For Lilan Bowden, portraying Bex in Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” was the first time she played a culturally relevant role. The Taiwanese American actress quickly learned how much it meant for her community to see a multi-generational Asian American family on prime-time television, tackling everything from teenage pregnancy to feminism.
Since the show ended last year, the actor-turned-director has continued to push for opportunities to put Asian American families on the screen, most recently signing on to helm Korean American writer Ed Lee’s autobiographical film, “Becoming Eddie.” The film, which debuted at last week’s Bentonville Film Festival, is Bowden’s directorial debut, and the festival itself has become a mini-showcase of sorts for many Asian American filmmakers.
“Here was another chance for me to keep the conversation going, to keep telling stories that were really personal to me,” she told Variety. “I connected deeply to a little kid trying to emulate a white comedian, just trying to fit in at school, because I didn’t have any role models who were people of color. I mean, there was barely female representation.”
In the film festival circuit, womxn and filmmakers of color remain underrepresented. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, female directors at indie film screenings reached a record high in 2019, but still only comprised 32% of those featured.
Bentonville Film Festival strives to change that — last week’s virtual event, held from Aug. 10 to 16, boasted 80% of films from womxn filmmakers, many of whom are Asian American. And these multi-hyphenate directors aren’t bringing to the screen “roles that just happen to be Asian” — as Bowden describes — but ones that are three-dimensional, “Asian and American in their own ways.”
Sujata Day looked to screenwriting when she noticed the “roles under the establishment of Hollywood” she was auditioning for were “not the roles she necessarily wanted to play.” She began writing her own “Brown girl stories” eight years ago, including her first feature film “Definition Please,” following an Indian American spelling bee champion who gets derailed from her path to success.
Working closely with a predominantly Asian American cast and crew, the “Awkward Black Girl” star didn’t find it challenging to write, direct and act with her script. “I took a lot from my experiences, my Indian American friends and families’ experiences and kind of made it very specific to the story. When it came around casting, I have such an amazing Indian American acting community around me that I am already friends with, so I basically just started casting by texting my friends,” she explained. “And on set, I trusted everyone 100 percent in terms of getting the shots right, and for me as an actor and being in the scene, I knew we got it. I just felt it.”
Like Day, Alexandra Cuerdo cast people in her queer AAPI community to portray a younger version of herself in “Dancing on my Own,” in which she comes out to her mother during a heated conversation. Her short film was inspired by New York City’s Bubble_T, a dance party for queer Asian Americans, and the Filipinx documentarian strived to provide a space for cast and crew members navigating these intersectional identities.
“Bubble_T and this film — it’s a celebration of the queer community and a celebration of queer Asians in a single space,” she said. “So it was so important for me to collaborate with the real people from the community, so I can shine light on people who are marginalized, who are extraordinarily talented but maybe just haven’t gotten that shot, people who are now getting the chance to be in the room — those are the people I am most passionate about.”
Marie Jamora showcased her own Filipinx story at Bentonville, following the relationship of a Filipino mother and daughter, a story that became unexpectedly even more personal. When her feature film “Harana” was five months into production, the filmmaker found out she was pregnant. “I literally directed on intuition and emotion, because you’re never more connected to your body or spirit, as when you’re pregnant,” she said.
As a new mom, Jamora says she is seeking opportunities to direct more Filipinx stories on episodic television but worries that the coronavirus pandemic will provide another excuse for both film and TV industries to exclude womxn directors of color, especially those trying to break into production.
“A lot of [directing] opportunities and programs have all been affected by the pandemic we’re in,” she said. “People are talking the talk to make sure they have directors of color, but because of budget cuts, health concerns, [it feels like] nobody is wanting to bring on a director of color on set to shadow.”
The lack of representation behind the scenes is nothing new. “Oftentimes, I’ve been the only woman on set. I’m often the only Asian on set,” Cuerdo said. “And every time there’s another Asian American person, we would just gravitate toward each other and immediately become best friends, because [it’s] just how we survived together.”
So for these filmmakers, spaces like Bentonville not only provide opportunities to share Asian American stories, but to also connect with other directors who understand where their works are coming from and what experiences they are informed by.
“I think if you’re an Asian female in the directing world, you know you’re going to be the only one or one of two, so you’re not used to having this camaraderie,” said Bowden. “And these are films that show that Asian Americans are Americans, and that’s not something that I think a lot of people in this country really grasp on, on a deep level.”