Every person in this world, every person you see, has their own unique stories. The store clerk next door who’s been waiting for his son’s return, the construction worker across the street who just got his heartbroken, and the mailman who has been a victim of discrimination for his whole life. Stories that were unheard of, due to the lack of representation in the media. Now imagine if every one of them has the opportunity to share their stories through support and platform, to see what things they have to say to the world. Things that we might not catch with a mere glance.
Enter Unsung Voices, a series of workshops that aims to voice out unheard stories of young Asian Canadians. Unsung Voices is a part of Toronto Reel Asian’s lineup of programs. Unsung Voices supports young filmmakers through funding and mentoring from professionals in the field to create a distinctly Asian Canadian story on screen. This program is a big step for underrepresented filmmakers to emerge in the industry, hone their skills as artists, and reach new opportunities through networking. This progressive program is something that other countries in the world may want to consider initiating or prioritizing. Their voices must be heard, as they are the future. A selection of films from numerous editions of Unsung Voices also got shown in Minikino Film Week 7, representing Toronto Reel Asian as a guest program.
The films in the program were certainly diverse—in their genre, story, form, style, and also quality—yet pertaining to the roots of the Asian Canadian diaspora. The lineup consists of Sunday (2020) by Kim Hayung, Homewater (2020) by Aidan Chan, Kar (2019) by Sahar Golshan, Little Red (2019) by Jacqueline Shi, Bollysingh (2017) by Prajjwal Rajawat, 36 Questions (2016) by Jennifer Su, Cello in the Subway (2016) by Iven Tu, Liquid Beings (2015) by Seden Lai, Door to Door (2015) by Bruce Ravichandran, On the Other Hand (2014) by Nathaniel Wong, Open Gym (2013) by Simu Liu, and Suman Ladies (2013) by Althea Balmes. I concluded several points that were present in some, if not all, of the films in this program.
Alienation and Discrimination
One of the most prominent themes in the films of the Unsung Voices program is alienation. I define alienation as the result of loss of identity. Themes of alienation often relate to an existential conflict where the subject feels like they live in a hostile world. As all of the filmmakers of Unsung Voices are of Asian immigrants, somehow alienation plays a big part in their films.
One film that shines a comedic light on alienation is Bollysingh (2017). The film follows an Indian teenage boy trying to avoid being made fun of for wearing his turban, a headdress that symbolizes his cultural identity. He wears a beanie over his turban to fit in the conventional beauty standard and win his crush’s heart. From the get-go, we see the boy being the only teenager with a turban in an urban school setting. We almost always see him alone, looking down, and feeling different. Bollysingh (2017) portrays alienation that derives from race and cultural discrimination. The film ends on a light-hearted note, with the protagonist losing his crush to a similar guy with a turban. Even though he lost the girl, he accepts his identity by taking off his beanie.
Cello in the Subway (2016), Suman Ladies (2013), and Kar (2019) are short documentaries that touch on alienation and discrimination on a much deeper and personal narrative. With Kar (2019) having the director’s father as the subject; a former taxi driver and driving instructor who faced discrimination and racial terror. While Suman Ladies (2013) and Cello in the Subway (2016) follow around subjects of Asian immigrants making a living on the streets and subways of Toronto. Each of the subjects of the three documentaries was shown to address the result of racial and cultural discrimination by showing the subject’s inner thoughts and struggles as a minority. The other films I didn’t mention also have some hints of alienation and discrimination. This leads me to think that racial and cultural discrimination is a widespread problem in the Canadian community. The young filmmakers managed to touch on the issue confidently.
“Show, don’t tell is”, the golden phrase that’s been said countless times by filmmakers and critics. How the filmmaker ‘shows’ the story, could elevate a simple story to a beautiful film. The films in the program mostly tell their story through guided exposition and the usual cinematic conventions. However, some films experimented with its cinematic form. Achieving an artistic value that I’ve come to appreciate from these young filmmakers.
With hints of Jodorowsky in its visuals, Liquid Beings (2015) questions the origin of man through surrealism. Sunday (2020), an animated documentary on the filmmaker’s memories of growing up within her father’s church. Through its archival yet stylized animation of old family photos, I felt a sense of nostalgic yet dreadful feeling of reminiscing childhood in a conservative family. In terms of cinematography, Little Red (2019) tells the story of a Chinese family in one single shot. The camera explores the family’s house, changing its interior from time to time adjusting to the family’s offscreen dialogue. Lastly, On the Other Hand (2014) chooses ping-pong as a unique way to illustrate a father’s advice on growing a business.
Each film I mentioned beforehand has different themes and stories that they explore in ways that feel free-spirited and confident. Experimentation and innovation in cinematic form and language are the things that I really appreciate from short films, but not the things I expect from funding or film workshop programs. The reason being some of them have a tendency to stick to the wide-established cinematic rules. It’s nice to see the mentors have encouraged the young filmmakers to experiment freely in their films, providing them a safe space to explore their style.
A Place to Grow
One of the most interesting things in this program is seeing Simu Liu, one of the cast in the hit Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience (2016-2021) and the main star in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), as one of the filmmakers in the Unsung Voices program. He directed and starred in his own short film, Open Gym (2013). A simple film about a man fighting his insecurities in a boxing gym. While the film wasn’t really the best in the program, it was nice to see his early work and how he has grown to be an international actor.
From Simu Liu, I see that Unsung Voices exists as a stepping stone for emerging filmmakers to grow and develop their skills. I imagine the journey of creating a film from scratch with the guidance from professional mentors has given them valuable lessons in filmmaking and life in general. I can’t help but feel inspired reading their process and seeing the result.
Toronto Reel Asian’s Unsung Voices could be seen as a stepping stone for other countries in the world to spotlight their own ‘Unsung Voices’. The most interesting thing to see in this program is what hidden stories are there to see. In Reel Asian’s case, the diverse issues and humans of the Asian Canadian diaspora. While other countries have developed their own funding and workshop programs, I feel that some of them guided the participants to make films that follow their agenda; whether political or nationalist. More film grants should listen to what the marginalized youth has to say and support their art’s vision. As the future belongs to the youth, and who knows what they have to say?
About the Program: Aram Collier (Head of Programming Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival) is the guest programmer of Minikino Film Week 7, Bali International Short Film Festival. He selected ten short films produced in Unsung Voices filmmaking workshops (2013-2020). The program was screened on Saturday, 4 September 2021 at Rumah Film Sang Karsa (Buleleng) and Tuesday, 7 September 2021 (Irama Indah Minihall, Denpasar).