Los Angeles (June 18, 2016) — Lao American filmmaker Sinakhone Keodara is starting a campaign to fund his latest project, “Where Our Worlds Meet,” a short film about a gay Asian man coming to terms with his lover’s death and draws from Lao and Latino culture. The film is based on a screenplay that was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival’s Teleplay & Screenplay Competition.
Keodara is the founder and CEO of Lao Films & Television, Inc. He is an award-winning producer, writer who most recently was associate producer of the LGBTQ comedy “I Love You Both” in 2015, which won the 2016 Cinequest Film Festival New Vision Award. He studied at the Santa Monica College Film Program and is a 2014 NBC Universal Talent Lab fellow.
Rana Tahir recently interviewed Keodara for her Words Across Borders blog. She connected with Keodara to talk about his Indiegogo campaign to take WOWM to the next level — filming a short film — and to get his thoughts on LGBTQ and Asian representation in the media, and his own writing.
What inspired you to write “Where Our Worlds Meet” (WOWM)?
This story is inspired by a personal tragedy where I wasn’t allowed to visit the love-of-my-life in the ICU when he died from AIDS-related complications in the hospital in Atlanta, Ga. in 2005. His family shut me out so I never had closure. I didn’t know what to do with the grief. I wrote some feelings down on paper as short of a goodbye love letter that became the impetus for a screenplay for this film. In 2007, I sat down to try to write a screenplay because I felt that our story needed to be told but I had to put it away because it was too painful. It wasn’t until 2013 when I took a directing class and I wanted to pitch this story as my thesis film that I completed the script.
A lot of writers struggle with making art out of such personal and painful moments, did you have any reservations or obstacles in sharing this story? How did you overcome them, or did you?
For the rest of my life, I’ll never know what it was like to be by my partner’s side, holding his hand, whispering into his ears telling him I love him during his transition to the next realm. Writing this script has been a gut-wrenching and emotionally exhausting experience. Each draft of the script was akin to peeling a layer of the onion, revealing an unrelenting, if hidden, painful scar and deep wound which hadn’t heal, although time has covered up the scabs. I still cry one of those deep, ugly, painful cries every time I read through the script. In 2013, I launched a failed Kickstarter campaign so my hope was crushed and I had to focus on survival and took my first industry job and put off this project but it kept coming up so I’m back to it. I decided to revamp the story and not make it completely biographical and dramatized a lot of the scenes but kept the essence of what happened and gave myself creative freedom to create a script that is cinematic and dramatic that fosters a lot of Lao culture. In some ways, in rewriting the script, I gave myself a happy ending in my movie that I wasn’t afforded in real life. I had some reservations about the privacy of his family so I changed the race of my partner from white to Hispanic. I also decided to do a scene that dealt with the violence committed against gay men by straight Latino men because I wanted to shine light on homophobia within the Latino community. I had some reservations about that because I’m an outsider to the Latino community. However, after some reflection, I am an artist, it’s my job to push the envelope and so it goes.
How did you get into the industry? Did you always want to write and direct movies?
I came to Hollywood in 2006 to pursue my dream of becoming an actor and I started doing background work with Central Casting for a couple of years and tried the actor’s life but found that there is a lack of roles for Asian actors and I gave up acting to find a “real” job. When I took the leap of faith and jumped on that greyhound bus with two suitcases and my dreams, I had no inkling that I wanted to be a writer or director or any position behind the camera. I came to Hollywood to be a star (like everyone else…lol) and wanted to be in front of the camera. While on set I was introduced to Joseph Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth” and one thing lead to another and I decided to pick up a copy of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist Way” book and took the workshop of the same name with venerable teacher Kelly Morgan and I discovered my hidden talent of writing. Writing was the last thing on my mind because I avoided English classes to save my life. English is a hard language to master especially grammar and being that English is my second language I just never imagined I wanted to be a writer cause I struggled in High School and College in English and Literature classes.
I fell into directing almost by accident. Back in 2008, post-Prop 8, I was one of many LGBT activists fighting to win back our rights that was stripped from us by the voters of California. A group of us LGBT activists organized an event called the Revolution and I decided to tape a “Take A Vow” video of attendees making a vow of commitment to win back our rights and I found that I really enjoyed being behind the camera and was moved to tears by these strangers who were pouring their hearts out on camera. I was hooked on being a midwife to the magic that happens between the camera and its subject and I had a little voice in my head telling me that I was good at connecting with people and that I should go to school to become a film a director. I was reluctant because I didn’t think that I had it in me to be a film director. It just seems like such an overwhelming task. But then during a Day of Decision rally that LGBT activists put together as a vigil to send a message to the Supreme Court of California in May of 2009, I heard Cheryl Lee Ralph up on stage singing a song at the rally that imparted the wisdom of the power of the pen, it was my call to adventure. It was one of those moments when things clicked and I felt my Higher Power was communicating to me so I resolved that in order for me to have any kind of opportunities in Tinsel Town as a gay Asian actor, I would have to create it for myself. So that’s how my long and winding journey into becoming a filmmaker began. I have Cheryl Lee Ralph to thank for it. She is such a fierce and powerful spirit, and she oozes charisma and inner beauty, besides the fact that she’s physically beautiful.
