of storytellers in our community. I hope the fellowship program can continue to evolve and give back.”

 

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