Two older Asian women stand with their arms around each other, smiling against an outdoor background.

These Asian American Filmmakers Are Making Oscar History

Writer Nancy Wang Yuen chats with three documentary short filmmakers about their films and how varied the AA+PI experience can be

"Nai Nai and Wai Po" was directed by Sean Wang.

Still frame from "Nai Nai and Wai Po"

Asians have made recent Oscar history with Chloe Zhao as the first Asian woman to win Best Director in 2021, Michelle Yeoh as the first Asian woman to win Best Actress in 2023, and, in the same year, Daniel Kwan as the first U.S.-born Asian American to win Best Director (with Daniel Scheinert). This year brings another historical Oscar first for Asian Americans: three out of five nominees for Best Documentary Short Film have Asian American directors. They are The Barber of Little Rock (co-director Christine Turner), Island in Between (director S. Leo Chiang), and Nai Nai and Wai Po (director Sean Wang).

The Barber of Little Rock (directors John Hoffman and Turner) examines the racial wage gap through the story of Arlo Washington, a local Black barber who founded a nonprofit community bank for underserved and underbanked residents of Little Rock, Arkansas. Island in Between is Chiang’s reflection on his relationship with Taiwan, the United States and China from the island of Kinmen, just a few miles from mainland China. Nai Nai and Wai Po (streaming on Disney+ and Hulu) is a love letter from Wang to his two grandmothers, who live together and spend their twilight years dancing, singing and farting their sorrows away.

As we lead up to the Oscars on March 10, I spoke with all three Asian American directors about their historic nominations and documentary short films.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.

Nancy Wang Yuen: This year we have a historic Oscar nomination of three Asian American filmmakers in the documentary short category. What do you think Asian American filmmakers contribute to the field?
Christine Turner: I think the fact that you have a film like Leo's or Sean's or even The Barber of Little Rock just really speaks to the idea that Asian Americans are not a monolith—that you can have such diverse perspectives from different filmmakers who are touching on such different topics and telling stories in very different ways. It speaks to this multiplicity of voices that are out there. For me, my great grandmother, Faith Sai So Leong, was the first Chinese woman dentist in this country. My mother is third generation Chinese American. I have deep Chinese American roots here. There are people in my family on my mother’s side who have been here longer than many white Americans. My mother has spent her lifetime dedicated to social justice as a Chinese American woman, and so I was brought up to recognize civil rights and justices that our community has faced historically and continues to face and see many parallels with the Black American experience. And they're very different experiences, but there is a tremendous amount of overlap. Speaking as someone who is a double minority, somebody who is both African American and Chinese American, and a woman, I have an even more intersectional lens on the kind of films that I make. I might notice something there that someone else misses, and I'm always inside each of these communities but also standing outside them as well.

A row of Black men sit in barbers' chairs while other men shave their beards.

"The Barber of Little Rock" was co-directed by Christine Turner and John Hoffman.

Still frame from "The Barber of Little Rock"

Sean Wang: The thing that I always lean into with my filmmaking is make it personal, make it a point of view that is so specific to you, that it feels like only you could have made it. And I think when I lean into that perspective, it automatically gets attached to an Asian American perspective because that's what is personal to me. That's what's honest to me. And I've realized in the last few years too, that when I make something really personal through that distinct point of view, which is an Asian American child of immigrants point of view, it is a perspective that I think is new and that a lot of Western audiences haven't seen before. I think we've only scratched the surface of the stories that are kind of told from that perspective. The breadth of our stories just hasn't been as explored as much as it can be. And so I think no one film can be everything for everybody. The more we can access a hyper-specific sliver of the Asian American experience, or any experience that just hasn't been the majority experience that we've been seeing for so long, I think is an important story to tell.

NWY: Why do you think it took so long for there to be more than one Asian American filmmaker to be nominated for a documentary short?
S. Leo Chiang: This is a little bit inside baseball, but I myself am an Academy member in the documentary branch. And I know in the last several years, the documentary branch has made a really conscious effort to diversify the branch, both in terms of domestic makeup of the membership, but also a big push for international members. And I think if you bring in people from different backgrounds who have different priorities in what they want to watch and desiring to see different representations, you're gonna get a more diverse slate of films that's being recognized. So I'm super excited this year that three films in this category are Asian American nominees.

CT: I think that there are probably a number of factors that have made it difficult for Asian American filmmakers and other filmmakers of color to ultimately receive the nomination. Whether or not they are receiving the same kinds of funding or opportunities as other filmmakers remains a question. I think the fact that the Academy's voting body for so long was so white, and so male, and skewed older, certainly would have contributed to what kinds of films get selected and elevated. And so I imagine that those are two contributing factors but certainly talent or skill or perspective is not one of those reasons. Historically, documentary comes out of anthropology, and so people like Robert Flaherty employed an observational lens to view the Other and even used recreations to fashion their own ideas and reinforce their own beliefs about how these people in communities lived. So it was through very much a white anthropological perspective and did not give voice to the people who were actually in the film. Today, many filmmakers are really interested in de-colonizing the form and making sure that our subjects also have a voice and agency in the process.

