Asian American Film Lab - Challenging one's perspective on what it means to be Asian American

Asian American Film Lab - Challenging one's perspective on what it means to be Asian American

Alex Chester

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Apparently, I have been living under a rock. Sometimes I can be quite oblivious. When I first heard about the 72 Shootout by the Asian American Film Lab (AAFL) I was like why have I never heard of this? Is this new? Nope, they've been around for years. I am apparently just living in my own little world.

Of course, I knew I had to meet Jennifer Betit Yen he president of AAFL and find out what exactly this 72 Hour Shootout is and what other awesome things AAFL does.

Along with Ms. Yen, I had the opportunity to speak with Jody Lin - Social Media, AAFL TV Editor, and 72 Hour Shootout Editor.

Alex - What is the 72 Hour Shoot Out? And why did you start it?

Jennifer - Well, I didn't start it. Film Lab is an older, not old, organization. It started in 1998, it was a collaboration of Asian American screenwriters. They were frustrated because they had reached that point where they were able to sell their scripts, but then they (studios) were like it’s cool you have a script about a Korean or Chinese, or Filipino person but we are gonna cast them white, so we are gonna totally change this. They (the writers) were like AHHHH, so this was their sort of little cathartic thing, but then it grew, and grew, and grew, and it became bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The Shootout started 13 years ago, and what it is, is it's an annual filmmaking competition. It started locally. It was just New York only and they worked with ABC, and they worked with the Asian American National Film Festival. And the film festival said, look, we will donate a theatre.

We will give you a theatre space and we will have the top ten films show at our festival to support Asian American Voices' stories, faces, whatever. And ABC said we will provide a judge from casting and we will maybe give the best actor/actress a screen test. So it started very, very tiny - something crazy small. Now it’s a global film-making competition. We start programming in March because the idea is we want to pull... the idea is we get all kinds of people competing, from a stay at home dad with his iPhone, who made a movie about his kids, which was totally adorable and cute, to actual real production studios, that do it to sort of stay in the game, to keep themselves “fresh”, like just play, meet other talent. So we get a wide, wide, range. And to try and level the playing field a little bit and you know, cause maybe you come in and you have an amazing story, and a great voice, but you have no technical skills, so from March to June we run a series of how-to seminars, Q and A’s, we bring in filmmakers, we bring in lighting people, gaffers, grips, everything, set out resources, so that people know even stuff like makeup, costuming, and how do you do it on a budget, and what do you do if you have no money for like insurance, permits, what are the rules of the city... so on and so forth. From March to June we just take registrations and teach everybody. And then, usually, it’s the first Thursday of June we announce a theme that has been kept secret.

When we announce the theme, usually at 8 pm, first Thursday of June at a launch party live in New York, live streamed across the world, if you have wifi, the clock starts ticking. They have 72 hours to write, cast, shoot, edit, everything, their short film of five minutes and under. Then the films compete for mentorships with executives at NBC, screen-tests at ABC, cash prizes, and all sorts of mentorship awards with established filmmakers.

Alex - That's so cool, that’s really awesome. (To Jody) Is there anything you would like to add to that?

Jody - I’m pretty new to the organization, but I think what stands out for me with this, I mean the 72 Hour Shootout is that it's run by Asian American Film Lab, but there’s a cross section of diversity that comes to the competition.

Jennifer - One principle actor and at least one principle crew member, like a director or writer, have to be of Asian decent. But we encourage diversity because in saying we support diversity and inclusion we can’t then produce only homogeneous content. The idea is to produce content that accurately reflects the cosmopolitan nature, the diverse nature of the world we live in. We have a production arm too, and what we do with our production arm we invert traditional mainstream casting. If you look at your usual show or your film and generally speaking the main character is usually a white male, we invert it, so it's always a woman of color, and usually, an Asian American woman, because Asian American’s... what are we? I think we are five to six percent of the population? Something like that. But we account for way less than two percent of the roles when you look at it (film/tv). And usually when you see an Asian role like you've seen all the controversy about “Ghost in the Shell”...

Alex - Oh yeah!

Jennifer - “Doctor Strange” and everything.

Alex - Oh yeah.

Jennifer - You know, all the yellow face and white washing... it's quite fun...

Jody - That’s what I kinda love about watching the top ten films of last year, was that it was diverse, it wasn’t just about being Asian American, it felt global.

Alex - What have been some of your themes from previous years?

Jennifer - “Lose the Labels”, “I’m Not Colored Blind”, “A Guest in My Own Country”, which is actually my favorite, although it was crickets when that got announced. I came out to the Film Lab in 2012, and it was my first shootout, and I was really freaked out... I had no idea, it was like I just took this job and all of sudden it was the shootout, and it was like THAT time and I was like “Oh my God, I don't know how to do this”. Usually, you have a big sponsor, they have a lot of influence as to what the theme is, but that year we really didn't have gigantic sponsors. We had financial sponsors, we had all these in-kind sponsors... it was up to us to think of what the theme would be. And we interviewed all these past winners, and one of the winners we asked her why did you compete in the shootout? She said, “I competed in the shootout because growing up I never saw faces like mine or heard stories or voices like mine on TV and it made me feel very alone... Like a guest in my own country.” And that really resonated with all of us. So I thought let's use that, so we were like the theme is “A Guest in My Own Country” and everybody was like... ughhh....(Laughter)

Jennifer - (laughing) How are we gonna do this?

Alex - Like what do we do with this? (Laughter)

Jennifer - And then we did one on beauty, like mainstream constructions of beauty. Particularly like Asian American women are hyper-sexualized. We found out all these very interesting things. Like Hapa women and Asian women are the ethnic groups most likely to be sexually assaulted in college.

Alex - Wow.

