Three days. Five events. Two parties. And a whopping eight filmmaker panels, comprising over thirty speakers for a total audiences of nearly 800 cinematic and media artists, activists, and casual movie-goers. The “Sweet 16” edition of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City certainly did not lack for participants. Indeed, since 2002, the Experience — a coalition-style collaborative effort among APA media arts and artist organizations that included Visual Communications, David Magdael & Associates, Kollaboration, the Center for Asian American Media, Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, Asia Society/Southern California, Gold House, the Asian American Documentary Network, and Asians in Hollywood — has sought to create a space whereby filmmakers with works premiering at the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals are foregrounded and celebrated by the ever-increasing APA communities that annually make the trek to Park City, Utah for the first and arguably the most-anticipated celebration of independent cinema on the film festival calendar.
The plethora of speaker panels was no accident: with the increasing profile of works by filmmakers of color in recent years, the need to expand the range of activities that #APAParkCity organizers create for Sundance and Slamdance filmmakers has morphed from an annual dinner buffet and mixer, to a series that affords a critical opportunity for Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Asian international creatives to celebrate their achievements while addressing the systemic obstacles that continue to inhibit the APA cinematic communities’ enfranchisement in the entertainment industry.
“To have a space where our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) filmmakers, storytellers, creatives, and industry supporters are celebrated and recognized at Sundance and Slamdance is essential,” said Laarni Rosca Dacanay, an #APAParkCity organizing member and chairperson of the PBS SoCal Asian Pacific Islander Community Council. “By highlighting their work, we add another layer of focus to the stories representing all people of color and other underrepresented communities.
“The AAPI lens is an integral part of the human experience,” added Dacanay. “With events like the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience, we are able to support telling all our diverse stories and showing the world how vibrant our AAPI community is.”
Anchored by a pair of filmmaker panels that punctuated the #APAParkCity “Main Event” programs on Park City Sunday at the Wellhaus/Old Town Cellars along Main Street, the stellar line-up of panel events and speakers throughout this year’s edition spoke not only to the broad range of artistic expressions showcased at both Park City festivals, but offered a chance to offer strategies on how to be competitive and successful in this entertainment “new normal.”
That ongoing struggle for enfranchisement provided the underpinnings for the gaggle of boisterous actors who shared their thoughts with NBC News reporter Kimmy Yam in “Unfolding Narratives: Our Stories to Tell,” the HBO/TBS panel in partnership with #APAParkCity that kicked things off on Friday, Jan. 24. Karan Soni, a co-star with fellow panelist Geraldine Viswanathan of the TBS anthology comedy MIRACLE WORKERS, recounted his struggles as an actor of color out of USC before gaining a crucial foothold through independent streaming series and commercials (a mainstay of the raunchy DEADPOOL blockbuster films, Soni is also known as a Diet Coke pitchman). Geraldine, a comedic actor in her native Australia, along with fellow actors Suzy Nakamura (DR. KEN) and Alexander Hodge (INSECURE) likewise amplified the improved climate for Asian American and Asian actors to land more nuanced roles in Hollywood, though they cautioned that the path to a rewarding, sustained career remains fraught with challenges as being offered stereotypical parts and a lack of imagination on the part of producers and writers to create more significant characters for them and their peers. #APAParkCity organizer Minji Chang, who can be seen in the upcoming feature LISA MANIA, foregrounded her role in the long-running talent incubator Kollaboration as one way through which Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders can access and even create meaningful onscreen roles in the mainstream.
Day Two, January 25, saw a dizzyingly rapid-fire trio of panels at the Kimball Arts Center organized by the Asia Society’s Northern and Southern California chapters and Harbour, and hosted by longtime producer Janet Yang. While the cumulative effects of sitting in on a whopping three panels in the space of a mere two hours barely afforded any of the panelists to really cut loose and fully express themselves, the overflow crowd were nevertheless presented with a broad range of issues and challenges addressed by the panelists. In the lead-off panel “Producers: Women Hold Up Half the Sky at Sundance”, festival perenniels Nina Yang Bongiovi (FRUITVALE STATION; ROXANNE, ROXANNE; SORRY TO BOTHER YOU), Mynette Louie (I CARRY YOU WITH ME), and Naja Lockwood (co-founder, Game Changer Films; executive producer, GOOK; LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM) shared how each of them got their start as producers as well as the setbacks each of them experienced as they worked to gain a foothold in the independent producing sphere.
