Although the South is not thought of as a region with a significant Asian American population, the reality is very different. Asian Americans have been in the South since before the United States was founded, and the region contains key Asian American communities with deep ties, such as the Mississippi Delta Chinese and, more recently, the Vietnamese American communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast or the South Asians and Southeast Asians that have migrated in large numbers all over the region. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the nation, and it is clear that this growth is not confined to the East and West Coasts. Yet the voices and stories of both Asian American communities and filmmakers in the South remain acutely underrepresented and under supported.

Motivated by the desire to more completely represent the stories of a new America including a more nuanced and deeper perspective of the South, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), supported by Ford Foundation’s JustFilms and the National Endowment for the Arts, embarked on an ambitious multi-year initiative to address this deficit. The objective of the project is to build a network and strategic infrastructure for the Asian American documentary filmmaking community working in the American South, and to connect this network to Asian American and other social justice, independent documentary, and cultural organizations in the region and nationally. CAAM believes that building these networks and resourcing an infrastructure will result in a breadth of work in film and media that more authentically reflects the changing landscape of the region.

The South project began in the Fall of 2017, first by commissioning demographic research on Asian Americans in the South, along with outreach to Southern filmmakers, and cultural and media organizations with a demonstrated commitment to social justice and diversity. In February 2018, this initial work culminated in a Durham, North Carolina convening of Southern Asian American documentary filmmakers titled, “Beyond Borders: Diverse Voices of the American South.”

The unprecedented gathering generated a great deal of energy and conversation; to continue the momentum, CAAM invited selected convening participants to attend CAAMFest in May 2018 in San Francisco. CAAMFest is our film festival which also happens to be the country’s largest Asian American film festival. At CAAMFest 2018, we highlighted issues affecting makers from the Southern region and organized networking opportunities with the larger Asian American filmmaking community. In mid-September, CAAM along with the Asian American Documentary Network (A-Doc) supported several Asian American makers from around the country and especially the South to attend the International Documentary Association (IDA)’s non-fiction filmmaking convening Getting Real in Los Angeles. Finally, in October 2018, CAAM worked with local and national partners to curate several events during the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) to highlight conversations around Southern Asian American filmmaking as both a unique cultural expression and as it contributes to the craft of story-telling in the US.

Over the course of about a year, CAAM has strengthened our collaboration with media arts organizations in the region, namely, the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), public television entities in the region such as UNC-TV, filmmaker service organizations like NOVAC, Working Films, the Center for Rural Strategies, and the New Orleans Film Society in supporting and highlighting the work of Asian American makers in the South.

The report, Complicating Narratives: Asian American Storytellers in the South, details the ideas, inquiries, and needs and continuation of the discussion as Southern makers join national networks to highlight their specific issues. Many of these ideas were seeded at the Beyond Borders convening early in 2018, centering discussion around Asian American communities and filmmakers. This report also proposes preliminary next steps that will continue the momentum generated over this year and build towards a robust and sustainable creative community infrastructure.