Growing up, Lava Graham Khonsuwon didn’t see a lot of Asian representation in TV or film.
Oftentimes, it didn’t go beyond the traditional stereotypes.
According to a 2021 study by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, there still is a long way to go for Asians in film.
The study, which looked at Asian representation in the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, found that just 44 of the movies, or 3.4%, had an Asian and Pacific Islander character in the lead or one of the lead roles – and 14 of those 44 were specifically superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Only six films in total had an Asian and Pacific Islander woman in a lead.
Additionally, the researchers found that of the 51,159 actors with speaking roles in the films, 5.9% were Asian or Pacific Islander, lower than the 7.1% of the U.S. population that identifies as such using U.S. census designations.
For her two decades in film, Graham Khonsuwon has made steps to change the narrative.
Today, she’s the executive director of the New Mexico Asian Film Festival and hopes the inaugural festival will become an annual event.
“I was asked to be part of it and I didn’t have to think twice about it,” she says. “As an Asian American working in the film industry, we are getting more momentum. For me to have the opportunity to share with our community what our Asian voices are. For example, when I was watching over 300 films for the festival, I didn’t see many of my own people. No Thai filmmakers.”
The inaugural festival will take place from 6-9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, at Balloon Fiesta Park. The film festival is part of the two-day Asian Expo + Marketplace, presented by the Asian Business Collaborative.
This one-of-a-kind festival will feature Asian short films produced by API directors, an inaugural awards ceremony and a feature film celebrating Asians in film. The film festival received over 300 submissions for this inaugural event.
“There are a lot of parallels between the new age of Asian actors, directors and producers and New Mexico’s expansive film industry,” says Kristelle Siarza, volunteer executive director of the Asian Business Collaborative.
ABC is the creative curator for the Asian Expo + Marketplace, which features the film festival as a main event.
“New Mexico is such a hidden gem that’s become so well-loved in the film community, it’s only fitting to take an underrepresented community of Asian filmmakers and bring them to the main stage of our community,” Siarza says.
Siarza says there are three main goals with the two-day event, which include advocacy, case management and education through programming.
“ABC helps create opportunities for Asian businesses to be included,” Siarza says. “I grew up in the Bay Area and never thought I’d see Filipinos on screen. There were a few. Now, I’m 35 and we are seeing a surge in representation. I felt the film festival was a critical part to the event. We’ve found a great connection with the New Mexico film industry to be putting this on.”
Having 300 submissions for an inaugural film festival is a great way to start, Graham Khonsuwon says.
She worked with a selection committee who whittled the films down to a dozen.
“We had films from the entire country,” she says. “We received some pretty top-tier films.”
Along with the films are two from New Mexico filmmakers.
The film chronicles the life of an older Vietnamese woman who tells how she arrived in Santa Fe.
The short narrative, “Dandelion’s Promise,” by Albuquerque-based filmmaker Andy Bui, will also screen at the festival.
“Dandelion’s Promise” tells the story of an Asian American teen who tip-toes the fine line of assimilation and self-confidence as he strives to find a sense of belonging in a modern-day American dream.
“Terry is pretty astounding and she makes a lot of projects on her own,” Graham Khonsuwon says. “She submitted three or four about her mother. Andy’s story is one that is universal. It tells how this teen struggles to keep his culture while finding a place in today’s world. These are two great local stories and great examples of powerful filmmaking.”