NWY: How did you come to make your film?
SW: In the spring of 2021, I had moved home to the Bay Area and that move was months and months and months of spending time with my two grandmothers and getting to experience life with them in a way that I never had before. It was the most time that I had spent with them living together under one roof ever. And I knew that that experience was special. I knew that seeing them in their day-to-day life, their sort of quotidian rhythms of reading the newspaper, washing their dishes, their quiet moments were also compounded by these sort of heightened silly moments where I'd walk into the room and we'd start dancing or they'd start spanking me. It was very joyful and grounded and that was kind of juxtaposed with a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes and these rising anti-Asian sentiments that were happening in our country at the time, but especially in the Bay Area. And it was that juxtaposition that ultimately, I think, inspired me to turn a camera on them and wanting to make an antidote to all of the anger and all of the headlines and all of these things I was reading about that really victimized people like my grandmothers and paint a portrait of them that was very human, that showed just how joyful and silly and complex and also all of that without ignoring the sadness and the melancholy and the pain of their childhood and what it felt like to age and thoughts about mortality. Really painting a complex three-dimensional portrait of these two women.

A wall decorated with newspaper clippings in Chinese, a photo of Mao Zedong, and photos of Asian women and men.

"Island in Between" was directed by S. Leo Chiang.

Still frame from "Island in Between"

SLC: It was at the beginning of the pandemic, when I was fully in Taiwan for a long stretch of time—that's actually when I started making Island in Between. Because at that time it was really hard to come in and out of Taiwan because of the mandatory COVID quarantine. It was like two weeks by yourself in a hotel room, you know, you cannot walk out at all. So most Taiwanese people, when they want to travel, they now look for domestic destinations. And me and my parents just decided to take a trip together. And we thought, let's go to Kinmen because it was a place that was always so curious to me. And it was also a place that my father served as a conscript, is that the right term? You know, the mandatory military service. So he has memories there. So we decided to go there and check it out as tourists. The stuff that I shot there was really home video stuff. You know, the iPhone videos that you see in the film were shot on that first trip. It was not necessarily shot with a film in mind. It was after I returned to Taipei that I decided to pursue a film project.

CT: My co-director, John, and I were interested in making a film about the racial wealth gap. The average white household has eight times the amount of wealth as the average Black household, and this gap continues to widen despite certain progress that we've made in this country. We really wanted to focus on this important issue because it's not something that people have given much attention to. But it's a problem that's not going away and it's a very large problem. In the course of our research, we read a book called The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran, [which] looks at the history of Black banking in this country since reconstruction, and the ways in which government policy has failed us as a country. One of the things that she points to in the book is this CDFI program, Community Development Financial Institution program, that she explains is one of the most consequential acts that we've had in terms of trying to create opportunity in some of these underserved, underbanked communities. We ended up speaking with Donna Gambrell, who was the first director of the CDFI fund during the Clinton administration, and she told us about Arlo Washington, our main subject. We were immediately intrigued by her description of Arlo who, on the parking lot of his barber college, had a converted shipping container that houses a nonprofit loan fund. He didn't have a background in finance. He was a barber by trade, and an entrepreneur who was running this barber college. But the way that he sort of fell into this type of work was very organic, and that appealed to us.

NWY: What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
SLC: I want to challenge especially Western perception of Chinese people or China. China is always portrayed as this sort of scary foreign place where people are thoughtless robots that just follow whatever the government tells them. And that's simply not the case. That's not how humanity works. Human beings are thinking beings with different life experiences and different opinions. So I think that's at the very least, I want people to kind of walk away with that. I also want people to start to think about this conflict more from the Taiwanese perspective, not always from like, this is how Americans see it, or this is what the Chinese want Taiwan to do. No, Taiwanese people have their opinions and Taiwanese people have grievances that we want to air, and they have stories that we want to share, you know? And I want to push people to be more open to hearing that side of it. As my film went out, I was getting emails from all over the world. Somebody wrote from Korea and talked about how much this film resonates with him as a Korean. It's a different place, but it's a similar situation where it's an unfortunate remnant of the Cold War. I got a message from a Cuban American in Miami who says, “This is our history too.” There's a universality in our struggle to reconcile our very different, sometimes contradicting, identities.

Two older Asian women look surprised, with a small frame in front of their faces, against an outdoors background.

"Nai Nai and Wai Po" follows director Sean Wang's two grandmothers.

Still frame from "Nai Nai and Wai Po"

SW: I think for better or worse, this film, more than anything I've made, me and Sam, who is our cinematographer, one of my closest collaborators, one of our producers as well, we almost describe it as making, like, an elevated home video, in the sense that, you know, home videos aren't for anybody except the person recording them and their family. And I think to me, that was the audience in mind. Can we make something that felt like a true, honest portrait of these two women, that when I watch this 10 years from now, when I show my kids this movie, when I show my children's children this movie, I can look at this movie and say, that is an accurate representation of my two grandmothers? Long after they're gone, like, you take away the Oscars, you take away Disney+, you take away South by Southwest and these festival wins and the sort of unexpected, surreal, crazy journey that this film has taken us on. You take away all of that. And at the end of the day, I have something for my family and future generations. And I think that is something that you can't really quantify how much that means. And I think going back to, you know, accessing universal themes through the personal, I think now that we've gotten to share the movie, it does sort of seem like people watch this and think of their grandmothers or it reminds them of a friendship in their lives that is similar to the friendship that Nai Nai and Wai Po have. It's about sisterhood. It's about friendship. It's about multi-generational family dynamics. I think there's so much woven into this movie that people can see a version of themselves. But ultimately, it was for us.

Published on February 24, 2024

Words by Nancy Wang Yuen

Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. She is currently writing a book about her life through the films and TV shows she grew up watching.