Supporting creative work by women
Anna Sang Park is a filmmaker in the truest sense of the word. Her vast experience runs the gamut from producing to directing to casting and in almost every form imaginable–documentary, narrative, television. You can see her extraordinary work in TCG’s Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project, which profiles legends of the theater world, and in WALLABOUT, an award-winning film she produced with her production company Veronique Films. It will be available on many platforms this June.
Anna spoke to Works by Women about being an immigrant filmmaker, a working mom, and the need for representation on both sides of the camera.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What sparked your interest in filmmaking?
ANNA SANG PARK: I was torn between my love for photography and poetry, yet I was also involved in social activism as a teenager. I started the Amnesty International chapter in my high school, canvassed for Greenpeace during the summer months when I wasn’t working at my parent’s stores. And to top that off, I snuck out to hear every alternative band I could go see live in Philadelphia (and there were many) growing up, so there you can see a filmmaker coming into being – various disciplines – merging. But it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 I realized I could actually study film and become a filmmaker. But even then, there were very few women filmmakers and women filmmakers of color in the landscape so it was always a challenge, especially for an immigrant kid.
But my parents were both good storytellers, they cherished books, and they themselves were non-traditional in their own ways. So although neither of them were artists, they were concerned about my future but they encouraged me to always believe in myself. And that was the spark – the belief in myself to tell stories.
There wasn’t one particular film that made me become a filmmaker. Although I recall watching a Korean film Sonagi (1979) by Young Nam Ko when I was very young and thinking I could tell stories like that. My filmmaking bug came organically as I fell for Robert Frank’s photos as a teenager, devoured literature while attending some of the best public schools in the suburbs of Philadelphia while working long hours on weekends at my family’s inner city stores where the neighborhood was so rough that a man delivering the Sunday newspapers was shot dead and robbed for his cash. That was my reality. A severe juxtaposition where I witnessed 16-year-olds driving to school in Jaguars on weekdays and 70-year-old men, often veterans, counting pennies for breakfast on weekends.
In the center of all that was my nuclear family, a South Korean Marine Veteran father who lost his home, his family land, his parents, and his brother in the Korean War, and even decades later, all of us living the effects of war. And my mother who came from a sheltered world who was disowned for marrying my father. So there was always drama everywhere. Quiet and slow drama that played out in decades, and loud and brutal stories that grabbed your attention immediately…That was the world that formed me, contradictions everywhere. If you don’t come from wealth, a connected social world, or stability –aiming to be a filmmaker was a political position, and it still is – even now.
WBW: In your bio, you mention that you are a “filmmaker who believes that storytelling changes the world.” In what ways have you seen or experienced this change? What are the possibilities you imagine?
ASP: One of the quotes I think about often is from one of my favorite writers, Mavis Gallant who wrote, “Literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.” Of course she was an incredibly prolific writer who gave her life to her stories, and she is specifically speaking of literature in that statement but what I gain from Mavis Gallant is the honor we have as storytellers to reveal the truth – no matter what it takes. To me that is our job as storytellers – we must always reveal the truth about our human conditions, no matter how difficult the truth may be, and when the truth is told we are changed. I have experienced the change of truthful storytelling in many ways. When I discovered James Baldwin in high school I was not the same person. When I watched my first Andrei Tarkovsky films, cinema was not the same. But most recently, when my husband and I re-watched Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948) with our seven-year-old daughter – her world was not the same. This nearly 70-year-old film is as important now as it was post World War II as it illustrates so poignantly the urgency of human hypocrisy and survival.
On a personal level, I recently directed and produced a short documentary on Annesta Le, a Vietnamese-American Brooklyn artist. When Annesta told her story of becoming an artist, she realized how much of her family’s refugee background had shaped her. It has brought her closer to her family in sharing her artistic work with a bigger audience. The possibilities are endless in how storytelling can change the world. If you look at Malala Yousafzai’s story and see the impact she and her organization has had and are having on literacy for girls from marginalized countries – it is not only inspiring but it is something we all must do as storytellers. We must use our skills to shed light on stories that go untold, that go against the grain. We must give voice to those who are struggling for basic rights.
Imperfect Love (2012) by Annesta Le via her website.
WBW: You’ve worked in narrative and documentary as well as unscripted TV and in many different departments–producing, directing, casting. What is your approach to filmmaking? Does it change depending on the type of project or what department you’re in?
ASP: I have worked in narrative features, documentary features, short fiction, short docs, commercials, web series, branded content – producing, directing, casting, you name it. I am a working filmmaker and by necessity and by desire, I have learned my craft. And I am always learning. Our field keeps changing with smaller and faster cameras, new edit systems, sensitive microphones that can do wonders, and post production work flow that allows you to work anywhere – we always have to keep learning as filmmakers. One can never rest on one’s laurels – that’s not what filmmaking is about.
