Whenever I meet someone Asian and tell them I am a young, emerging filmmaker with no tertiary qualifications, they tend to look at me with an incredulous grin and ask “Really? But you’re so smart!” Then I go on to explain how I piece together my paltry income in the unprofitable Australian film industry. They nod and make sounds that indicate they’re either in awe of me or feeling very sorry for me (I can never tell). Either way, they’re probably thinking: “Why did your parents allow you to do this??” because this is the exact sort of nightmare that Amy Chua would warn all the Tiger Mothers against.
Despite my careful Asian upbringing and my best judgment, I made the decision in high school to pursue a career in film after my year nine drama teacher played the class a movie called The Shawshank Redemption. The film’s eloquent story of life and redemption in prison evoked a surge of complex and indescribable emotions that were still alien to the sheltered, fifteen year old me but it somehow made it very clear to me that I wanted to create films that had the power to affect others in the way this film had affected me. After high school I embarked on a degree in filmmaking at the University of Technology Sydney but dropped out in my final year to pursue professional opportunities. For an Asian parent, dropping out of university is one of the worst crimes their child could commit (it is at least on par with taking illicit drugs) and to this day, I think my parents still think one day I’m going to go back to university and complete my degree.
I began working professionally in the film industry at the age of twenty one. I made my living working in film crews before recently making the precarious move into developing and producing my own feature films, TV dramas and documentaries. I’ve always been passionate about representing Australia truthfully; that is to embrace its cultural diversity wholeheartedly (not just out of obligation) and tell the many untold stories in our immigrant communities.
I am one of the few Asian-Australian filmmakers working professionally in this predominantly Anglo-Australian industry. According to the 2006 census, 21% of the Australian population spoke a language other than English at home. Asian languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi and Vietnamese are in the top ten most spoken languages in Australia. Despite the vibrant, multicultural make up of our country, the Australian film and TV industries are relatively devoid of practitioners from non-English speaking backgrounds in key creative roles such as writing, directing, producing and acting. Asian-Australians in particular are few and far between (I can count all the established Asian-Australian filmmakers with the fingers on one hand). A look through the 2006-2007 annual report of the now-defunct Australian Film Commission (AFC) reveals that only 2.4% of the funding applications received that year were from applicants of Asian (including Middle Eastern), descent. Compare this to the 2006 census data where people born in Asia account for 6.9% of the population and 5.5% of the population speak Asian languages at home. Perhaps it would be even more telling to examine how many of those AFC applications from Asian-Australians were actually successful – this information, however, cannot be found in the AFC’s annual report.
On screen, Asian-Australian content is just as scarce as Asian-Australian filmmakers off screen. Speak to any Asian-Australian actor and they can tell you about the dire situation (after they come out of a casting to play a restaurant owner, taxi driver or sex worker). From a feature film producing perspective, it is difficult to finance a small multicultural Australian film because the funding bodies require a certain level of marketplace interest, which can be impossible to attain given Australia’s miniscule market for “niche” films (as multicultural films would inherently be seen as). The funding bodies simply do not fund feature films purely for the sake of art and culture. In television, SBS is our dedicated multicultural broadcaster but its existence seems to be an excuse for network executives at other channels to alleviate themselves of the responsibility to represent Australia accurately. “That’s SBS territory” they say (Note: actual quote from a network executive).
Given the current state of play, it’s no surprise that Asian-Australians prefer to take safer career paths. I believe the fear of financial insecurity is deeply rooted in the immigration experience. Of course, I cannot speak for all immigrants nor claim to represent the broad spectrum of their experiences but my Asian friends (most of whom attended selective high schools and scored UAIs of 90+) can testify that our parents raised us with the unwavering expectation that we would become gainfully employed lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, management consultants or accountants. Those who strayed from the path induced fury and panic in equal measures in their well-meaning Asian parents. In most cases it’s not because the parents saw no merit in the creative arts, but because they didn’t want us to experience the hardship that they had endured.
Fortunately for me, my mother, who raised me by herself, had few objections to my wild aspirations. I’ve always been fiercely ambitious and hotheaded (a typical Scorpio) so she knew there was nothing she could do to make me take a more sensible path (she was no Tiger Mother). As confident as I am, I do have fleeting moments of doubt about my career choices. I too have a deep-rooted fear of financial insecurity. It’s not the fear of what I wouldn’t be able to own but what I wouldn’t be able to give back to the person who sacrificed everything for me. In these anxious moments, I think about the film I saw in year nine drama class and I am reminded of this simple truth: you can accomplish just about anything if you chip away at it persistently.