The Asian American Filmmakers In HBO’s Visionaries Competition On Telling Specific, Universal Stories

Shelly Yo; Nirav Bhakta; Julie Zhan/HBO

It's no secret that the Hollywood system rewards two things: talent and connections. But being talented matters very little unless you're able to get your foot in the door. And for filmmakers of color, those guarded doors can translate to less opportunity. This is in part why HBO launched HBO Visionaries. Started in 2016, HBO Asian Pacific American Visionaries is a short film competition specifically for Asian filmmakers and Asian American stories. This year's HBO APA Visionaries finalists, Nirav Bhakta, Shelly Yo, and Julie Zhan, recently spoke to Bustle about the opportunity, and explained what makes an Asian American story, well, Asian American.

The prompt for this year's competition asked filmmakers to make a film that "centers around the modern APA experience" and how it is influenced by modern technology. Bhakta's film Halwa — co-directed with Gayatri Bajpai — is about an Indian woman who, isolated by her abusive husband, reconnects with a childhood love on Facebook. She notes over the phone that depicting the Asian American experience is all about authenticity, not a specific narrative. "Throughout this competition... you'll notice that each of our films has a very deep and personal topic that is just our Asian American experience," he explains. "It finally [feels] like we can just be ourselves. That's what it [the Asian American experience] is. ...We don't have to cater to anybody or water our stuff down or anything or over-explain ourselves to anyone."

Halwa/HBO

All three films — Halwa; Moonwalk With Me, directed by So Young Shelley Yo; and Zoetic, from co-directors Julie Zhan and Wesley Chan — are very different. Moonwalk With Me uses magical realism to tell the story of a Korean American woman struggling to deal with the disappearance of her father. And Zoetic is about a Chinese American woman who encourages her single mother to start online dating. All three tackle different facets of the Asian American experience, but they all do so within two common themes: immigration and familial expectations.

"Moonwalk with Me is a story that centers around the relationship between a father and daughter, but the father constantly leaves the daughter behind," Yo explains over the phone. "And I found that this is an experience that was specific to me, but also specific to a lot of immigrant families."

Moonwalk With Me/HBO

Zhan, who also stars in Zoetic, had a similar experience, making a personal film that resonated with a larger Asian experience. "For Asian Americans and our culture and the way we relate, our relationships with our parents is number one," Zhan says over the phone. "It’s so key to who we are, how we function, and, funny enough, that’s the film Zoetic. It’s really about a relationship between an Asian American daughter and her immigrant mother."

Of course, just because these films feature similar themes doesn't mean they are the only Asian American stories to be told. And all three filmmakers hope that their short films, which are currently available to watch on HBO and stream on HBO Go and HBO Now, will, in the words of Yo, "add more diversity to the Asian American narrative." For Bhakta, that means moving beyond the immigrant narrative and broadening the scope of Asians depicted in the mainstream media. "We come from this like massive immigrant background, and that's beautiful and that stays with us, but I just want to be seen as normal human beings," he says.

Competitions like HBO Visionaries play a crucial role in that mission, not only by giving Asian American stories exposure they might not have otherwise received, but also by helping to create a community of Asian American filmmakers. This, says Zhan, is key. "Having that sense of community and support system of everybody who’s same goal is, 'let’s continue advancing, not only Asian, but diverse representation in media, and let’s tell important stories.' I think that’s the mission that binds us all."