In the equally succinct ensuing panel entitled “Directors: Telling Original Stories”, Los Angeles-based director Edson Oda and documentary director/producer Bao Nguyen ranged over the myriad choices each of them made in creating a narrative feature that works more like a piece of personal cinema (Oda’s NINE DAYS, a Sundance Narrative Competition selection), and a documentary that relied heavily upon historical and home-movie footage (Nguyen’s BE WATER, which screened in Documentary Competition). In the end, it seemed that it was the actors that everyone came to see, and in the final panel “Actors: Cutting It On The Big Screen”, the audience pretty much got what they wanted — that is, if an exclusively all-male panel sans women was what they wanted to see. Moderator Yang played host to Chris Pang (PALMS SPRINGS), Benedict Wong (NINE DAYS), and Daniel Dae Kim (BLAST BEAT) in a conversation that inevitably circled back around to re-hashing past exploits — for Pang, entreaties to comment on the lingering after-effects of starring in Jon M. Chu’s 2018 CRAZY RICH ASIANS; and for Wong, recounting the long-term benefits of his association with the Marvel Comic Universe. For his part, Kim glossed over his departure from the television series HAWAII 5-0 over pay equity issues, though it seemed clear that he would rather have wanted to talk about his multiple roles as executive producer and co-star of the highly-lauded period piece BLAST BEAT, which was generating some “buzz” during the Sundance opening weekend.
The jamb-packed Day Three activities on Sunday, January 26 saw the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience return to the Kimball Arts Center for the CAAM-sponsored panel “Shouldering the Future.” #APAParkCity co-founder David Magdael moderated a panel composed of women film professionals whose influence on independent media has been, in a word, profound. Effie Brown, CEO of the recently-formed Gamechanger Films, regaled the capacity audience with her experiences facing institutional racism throughout the mainstream entertainment industry, and how those struggles informed her sense of determination in being an agent of change on behalf of cinematic artists of color (see: Matt Damon, PROJECT GREENLIGHT — that sordid chapter of her career was referenced, to the collective disgust of the audience). Noted film/television editor and producer Jean Tsien recounted her rise as the “go-to” editor and mentor of many independent productions over a nearly twenty year career to observe the emergence of a new generation of APA cinema artist, while relative newcomer Sheroum Kim recounted her journey from a staffer at a Hollywood talent agency to her current position as Director of Original Independent Film at Netflix. The trio encouraged media makers in the audience to always lend a helping hand to the next generation of artists who will follow them, and cautioned that not only their skills, but their sense of value and self-worth will always be challenged.
From Kimball Arts Center, it was a quick dash up to the Firelight House and the panel “Power To The POC”, which was organized by the Asian American Documentary Network. Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker Grace Lee led a talk spotlighting the burgeoning role of people of color in production, distribution, and policy-making on behalf of minority filmmakers. Grace was joined by Gina Duncan, Associate Vice President of Film and Strategic Programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Laura Kim, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Participant Media; Carrie Lozano, Director of the International Documentary Association’s Enterprise Fund and Pare Lorentz Fund; and Cynthia López, Executive Director of New York Women in Film & Television.
Finally, the action shifted back up to Main Street Park City, where #APAParkCity’s “Main Event” activities kicked off a pair of panels assessing the need for APA filmmakers and entertainment professionals to “up” their game in this nascent decade. As part of the first panel, “Changemakers,” Magdael sprinted back from Kimball Arts Center to the overflow Wellhaus/Old Town Cellars to host a gathering of media professionals and, in some cases, old friends in a frank discussion of the ways in which APAs are creating space for artists of color to succeed in the independent and mainstream arena. The panel, including Mahin Ibrahim of The Walt Disney Company, Christina Chou of Creative Artists Agency, ARRAY President Tilane Jones, filmmaker and producer Derek Nguyen, and Michelle Sugihara – executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment touched on a number of issues that centered around strategies for comprehensive support and talent incubation from within the APA creative communities. Jones, no stranger to past #APAParkCity panels, referenced the intentionality of establishing multi-award-winning director/producer Ava DuVernay’s distribution/production company ARRAY within Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown as a means of centering their company within an ethnic creative hub; while Chou elicited “oohs” and “ahas” in mentioning that as part of her efforts to make an impact on behalf of the APA cinematic community, she shepherded the creation of Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance Grand Jury Award-winning narrative MINARI. Ibrahim, director of The Walt Disney Company’s Multicultural Audience Engagement initiative, described her efforts to establish Launchpad, a Disney incubator program for filmmakers from underserved communities, while Nguyen shared news of his role in launching The Population, a film production company in collaboration with fellow #APAParkCity alum Mynette Louie and Mollye Asher. Sugihara, who in five years transformed CAPE from a movie professionals group largely satisfied with organizing networking opportunities into a vibrant talent incubator and advocate on behalf of Asian American and Pacific Islander cinematic talents, amplified her fellow panelists efforts to catalyze their collective resources and experiences for the benefit of our creative communities.
