Exploring identity in 8 minutes

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by SEUNGWOO BAEK

Along with this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival veterans, there is another batch of new young filmmakers walking onto the stage.

In its third iteration, Unsung Voices Youth Video Production Workshop debuted Unsung Voices 3, a compilation of six eight-minute short films that explore the subject of Asian Canadian identity. The film, not only a culmination of a summer-long effort, was a chance for these six first time filmmakers to take up the mantles of actor, director, and producers, and learn a range of necessary skills to produce their own eight-minute long stories.

Even with the singular focus on the topic of Asian-Canadian identity, the first-time directors showed wide variety in expressing their stories. Whilst Helen Shen’s Unrecognized depicted a high school student at the cusp of graduation and struggling with university application, Meryl Romo’s Seeking Refuge followed a poignant story of a teen runaway who tries to find her home in the fellowship of other misfits. Ranging from documentary to fiction, the stories told here, albeit short, rang clear in each filmmaker’s passion and the personal importance of the stories.

I was able to meet with one of the program participants, director Helen Shen, who talked about her experience with the program, the importance of identity and her next steps.

 Q: Was this your first time participating?
A: I’ve done my own work before, but [for something] professional, [this] was [my] first time.

 Q: What was it like to explore the issue of identity?
A: This was the first time I’ve dealt with it so directly. But I think it’s a recurring thing in life.

Q: The program requires a heavy rotation of roles…

A: That’s the design of the program. All the participants have to rotate the six main roles of DOP, assistant director, gaffer, sound, all those things, so that we get to not only get the experience, but also to appreciate each role. It was a lot of collaboration amongst the six participants.

Q: Which did you prefer: standing behind the camera or before?
A: I think some of us preferred acting more than others. I myself wasn’t into acting as much. I was an extra in one of the shorts but that was about it. Behind the camera there is more to focus on in terms of big picture. But both sides require a lot of focus. [The acting] was difficult when I did it.

 Q: How did the experience of filming or acting in local locations change the way you interact with them?
A: Time constraint made us very resourceful in terms of what we had access to. We looked around everywhere for location, crew, actors. It definitely required us to be more imaginative with our resources.

Q: If you were granted unlimited resources, what would be your ideal location to shoot?
A: I would love to film somewhere in Europe, in the mountainside.

Q: Which do you prefer: short form or long form?
A: I had trouble with the requirement of under eight minutes initially. My first script was much longer than eight minutes. But given the constraints we had to work with and the amount of things we had to learn, I think eight minutes was most manageable. Especially when we got to post-production, it became very clear that we shouldn’t be too ambitious. [The short form] I think it helps with keeping the stories tight.

Q: So for your next project?
A: I would be okay with continuing on with short term; it is most manageable. I would like to take on longer forms once I’ve gained more experience.

Q: What is the main attraction of the short form?
A: Efficiency. How quickly it can be done, and how well people can collaborate. It required one day of shoot for each eight-minute short.

Q: Do you express yourself in other creative media?
A: Drawing and writing. So filming was me merging it all together. When I was young, I was doing a lot of creative things and having too many things is a lot of effort and resources. So when I was a bit older I put it all together…It’s been a very long dream of mine [to become a director], although the education path hasn’t been all that direct.

I studied finance and economics, the idea was to study [them] to learn more about film as business, which is a very important part of getting a film made.

 

Q: Unrecognized starts with a Shakespearean quote…
A: It very generally says that “Anything is possible.” You are not just stuck with what you get. You can make your own way in the world. It was a motivational quote that I used and in a way it sparked the film.

 

A: The main character’s friend’s sassy advise to the protagonist stuck between identity crisis and the university application was, “You just focus on the application first.”
A: When writing the script, I wanted to show that a lot of the times those two things happen in conjunction and are solved together. [The] story plays off of my personal experience. When I was applying for universities and colleges, a lot of the applications asked pretty philosophical and deep questions. They got me thinking about who I am, who I wanted to be, and that questioning got me to the issue of “identity crisis.”

 

Q: You put air-quotes around identity crisis…
A: Because for me it wasn’t a crisis. I think ever since I was a kid, I knew what I wanted to do, just getting there is a different matter and [the] journey is what makes it.

 

Q: What about the ending?
A: We kept that as generic as possible. It’s not necessarily Harvard that she ends up at, but that in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is what she ends up doing with her life. In a sense where you go to university does to some degree make a difference. But what you end up doing is what matters the most. People will remember you for what you can do and what you have done, and not necessarily because you went to a big school.

 

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