Filmmaker Roxy Shih on the creation of the Taiwanese-American Film and Overcoming Obstacles

Alex Chester

There’s a new film festival coming to Los Angeles, CA on. July 8th. The Taiwanese American Film Festival. Headed by up and coming director Roxy Shih. This, I thought, is freaking awesome. The entertainment industry is severely lacking media outlets to showcase Asian-American works. Let alone a specific Asian ethnic group. Yes, there’s more than one type of Asian. Oh, and some of us don’t even know how to use chopsticks properly... if at all…

Ms. Shih, has had her work shown at The LA Film Festival, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto Independent, and Dances with Films. She is a game-changer and someone to keep your eyes on. She is one bad-ass chick and I can’t wait to see where her career takes her. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding her upcoming film festival and her career.

Why was the Taiwanese-American Film Festival Created? 

The Taiwanese-American Film Festival was created not only to celebrate the achievements of up and coming Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American filmmakers, but also serves to create a bridge between these two communities, and give a platform for their voices.  

Diversity and Inclusion are currently hot topics in the entertainment industry.  What do you hope to achieve with the first ever Taiwanese-American Film Festival? 

We really hope to open the conversation further on diversity by putting the spotlight on Taiwanese-American and Taiwanese filmmakers. As a TA filmmaker I've always wanted to know who else is in my community, and what kind of stories we share since we have common roots. Having the lack of media representation growing up created a need to empower and unify creative voices in our community. TAP-LA (Taiwanese American Professionals) was essential in helping getting this festival off the ground, and because we have this support, we hope that we can encourage the development of even more cultural film festivals that will allow bigger audiences and communities to bridge the gap and have a more open dialogue with one another. 

As a female Asian-American Director, what are some of the difficulties you have run into due to your sex and race? How have you overcome them?

I feel like most of the time people are unaware of the impact of their words. The industry is conditioned to normalize these stereotypes... sometimes without their knowledge. I've been told "you're just a little girl, what could you possibly know?" to when I expressed interest directing sci-fi genre project as my first feature I've been told "But wouldn't you rather tell an Asian-American story? If you're going to make this, will it have an Asian lead?" I look into the eyes of the people that have said this to me and I see no ill intent in their eyes. This was honestly how they saw things, how they saw me.

I knew that complaining about it wasn't going to change anything. Actions speak louder than words. I looked for female mentors, examples and leaders that have broken the glass ceiling, went against the grain. They encouraged me to not think about being a woman or a minority and not allow these factors to mentally hinder my chances; simply become the filmmaker you see yourself becoming, who has an intense desire and passion to tell stories. When you have focus, willpower and integrity, you realize that very little will stand in your way, and that there are actually many people around that are willing to help you. 

Once you get there, and you find yourself becoming that mentor and example, you'll be able to inspire and empower younger generations and give them strength to pursue what they love. And this ties back to the festival, we have amazing Taiwanese-American panelists that have done incredible things in this industry, and we hope that it can be an example and encourage the younger generation to apply what they've learned to themselves so that they too, may succeed. 

What are some of your favorite projects you have worked on?

Without a doubt, THE TRIBE (my directorial feature). It was the most incredibly growing experience. I discovered my voice as a director, what my strengths were in storytelling and what more I had to learn. It was an incredibly humbling experience because my friends, family and even strangers, went above and beyond to make it happen. It made me realize that the more you give, the more you receive back. I also highly enjoyed working on the series Dark/Web, which is slated to come out this fall. It's a horror/sci-fi anthology series, and I'm thrilled because I got to work with some of my favorite people. It's going to be a new narrative form TV has never seen before!

What are your thoughts on Representation versus Presentation in the entertainment industry?

Filmmakers have an incredible responsibility because we have the ability to impact change. A very good friend of mine Mary-Lyn Chambers (who is a dope director) once told me that the very power to affect change is as simple as writing a character description on a script. You can say "the doctor (50s, male, caucasian) walks in," or you can say "the doctor (50s, female, Indian-American) walks in." I mean, it's great that the industry is now more sensitive to include diversity in their cast, but we also have to be sensitive on how they are portrayed. If they are portrayed in a way that is enforcing harmful and negative stereotypes instead of portraying diverse characters in our real world, then that doesn't help the cause. The only way we can progress forward is by telling honest stories, stories that tie all of us to one another, showing that we are more connected than we think. 

As an Asian Director do you feel it is your duty to further the cause of diversity? Do you think that just being you, a woman of color, that in itself is a call to action? 

If you asked me this question a year or two ago I wouldn't have felt that my voice mattered. I was simply just trying to make films and live in my own bubble where I can continue to work on what I wanted with the people I like working with. When I went to the Female Eye Film Festival last year in Toronto all of that changed. We had roundtable discussions on our stories, how to create more opportunities for women, and the future of the narrative landscape. We wanted more films, made under the female gaze, to be placed more on the map. It charged me, inspired me, and yes, made me realize that me just being who I am is already a call to action. Now... I can't choose to speak, I need to speak. It's an exciting, revolutionary time.

Any words of advice for the aspiring film-maker? Specifically API ones?

Nina Yang Bongiovi (producer of FRUITVALE STATION, DOPE) spoke recently at a "Women Who Lead" event at LA Film Fest and she has said something that has stuck with me - "Whatever it is that you're doing, make sure that your intention is pure." No words have rung any truer, if you do your work with your heart, you will succeed. That goes with any business, and filmmaking is no exception. As for specifically API filmmakers, there is a whole community of us that are here to help you if you are starting out. If you are intimidated, don't know how to get started, feel free to reach out. For ALL filmmakers remember to stay humble, stay hungry, and continue learning from one another. 

What do you have lined up next?

I'm excited to go into production later this summer to direct my second feature PAINKILLERS, which is going to be produced by Title Media and Lone Suspect. I'm also working on a documentary later this year focusing on Asian-American actors performing Elizabethan Shakespeare, and a film I'm directing in Taiwan at the end of the year with my longtime collaborator Sheldon Chau. It will be the first time I'll be trying my hand in directing in Mandarin, so we'll see how that goes! :)

Be sure to check out Roxy’s website and if you are in LA July 8th go to the TA Festival. Support your fellow Asian-Americans.