Jennifer - Yeah, really interesting stuff.

Alex - Interesting.

Jennifer - But least likely to have it go through the legal system.

Alex - They just don't speak up? How sad.

Jennifer - They speak up, but usually the case is dropped very quickly. Like they might report it to a teacher, they might report it to campus security, but then it just dies. Whether it’s them not fighting or the school being like... uhhh...you know... well.... or whatever. I don't know.

Alex - That’s really interesting.

Jennifer - So we did one on beauty and constructions of what does beauty mean? People with disabilities and stuff like that. What else did we do? “This is Just a Test” we did one year, which is kind of random, it was chosen by one of the sponsors, like half of them were about pregnancy. Which I didn’t expect. I was like “Oh, oh ok. Alright, pregnancy tests…”

(Laughter)

Jennifer - It’s not what I would have thought.

Alex - That’s so funny.

Jennifer - So that was an interesting one.

Alex - Do you have any films that stand out in your mind? Any that were your favorites over the years?

Jody - Last year there was one called “Scorpion” which I really loved. It was high action, the story was about two hitmen. A mother and a son, it played a lot about the stereotype of hitmen and being an Asian hitman. I just liked that one a lot. And “Wired”, I liked that one.

Jennifer - And the cool thing about the hitman one too, was that the hitman who was really good, like spot on but also like a forty plus Asian woman.

Alex - Ohhh. That’s cool.

Jennifer - Just little things just challenging the way we think about...Alex - It definitely does. I love that.

Jody - And “Wired” was the undercover cops, do you remember that?

Jennifer - Oh, that was horribly funny, in a great way.

Alex - Now, you can’t talk about this year's theme... can you allude to it at all?

Jennifer - So from March to June we have a generalized theme, it may or may not have anything to do with the secret theme, (whispered) usually it does though. It is just an issue we think is pertinent to the times, that we think is important that we want to focus on just to generate dialogue, and talk up to the secret theme. So that theme is “Stand Together” this year because, you know, we are at a very interesting place now... for so many reasons. And so what we wanted to focus on is not walls, threats, or divides, things that keep us apart, but rather our common humanity, what brings us together, what connects us. So we started talking about, what images do we have that are meaningful to us in a positive way, so we talked about there was a black woman, she was at a vigil, she was lighting a candle for a fallen Asian American police officer. There was a white woman just standing there at a Black Lives Matter rally. There was a straight Asian guy with a rainbow flag at an LGBTQ demonstration. So on and so forth and these things were very meaningful, that’s kinda what we want to see. So Cici Chu, the woman that wrote and edited the promo film last year and this year created a little short kinda based on those experiences. And so we are using the Stand Together hashtag (#StandTogether) for our general theme. And then we will have a more specific one the films will have to be based on.

Alex - That’s really cool. Anything else you would like to add to this?

Jennifer - Just one thing, so we launched a production arm, and we are really trying to generate and push out content and connect the Shootout with the production arm and generate really diverse, really innovative, really fun, cool content and pulling all these filmmakers in so that's kind of exciting so we have a bunch of projects in the works and Jody actually has a project she did. Can I tell her?

Jody - Of course.

Jennifer - So this is very interesting. So Jody (to Jody), is this ok? Do you want to tell her? So Jody was actually involuntary committed to Bellevue, to the psychiatric ward.

Alex - Oh my God.

Jennifer - And when she first told me I sort of had this sort of oh my God, this is horrible, and I imagined horrible things, like being in restraints... but she had a very positive experience. She still talks with and has a relationship with the people from that time in there. So one of the things we do with the Film Lab is we try to generate content that’s fun, it's fictional, it's entertaining in its narrative but it promotes the positive effectuation of social change. So her film is all about mental health and...

Jody - Recovery.

Jennifer - Recovery.

Jody - I made a film about the experience. It was a short film that I made. (”Borte - Queen of Tibet”) When I got sick I thought I was the reincarnation of a queen, queen Borte, who I felt was the daughter of the Dali Lama from a past life. So I thought I was the reincarnation of this queen. When I made this short film I was nine months out of this hospital stay that Jen talks about. It was a five-week stay at Bellevue, and nine months out of the hospital I made this film hoping to be discovered as the queen. And what happened was in making the film, this shift in perspective happened and I was able to see that that delusion was actually keeping me sick. And the event we are planning is about the healing power of filmmaking. In the film, I am Asian American, but the film is a very human story about recovery and I just so happened to be an Asian woman in America having survived this experience. I am in remission from schizoaffective disorder.

Alex - This is so prevalent for now. I feel like mental health issue is just something we just cover up.

Jody - Exactly.

Alex - It’s horrible. It’s so wonderful you did this.

Jody - Thank you, I mean on the panel I hope to bring in this radical psychiatric doctor, and his theory is mental illness isn't something you just throw a few pills at and sweep under the rug. Like it is a whole mind-body, physical mental spiritual experience. And like each person subjectively has their own recovery process. And for me, kinda the long and the short of it is, I got better by making a film because I am a filmmaker. And I think that is one of the points, it’s for mental illness awareness month May 1st, so I think that will be one of the topics of discussion is how film making can be used as a healing force

So often all we do is complain about the lack of diversity and inclusion. Of course we need to continue to complain, bitch and moan. However, I think we also need to be reminded that there are organizations that are doing something to change the status quo, there are people that are making a difference. It's nice to be reminded that there are people fighting for actors of color. It's important to note those making a difference. We are all so much stronger together. Keep screaming and complaining. Keep fighting. Change doesn't happen overnight but together we can rise up.

For more info on AAFL and the 72 Hour Shootout please visit their website: http://www.asianamericanfilmlab.com/72-hour-shootout/

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