Of course, the longtime backbone of Asian Pacific American cinema lay in non-fiction cinema, and in the final #APAParkcity panel “Truthtellers,” organizers honored that enduring tradition through the collective power of longtime documentarians Bao Nguyen (BE WATER), Ramona Diaz (A THOUSAND CUTS), and Shalini Kantayya (CODED BIAS). While Sundance Film Festival darling and 2020 Momentum Fellow Andrew Ahn (SPA NIGHT) was seemingly the odd one out — an exclusively narrative storyteller, his latest long-form narrative DRIVEWAYS is slated for a Springtime theatrical release — he proved adept at eliciting nuanced and valued insights from the threesome as they shared their perspectives on the urgency of their stories, and the reactions they were preparing to receive from Park City audiences that weekend. And, a pair of absolutely fierce Pinoiz — Bay Area hip-hop artist Ruby Ibarra, who lent serious rhymes to Diaz’ A THOUSAND CUTS; and journalist Dino-Ray Ramos, who implored the audience to support and help sustain the storytelling instincts of APA filmmakers —underscored the themes coursing throughout the weekend-long series of events. In assessing the overall impact of #APAParkCity 2020, co-organizer Minji Chang noted the commitment of the combined Sundance/Slamdance communities. “It’s further proof that diversity in film is not a passing trend, but a much needed reflection and expression of our true experiences and authentic realities,” said Chang. “By creating spaces for underrepresented voices to be heard, we are opening up minds and opportunities for progress to happen swiftly and effectively.”
In the end, the events of the “Sweet 16” edition of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience are inspired by our creative communities’ storytelling and ability to foreground our experiences and perspectives, and that we cannot count on others to tells those stories accurately and honestly. Perhaps that was why the celebratory tone of the weekend events took a suddenly solemn and contemplative turn when, in the midst of the “Shouldering the Future” panel, cellphones throughout the Kimball Arts Center blew up with the shocking news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other colleagues perished early Sunday morning in a helicopter crash against a Calabasas hillside. The loss of a famed, though complicated, sports hero who was on the verge of transitioning into the entertainment field elicited a passionate, nuanced response from Nina Yang Bongiovi, the recipient of #APAParkCity’s second Irene Cho Pioneer Award. Bongiovi, a Sundance-hardened producer starting with her 2013 FRUITVALE directed by Ryan Coogler, acknowledged Bryant’s passing in the midst of recounting the many hits and misses of a nearly 20-year-long career while admonishing the rapt audience that “tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone,” and that not waiting for anyone to confer “permission” to realizing one’s vision is what matters most of all. More prescient sentiments could not have been expressed for an otherwise celebratory weekend.
The “Sweet 16” edition of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City was generously co-hosted by The Walt Disney Company, Home Box Office, Inc., Comcast/NBCUniversal, the Center for Asian American Media, and SAG/AFTRA.
And finally, a Special Thanks to the #APAParkCity Organizing team, panelists, and volunteers: Linda Mabalot, Founding #APAParkCity member (Posthumous); Irene Cho, Sustaining #APAParkCity member (Posthumous); Andrew Ahn; Nina Yang Bongiovi; Effie Brown; Minji Chang; Janet Chen; S. Leo Chiang; Christina Chou; Roshini Chuganey; Margaret Conley; Tricia Coonrad; Francis Cullado; Laarni Rosca Dacanay; Susan Jin Davis; Gina Duncan; Henry Eshelman; Abraham Ferrer; Ellen Huang; Ruby Ibarra; Mahin Ibrahim; Tilane Jones; Jess; Shalini Kantayya; Chris Kim; Daniel Dae Kim; Laura Kim; Sheroum Kim; Ileana Lagares; Megan Lau; Grace Lee; Ed Lew; Kyra Lewis; Naja Lockwood; Cynthia López; Mynette Louie; Carrie Lozano|; David Magdael; Verna Myers; Masashi Niwano; Bao Nguyen; Derek Nguyen; Edson Oda; Chris Pang; Tyng Pan; Raymond Perkins; Deborah Renteria; JoSaen Ronquillo; Sapana Sakya; Rachelle Samson; Stephanie Shih; Michelle Sugihara; Jean Tsien; Nicole Tsien; Rexille; Janna Wang; Panney Wei; John Wirfs; Benedict Wong; Jo-Ann Wong; Dorothy Xiao; Janet Yang; Donald Young; and Marvin Yueh