Of course if you are making a commercial product by design and you have people paying for a specific brand – then yes the filmmaking does change in that you are under a tight scope of what you must deliver. If you are working for a network which is more concerned with ratings and sponsors rather than as I mentioned telling the deeper truth then stories get truncated and there is a formula that gets applied even if you resist. But, as filmmakers we also have to make a living. And that is the harsh truth that often gets ignored. We cannot always pay rent and put food on the table without making commercial products. But if you are lucky you get to do both – truth telling and put food on the table. It’s tough as hell but you can do it if you make sacrifices like living in a rent-stabilized apartment and persisting.
When I produce I always want the very best people around and to tell the story in the most efficient way – that means stylistically, logistically and environmentally. I don’t like excess and I don’t think filmmaking has to be excessive. I think it’s our duty to be mindful as filmmakers not only WHAT we tell, HOW we tell it and WHAT impact we have to the physical world around us. It disheartens me when I see filmmakers’ leave so much discarded material that cannot be recycled. Stories do not matter if our physical world is not taken care of and protected. So as a producer, I want my sets to be as ecological as possible. And for all crew members and all folks involved to be treated fairly and that we leave the place where we film in a better position than when we arrived. It’s always my goal that we have a positive impact on the community as filmmakers.
As a director, I am always looking for the cinematic tension in the story – no matter what story you are telling – there must be tension, because if you do not have it – the story falls flat. It does not matter if it’s 3 minutes or 120 minutes. And it does not have to be this tension that does not allow you to rest as a viewer – but there needs to be a sense of urgency and tension to the story whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. And it’s my job as the director no matter what story I am telling to have the bigger vision and to serve the story – and to lead my collaborators to serve that story. The story is always more important than our egos and once you find your filmmaking partners who understand that to the core – you have a crew who you hopefully can work with again and again.
I haven’t worked in casting for a long time, but that’s where I started professionally and it was a wonderful experience. I learned so much under the guidance of the late casting director Mali Finn, who took me under her wing. I got to see how studio films such as L.A. Confidential and Titanic get cast. On my own, I cast a French art house hit Little Senegal (2001) by Oscar-nominated director Rachid Bouchareb. Working with a professional and non-professional cast, predominantly African-American, was another great experience. I feel strongly that casting is a critical part of filmmaking and it’s an ongoing skill that always needs to be perfected.
Richard and Mildred Loving, 1966 photo by Grey Villet for LIFE.
WBW: You worked as the development producer on the Emmy Award-winning documentary The Loving Story. Since then, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving has been turned into a feature film, Loving, for which Ruth Negga received an Oscar nomination for her role in the film. Talk to me about developing a documentary–what is needed, what challenges there are and what is so resonant about the Lovings’ lives.
ASP: Nancy Buirski, the director of the documentary The Loving Story and one of the producers of the narrative feature Loving approached me back in the summer of 2008 to develop the projects. We actually developed the documentary and the fiction film at the same time. The goal was whichever got the green light first would go into production first. As the development producer, I created the budgets for both the documentary and the narrative feature. I worked with Nancy in interviewing the two original lawyers for the Loving’s Supreme Court Case – that was back in October 2008. That was when we discovered that an independent filmmaker named Hope Ryden had shot black and white film footage of the Lovings before the Supreme Court Case. Both lawyers Bernie Cohen and Phil Hirschkop recalled Hope Ryden who was working for network news at the time coming down to Virginia on her own with a sound man to shoot additional footage of the couple for her personal project. Hope Ryden never finished her own film of the Lovings but her amazing footage had been sitting in her closet for decades – so when we discovered that – you can say that was a treasure to say the least. And that footage served as the foundation to the documentary.
I also created a comprehensive business plan for the projects and Nancy optioned the book Virginia Hasn’t Always Been For Lovers by Phyl Newbeck early on and that also helped in creating a foundation for the project. What’s needed in developing a documentary obviously depends on the subject but having a core group of advisors who can serve as consulting producers definitely helps especially for historical documentaries. Historians and academics play a great role in projects like The Loving Story.
The challenges are typical – funding. Funding will always remain the greatest challenge in filmmaking. Even in low and moderate budget filmmaking, raising money is hard. It was always hard and it will always be hard. It’s easier for people who are socially connected – but that circle of connected filmmakers is pretty small and that circle is tight and this is an ugly truth – but many filmmakers refuse to share that circle with people who are not already in that circle.
Of course, there are many generous filmmakers and that’s what keeps the filmmaking community growing – the generosity of the filmmakers who are helping each other out. But like in any industry – there’s a dark side too. And that’s an unpopular topic because filmmakers feel if they are open about it – it will keep them in the dark – less funding for future projects.