Lately campaigns like #whitewashedOUT have highlighted the lack of PoC, specifically Asian, representation in media. Clearly there are a lot of stories to tell, why do you think the representation is still so small?
I’m so glad you brought that up. It is deep rooted in systemic racism and a culture of white supremacy. I give Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu and Margaret Cho a lot of credit for jumpstarting this revolution by starting the conversation on whitewashing that led to the #whitewashedOUT movement. Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu will always go down in my book as the heroines of this movement because they stood up for all of us risking their careers. It is groundbreaking and there has been a shift of consciousness. There is no going back. And to quote British actress Gemma Chan, “the dreambeat is getting louder.” Hollywood will be shamed into changing and the studios will have to take actions to change the status quo. To be frank, I’d always been frustrated with Asian actors and why popular directors like Ang Lee, Justin Lin et al have not used their platform and been more vocal on this issue so to see Asian women leading this revolution is something that is both powerful and overwhelming because those ladies are fierce warriors. We can never thank them enough! I’m a Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu fan for life. I will do anything for those ladies. In fact, a sci-fi script that I’ve writeen titled Frog Eats Moon have them in mind for the two leads. But first things first. LOL. I gotta get this movie made. To get back to your question, I believe this all goes back to propaganda and a culture where the only images of beauty, of heroes and of historical figures that are great have been forced fed to us to be white people. It’s in the textbooks that we studied, the novels that we read, magazines that we perused, movies that we watched, music that we listened to and the scientists and geniuses that have been recorded or afforded face time in our educational videos and documentaries have mainly been white people. It’s subconscious. We’re taught that white people are superior to everybody else and that is a lie. We are all great in our own right. Greatness exists in every race and creed. We are all divine spiritual beings having a human experience. How I see race is like this, each race is like a flower decorating this beautiful garden called earth. We compliment each other. No races is better or worst than the others. Period.
WOWM is definitely a-typical in regards to Asian representation in the media. Do you think there is an additional hurdle for LGBTQ Asians? What is it? And why?
Thank you for this question. There definitely is additional hurdle for being LGBTQ of Asian descent. It’s both sexual orientation and race. We face sort of a double-whammy of hurdles. We experience discrimination from within our community of origin (for being gay) and within the LGBTQ community for being Asian so there is this crisis of self-esteem for my Gaysian brothers and sisters. We don’t feel good about who we are as gay people because we’re being discriminated against by our gay brothers and sisters for being Asian and we can’t feel good about our Asianess because our family of origin rejects us for being gay and sees us as some kind of disease-ridden rodents and as something bad for our gayness. My family have come full circle from thinking that I am gay because of bad karma from a past life (it’s a Buddhist thing) to now accepting me fully. I bring all my ex-boyfriends home for the Holidays. I wouldn’t have it any other way and they’ve learned to deal with it. All my nieces and nephews have called all my exes uncle. But, when I was newly out, this is about 21 years ago, my family don’t have any information on gay issues so when I go home so it becomes uncomfortable around the dinner table. There is still a lack of education in SE Asian communities on gay issues and the major LGBT organizations don’t dedicate resources to translate literature into Southeast Asian languages, especially not Lao. Not to my knowledge at least and I called around and couldn’t find any. As recently as last year, I had a dear Lao friend contact me on Facebook frantic about her nephew and his struggles of coming out and how his parents are not knowing how to deal with their son being gay. We searched high and low and finally found one PFLAG pamphlet in the Lao language about gay people that is incoherent that no one knew about our uses. In order words, if you’re gay and SE Asian, or, specifically, if you’re gay and Lao, good luck with your coming out process. You’re fucked because you’re left to fend for yourself and deal with your coming out on your own. Seriously, like, when was the last time you saw the gay press cover an Asian gay man or woman coming out? They’ve all been about white social media stars, white actors and a few token black celebrities here and there. But, I’ve not yet seen one gay media coverage of an Asian person’s coming out story because to the white LGBT press, our stories don’t matter because we don’t matter to them. They don’t see us. We’re even more invisible in the LGBT community as Asians. It’s worst than the straight world. There is a lot of work to be done on that front. The LGBTQ media don’t cover LGBTQ of color, especially Asians, unless we’re someone already famous like George Takei, Alec Mapa or BD Wong so it’s harder for emerging Asian LGBTQ artists to even get press on our creative endeavors let alone representation in the media. Prime example was an HBO show Looking about a group of gay white men in SF and how they managed to not cast a gay Asian man in that series. They had blacks and Latino leads and a token straight Asian nerd but no Gaysians are to be found and there was a big uproar and a boycott from the community because we’re talking about SF and a 3rd of the population is Asian. The show eventually got canceled. Gay white men are taught by the same media that emasculates Asian men, dehumanizes Asian people in general and just makes us the butt of jokes. I’ve been trying on several of my projects to get coverage of my project by the gay press but none was given. In my first feature film that I helped produced (I LOVE YOU BOTH, 2016) we got press from Australia, New Zealand and the UK but none from the US. It was laughable actually. But, I take heart in seeing more gay Asian filmmakers making their art and distributing it online. In my line of work, what I’m trying to bring attention to is how lonely it is to be an LGBTQ of Asian descent. How we have to deal with our own coming out on our own because our families of origin reject us for being gay and when we turn to the white LGBTQ community whom we thought would be embrace us for being gay, but some reject us because we’re Asian.
