New collective fights for Asians on NZ screens

New Zealand’s first Asian TV series aired 10 years ago, and since then … nothing’s really happened. Now, the creatives behind the show have formed a collective to stop this lack of representation going on for another decade.

A new group called the Pan-Asian Screen Collective launched on August 28 with a preview screening of the box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians at Hoyts Sylvia Park. PASC’s executive includes the people behind New Zealand’s first pan-Asian TV series, A Thousand Apologies.

Roseanne Liang, a filmmaker and an executive member of PASC says there’s a real gap in representation, statistically, for screen practitioners of Asian heritage. “Both NZ on Air and the New Zealand Film Commission have done studies on diversity and gender. Asians were one of the most underrepresented.”

The idea of the collective began 10 years ago when Liang worked on a New Zealand sketch comedy show called A Thousand Apologies, along with PASC executive member and filmmaker Shuchi Kothari. The six-programme series consisted of vignettes addressing the Asian experience in New Zealand.

“Nothing’s moved for a decade,” Liang says. “The time is now. If we don’t do something, it will just be at a standstill again for another 10 years.”

Film commission statistics reflect this. Of the films it has funded over the last 40 years, only 1 percent were led by an Asian creative (writer, director, or producer). But as of the 2013 census, people of pan-Asian heritage constitute almost 12 percent of New Zealand’s population.

“Nothing’s moved for a decade,” Liang says. “The time is now. If we don’t do something, it will just be at a standstill again for another 10 years.”

- Roseanne Liang, Pan-Asian Screen Collective

Despite initiatives by funding bodies and workshops by arts equity organisations, the film commission says there has been a lack of funding applications from Asian creatives.

Liang says that needs to change. “Pan-Asian screen practitioners need to be hungry for these opportunities, but they’re not seen on screen so it’s become a subconscious bias that they don’t belong on screen.”

Recently, Radio New Zealand and NZ on Air announced a new $6 million joint fund to focus on “the creation of new, interesting, and innovative content for audiences who are currently not being well served”.

Liang says PASC wants to work with these organisations to provide the grassroots level connection to the diverse storytellers they’re seeking.

Since launching last week, PASC has attracted 250 members, Liang says. Its membership consists of mostly Chinese and Indian screen practitioners, but with several people of south-east Asian and Middle Eastern heritage.

“The narrative is being told by someone who isn’t us. PASC is about allowing pan-Asian practitioners the means to representation.”

Asian creatives in New Zealand say that the way they are currently represented in the media is two-dimensional. This has often led to negative stereotypes, primarily because stories aren’t being told by Asians themselves. Liang says, “The narrative is being told by someone who isn’t us. PASC is about allowing pan-Asian practitioners the means to representation.”

Matilda Boese-Wong, a founding member of PASC, is a young New Zealander breaking into the industry. “I really think, it’s such an exciting time right now to be entering the film industry as a person of colour. We’re already seeing some changes, people are paying attention to stuff. A lot of films are being made right now that production companies wouldn’t have funded 20 years ago.”

Crazy Rich Asians features an Asian American girl (played by Constance Wu, right) meeting her boyfriend's Singaporean family. Photo: supplied

Crazy Rich Asians has already grossed nearly $US111 million in American theatres. It is the first Hollywood feature film in a modern setting to feature a leading Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club premiered in 1993.

Boese-Wong was at the PASC screening. “The feeling of that room, we’re making a statement that we’re here, we’ve always been here. It’s time for you guys to listen. That feeling of being there together in the cinema, everyone understanding the cultural nuances, I’ve never been in that before.”

Liang says she hopes PASC fosters a new generation of Asian-Kiwi filmmakers. “I want there to be lots of men, women, and not just Chinese either, we want stories from India, Southeast Asia; we want a myriad of stories from lots of different kinds of people, and right now the situation is not acceptable.”

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