The resonant element of The Loving Story is that these humble Americans who had no political ambition of their own whatsoever became the heroic symbols of truth and dignity. And how our country came through in honoring that truth and how our justice system prevailed. We can continue to learn so much about how two very determined people who believed in themselves changed the world for good. And obviously, the Loving story resonates to the LGBT rights in our 21st century America – especially now with this current administration trying to take away rights for Trans students and citizens.
Scene from WALLABOUT.
WBW: WALLABOUT, a film you produced, has received lovely reviews and played on the festival circuit. What was the process of making this film and what’s next for it?
ASP: WALLABOUT is an indie feature film inside and out. After working in the film industry for a long time, my husband Eric McGinty who is the writer-director of WALLABOUT and I decided to make this gem because no one else was going to give us a chance to make a feature fiction film. So we launched our own production company – Veronique Films and we decided we were going to make our own movie and we did. The process of making an indie feature film in New York City is incredibly challenging from the financial standpoint to the logistics. But again, the generosity of the filmmaking community rose up. Fellow filmmakers, talented and diverse actors, all joined in believing in the great script and we were able to pull it off.
WALLABOUT had a good festival run, winning the Best Film at the Bushwick Film Festival, the Best Personal Narrative at the Manhattan Film Festival, and nominated for best film at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival and the New Hope Film Festival. It also had a screening at the Cannes Market in France. Eric’s direction makes this film feel like a timeless piece and at the same time a study of New York City today. It’s also a testament to artistic perseverance. WALLABOUT had a theatrical release in Paris, France for a month last year at the legendary art house cinema on the Left Bank, Le Saint André des Arts. It received many positive reviews, including one from Positif, a very well known French cinematic journal. WALLABOUT will be released online JUNE 2017 on Amazon Video Direct and on Vimeo On Demand.
WBW: Another one of your projects–The Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project (LLCVP)–is extremely inspiring. Tell me more about the project. How long you filmed it? What the experience was like, particularly capturing theater on film as well as these amazing theatermakers. What did you take away from the LLCVP?
ASP: I started working on Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project for Theatre Communications Group in the Spring of 2014 and the filming went on until 2015. The series was launched in December 2016. #LegacyLeaders is a commissioned web series and the production company behind it is MOPED Productions. Our company – Veronique Films was an associated company for this documentary series. I have been working as a director and producer for MOPED Productions since 2012. MOPED’s Executive Producer, Maureen Isern and I have a strong partnership and we share filmmaking values and the same philosophy about storytelling.
The experience of working with these incredible theatre leaders was highly educational. These nine theatremakers, civil rights leaders, artists, directors, theatre entrepreneurs have been working in their fields for 30, 40, 50 years and they really are the heroes. The theatre they have created is a theatre of humanity – of immigrant voices, migrant workers’ voices, African-American stories, Asian-American stories, Native-American traditions and stories; it’s humbling to play a small part in telling their stories. TCG’s intention in this series is to educate the younger audience of the work our #LegacyLeaders have created and to build on their legacies. So TCG is hosting community screenings and you can follow the schedule on their upcoming page.
What one takes away from this historical project is that storytelling is inherent to us as species. Human beings are threaded by our connected narratives, that’s an essential part of who we are, what we are doing and where we are going. We are led by stories and we leave behind our stories. And the power of film and theatre merging in this series – for film to serve as the process of documenting our storytellers is simple and powerful. We need to listen to those who have come before us who have dug deep and never left. These are the artists whom we need to embrace and support, not disposable celebrities who are on glossy pages today and gone tomorrow. Support the artists who are artistic craftswomen and men who get up every day and do the work of telling human stories to connect all of us.
Photo of Anna Sang Park interviewing Douglas Turner Ward with his son, Douglas Ward, Jr..
Photo credit: Dafina McMillan
WBW: Representation on both sides of the camera is a hot topic these days, as it should be. Where do you think we are with this? What’s the future? What’s needed to get us there?
ASP: Accurate representation on camera and off camera should be and must be an important matter now and as long as we make films, TV, web stories and whatever format we come up with in our industry. We are finally at a place where we are discussing the lack of accurate representation on and off camera. And there is a small muscle being flexed but not nearly as much as it should be – that’s where we are. Money talks. So if Hollywood wants real diversity – hire women, hire LGBT folks, hire people of color – everywhere. Not just for day player parts, not just as supporting roles, not just as assistants to executives. Hire us to be the central players in all decision-making process and keep hiring us every season, every year – until it is the norm. We must change the culture within the industry from top to bottom. What we need is a massive amount of TV shows and movies being written, directed, produced, acted, and marketed by people who are not just Hollywood insiders following the same old formula. We need to change the routine from inside and out – from development to production to marketing. That means not always banking on big names to carry the films. That means we must not think of actors who are people of color as a side thought, but that actors of color are woven into the foundation of the idea from the beginning. They are not an afterthought. This also means people in power, people making these decisions must also be diverse – casting directors, agents, managers, studio heads, marketing departments must all be diligent and vigilant. We have to change the dominant culture within and that takes years and years of work – and it is a movement not a trend.