While Asian representation is still struggling, do you think that LGBTQ representation has taken strides recently? Why/why not?
Yes, most definitely. Shonda Rhimes (she’s a Goddess) and Lee Daniels have really pushed the envelope in presenting gay leads in their shows in a non-stereotypical and unapologetic way. Full disclosure, I don’t watch much TV (Empire is the only TV show I watched in the past year and that was because I was Lee Daniel’s assistant for two weeks) but I do read about it in the trades. I have a suspicion that if I consume too much TV it’ll mess with my own creative output.
Of the shows that do feature prominent gay characters, most of them are white. Do those representations help/hurt non-white gay representation (or is it neutral)?
It’s never neutral. Both those identities are an intrinsic part of who we are. We can’t choose our gay side any easier than our ethnic side. But, this is exactly the same issue that we’re dealing with in the overall Hollywood whitewashing of Asian roles issue. When you have TV shows and movies featuring gay people as being only white, it invalidates us people of color gays. It’s the same tired white man standing in for all of humanity again, gay or straight is irrelevant. Last year Roland Emmerich whitewashed his epic gay historical film Stonewall by casting Jeremy Irvine (a straight white man) to play the lead of a movie about the gay revolution and cast aside ethnic POC transwomen. In that film, Roland made Jeremy threw the first brick when in actually it was a black transwoman who threw the first brick. Roland’s excuse for rewriting LGBTQ history and giving the credit to white people instigating the Stonewall riot (when it was drag queens and transwomen of color who rose up first that night) was because he believed straight white people in Middle America can relate better to a white gay man than a transwoman of color. The community was up in arms and we boycotted that movie which tanked.
At this blog, I try to focus on writing craft. A big hot topic is writing the “other,” often meaning white people writing PoC characters. Do you think that non-PoC writers should be doing that? Do you have any advice on how they should go about it?
This is a little tricky. I do think it comes down to perspective. A non-POC writer could never have the experience, cultural context and perspective of someone who is a POC but I don’t believe in censoring what people write. In my script, I researched the Latino characters to death and workshop what I wrote with my Latino classmates and colleagues just to make sure I got it right. So, my advice for white writers writing PoC characters is to hire cultural consultants, which brings to mind a #whitewashedOUT discussion where several activists suggested that movie studios (and TV studios for that matter) hire POC consultants. And I do think that Hollywood TV studios need to open up their writer’s room to a more diverse group of writers. Diversity is a thing of beauty. We only have to look at what’s around us to see that nature intended diversity all along. And when we erased any group of people from the media, the whole world loses out on the gifts of those people’s experience, strength and wisdom.
Do you count those stories (PoC characters written by non-PoC writers) as part of the solution to the representation problem? Why/why not?
No. That’s an easy way out. It’s a way to keep the status quo. The gatekeepers, the movie studios and the producers and directors want to keep it that way because it serves them. Hollywood is run by white men and they’ve been doing things the usual way for as long as Hollywood has been in business. Like, how do you explain whitewashing of ethnic roles especially against Asians in 2016? I’ve seriously been told in a room full of people at a film festival last year by literary managers and agents that they don’t sign PoC writers because our skills are not up to par (presumably to our white saviors and heroes) and because PoC writers only write niche stories and these lit agents and manager’s conventional wisdom inform them that ethnic stories don’t sell. Yep. They said it in a room full of people. I was livid and let them have it. I reminded them that I was a finalist in a screenwriting competition at that film festival.
What advice would you give another PoC filmmaker trying to make their way through the industry?
I haven’t made it yet so I can’t really give any advice on that front. I’m still trying to make it. This is my first film. Ask me after I get this film made and after I get to direct my three features (two written and the feature version of this film to be written) I have waiting in the wings.