Corrie Chen, filmmaker: some advice for film and television graduates at the University of Melbourne
Award-winning filmmaker and television director Corrie Chen graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor Film and Television (Hons) in 2008, and a Master in Film and Television (Narrative) in 2011. Taiwanese by birth, her work spans comedy, drama and documentary, and often explores issues of identity and belonging. The following is an edited extract of her speech in December 2019 to graduating Film and Television students from the University of Melbourne.
By Corrie Chen
The last time I was at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) it was a very different place. The industry was a different place. There were fewer students and courses. We were sending out festival screeners on physical DVDs, in the post. TV was NOT cool; it was a pretty undesirable career. And I was one of maybe two people of colour across all the entire Film and Television cohort.
Like I said, it was a different time, and obviously, with the awareness for inclusion these days, we now understand that is not good enough – but you know, I will say it was excellent preparation for the Australian film and TV industry.
I come from a long line of Asian stereotypes. My parents are restaurant owners, my granddad was a rice farmer. I am an immigrant and I didn’t speak English until I was 11. Filmmaking was actually my dad’s idea, much to his dismay later on in life. I desperately wanted to be an astronaut and I was obsessed with space.
I was this weird kid, with a thick accent and braces, alone in my room with a telescope. So – the first time I coerced some white Australians to come over for my birthday sleepover (’cause I bragged about my parent’s Laser disk player) my dad got super excited at the prospect of me finally making friends and gave me his old video camera – a JVC hi-8. And that party changed my life – out of boredom, pre-internet, in the late 90s. We were high on sugar, and had binged on a bunch of 90s horror flicks before we decided to make the opening sequence of Scream, shot for shot, all done with in-camera editing. It was the most genius and shit thing you’ll ever see in your life. That was my first movie.
We all have one of these stories. An origin story, when you first caught the bug. I was intoxicated, probably by the power of it. The power of controlling my own narrative, of who gets to be on screen, and whose story gets told. But it would take another ten years before I got to the VCA. I spent all of high school doubting this thing I loved, and I was so embarrassed to even say I wanted to be a director.
Of course my parents tried to talk me out of it; of course they hated this dream. But the biggest resistance actually came from within. How dare I have this ambition that seemed so bold and so entitled? How dare I want something that is so unlike what an Asian woman was expected to do? My world indoctrinated me with this culture of permission, or being trained to ask for what I want instead of just taking it.
I applied to VCA because I was lucky enough to have a part-time tutor – a white Australian man – in my undergraduate media degree who saw something in one of my shorts, and he said, “Hey, I reckon you should give VCA a go.” That was the permission I needed.
My short film that I applied with was creatively and technically inept, and I knew it. But it was raw and angry. And it was an opportunity. I somehow fumbled my way through an interview and got into the VCA.
Champions come in many forms, and opportunities present themselves in many shapes, and that is something I’m still reminded of today.
At the VCA, both my short films were about the immigrant experience – because that was what I knew, what I lived. I never thought about diversity (that stupid word) as a storytelling tool. Inclusive storytelling wasn’t a buzzword to me, it was my lived reality. I definitely didn’t sit down and go, “Well, time to grapple with some diverse themes”. This movement did not exist nine years ago.
The VCA storytelling mantra, other than “show don’t tell”, is “write what you know”. I was simply desperate to see myself on screen, and adamant that no kid should ever experience what I did – spending the entirety of my teenage years wishing I’d wake up white. And the VCA helped me realise that being different, doesn’t make my voice any less worthy. It was the first step in defining what my cinematic voice is, and that is a journey that still goes on today.
History will tell you that my VCA shorts did not set the world on fire. I didn’t win a single award at the VCA, not for screenwriting or directing, or even best student. It did not launch me out of film school the way it did some of my peers – the way that I thought was my ONLY path after film school. In fact, the morning after my final VCA opening night, I sat up in bed, and I wept non-stop for 20 minutes. It was like someone died (well yes, my dreams).
I don’t say this out of bitterness, even though I do love revenge success. I say this because I’ve learnt that nothing will ever be handed to you, and that everyone’s paths will be different. I have had to create the path I wish I had to follow, but I had to work hard to figure out what it is I want.
It took six years from when I left the VCA to getting my first job hired as a TV director to do three episodes of a matchbox show – and it was a show I loved and believed in.
How lucky am I! I thought. Then I remember, no, it was six years of really shit work – of notetaking, assisting, of applying for any piece of funding I was eligible to apply for, of attachments, of being ignored, of networking, of lots and lots of spec scripts that never went anywhere, of self doubt, poverty, more self doubt, lost friendships and relationships, of bringing shame to my parents cause I was working in the arts, and so on.
You will want to give up. THAT VOICE will tell you that you can’t. “Nobody has ever done it like that. Nobody who looks like you has ever done it that way.”
But finding out what you want, and what your path looks like – that is part of the work. There is a path for you, even if it’s not immediately obvious. Even if it’s not in what you trained in.
Start by looking around you. Find your tribe, your trusted collaborators, and hang on to them for dear life. There will be someone in this room I guarantee you’ll be working with on your first feature, on your first show. Community is hard to build, but it’s really the rocket fuel that propels this industry.
That’s one of the most important things I learnt – that this is a relationship business, and you will only get traction if people want to work with you again. AKA, don’t be a dick.
I was so privileged to have had champions along the way – from the teachers at the VCA, to funding bodies, to my agent, to producers – people who reminded me to keep persevering, that hope is not hopeless. People have to want to support you, to understand what you want, because EVERYTHING is made through collaboration. It can’t be a “me against them” attitude. Now I’m a little bit older and wiser I’ve realised it’s far easier to destroy than it is to build. It has taken the generosity of others to help me break through the door, get a seat at the table, and finally start building my own table.
I’m so excited and lucky to be a part of a time where anything feels possible. The industry definition of a director has traditionally not been someone who looks like me. The industry that I love is not one that statistically includes me. But a revolution is on and we’re all a part of the new guard.
It’s always been the responsibility of the minority to navigate the majority’s world. We need to take the time to look at what it’s like to be a minority, to decolonise the structure of story as we know it. The power of television and film is that we can write stories, which in turn, define us as people and a culture.
Human beings have always understood complex issues through the lens of the personal narrative – it’s how we find the deep internal truth, and that is our responsibility as filmmakers.
The personal REALLY is political, especially in these times of urgent identity politics. If you are a woman, if you are of colour, if you are queer, if you are all of the above, if you’re none of the above – if you are willing to tell your story and interrogate your position in it, and be vulnerable? That will end up being a revolutionary act.