WBW: You were born in South Korea and moved to the US with your family when you were eight-years-old. What has been your experience as an immigrant filmmaker?
ASP: I was born in South Korea under an authoritarian regime, and I recall the students and activists demonstrating against the repressive president who was in power for 18 years before he was assassinated in 1979. South Korea has come a long way since we left, but when my parents left their country with their four kids, South Korea was not prosperous. And it was definitely an oppressive place where there were no civil liberties or political freedom. That was what my parents wanted for us – freedom and the pursuit of education. To reflect on how much they sacrificed in their 30’s and 40’s, leaving behind everything they knew and starting all over and facing language barriers…Having lived abroad myself in two different countries where I did not speak the language fluently, I can get a glimmer of what they faced and how they struggled. And as immigrants of the 1980’s, they did not have the connectivity of the Internet and technology so they endured a much more detached and isolating experience as newcomers. But that’s also where I identify with storytelling that is visual and kinetic – filmmaking. I like stories that can transcend language barriers, I like stories that challenge the dominating cultural norms and what appeals to me greatly are characters that are marginalized. Historically, immigrant filmmakers have developed new genres and styles, explored alienation and identity cinematically. I am an immigrant filmmaker but I am an internationalist and a local activist. I strongly believe in working with our local communities but thinking globally and making films and telling stories to connect those worlds.
WBW: You are also a mom. How does the work-life balance work? How has being a mom changed you as an artist?
ASP: We have a long way to go before filmmaking and parenting come together in a healthy way. One of the reasons why my husband and I started our own production company Veronique Films was because we also wanted to be parents who would be there for our daughter Oona. With both of Eric’s parents deceased, my father who passed away long before Oona was born, the only grandparent our daughter has is my mother who lives 4 hours away. So we have no family locally and not much of a built in support system. The childcare we have is just us and what we can afford. As most filmmakers can attest – filmmaking hours are grueling. Long production hours, post production that can take weeks and months, and if you are lucky enough to develop your own projects – the amount of hours you spend on writing and rewriting is endless. So all that said – so is parenting – endless hours. I don’t have the prescription for the work-life balance. What I know is that I want to be here for my daughter for her developmental years. My immigrant parents worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. If I did not work in their stores on weekends, I would have not seen them growing up. While they instilled in me a great work ethic, they also missed out on my childhood. I missed out on my own childhood. So I want to be there for my daughter. But I also refuse to bow out of filmmaking until she goes to college.
We need to address this issue boldly and honestly. We are talking about diversity and needing more women directors. But in order for that to happen, we also need to talk about childcare in our industry. The Swedish Film Institute took a leadership position by setting a goal of 50/50 representation of projects directed by women and by men in its allocation of funds. They achieved their goal last year in just a few years. How did they do it? Money – allocation of funds. Their logic? If women pay half of the country’s taxes, then women should receive half of its film funding. Obviously, this system is based on national funding and it’s a not a capitalistic system so we cannot adopt this in America unfortunately. But what is clear is that funding must be in place to achieve gender equity. And since Nordic countries have solid childcare in place from state paid nursery schools to good public education for all, this gives opportunities for filmmakers who are also mothers the space and the time to continue their craft and go further without having the pressure to become money-making commercial story machines.
Being a mother has made me more political. And as a filmmaker and a mother, I am keenly aware that the time I spend away from my child is time to tell critical stories – as much as possible. I also want to make films that she and her friends can see and tell stories that will benefit her generation.
WBW: What is you dream project? What are you working on now?
ASP: I have several dream projects. One is a period drama set in Seoul, South Korea from 1960-1980 that examines the brewing democratic movement and a fractured family falling apart. The political and the personal told historically and emotionally. Another is a narrative film set in Paris, France about cabaret singers and the expat communities. And at the moment I am developing a scripted web series about disenfranchised educators as well as directing and producing several short docs for BRIC TV.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
ASP: I have received a lot of great advice over the years and it’s served me well to stitch them up and make them flow. As a mother and a filmmaker – take your child to work as often as possible – show her what you do, how you do it and why you love your work. Invest in travel as education and life experience more than anything. Keep your overhead as low as possible. Leave a light footprint on Earth but make films that resonate.