A New Short Film Shows AAPI Identity, Struggle, and Joy

In The Visible, a short film by Director Natasha Lee and Producer Lucia Tran, challenges Asian American stereotypes and the “model minority” myth through stories from the community.

“Contrary to popular belief and representations,” says Natasha Lee, “Asians do not belong to a monolithic culture and we are loud as hell. Hear us roar.” What follows is a ten-minute documentary film compiling interviews from a wide range of AAPI-identifying individuals across generations. Lee’s subjects reflect on their wide-ranging experiences – from the legacy of struggle and xenophobia and the rise of hate crimes to joy, success, and cultural richness.

We spoke with director Natasha Lee to learn more about the film and the experiences driving it.

The Luupe: This might sound like an obvious question, but what lit the fire to start this project and make it a reality?

Natasha Lee: Asians in America have had a long and weighted history. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the forced internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and recently, the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes as we’re scapegoated for the coronavirus, the experience of being Asian in America is one of discrimination – whether overt or covert.

None of this is new, but it is resurfacing age-old problems so deeply rooted in our cultures and the American culture – including the “model minority” myth. The AAPI community has both benefited from and been hurt by this myth, and it is now our responsibility to change the course for a more inclusive and just future. Asians having visibility and a strong voice are critical in the making of a forward America, in all levels of societies, fields, and industries.

June Berk © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: Who was the first person you interviewed for this film?

Lee: The very first interview for this film was June Berk. The original plan was to film this over two days but we ended up filming interviews over 2.5 days due to scheduling of the subjects, and also adding 1 day of b-roll. The two main shoot days were spaced a week apart and tragically, the Atlanta shootings occurred in between. The second shoot day, which took place on March 19, was incredibly emotional, as the nerves and emotions felt by the subjects and the all-AAPI crew were still raw.

It was incredibly humbling to witness the courage of the interviewees as they unpacked their reactions and processed their emotions and traumas so vulnerably on camera.

Behind the scenes – shooting Mas Yamashita’s interview. © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: How did you go about selecting this incredibly diverse cast of interviewees and what is your relationship to them?

Lee: The two driving forces in making the film were to show that Asian culture is not a monolith and to dismantle Asian American stereotypes through the words of the community members themselves. To do this, it was imperative to represent subjects from all across the Asian diaspora, including South Asian, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. Cross-generational perspectives and diverse personal experiences were also significant in being able to a shared, yet multifaceted story.

The first few who agreed to participate are friends/creative collaborators. From the beginning, we approached the Japanese American National Museum about participating because the forced internment of Japanese Americans is such a dark period of history that continues to have a damaging effect. The JANM connected us with June and Mas. Through outreach to friends/colleagues, several interviewees were referred to us. A few others were through direct (and somewhat persistent) outreach to our subjects.

Korean American actor Jake Choi © Natasha Lee

The Luupe: Congrats on making this happen with such thoughtfulness and empathy. Has the project helped you think about your own experiences?

Lee: As I got older and began exploring race and identity in-depth with my AAPI friends, I realized how much of our cultures, origins, and experiences have gone untold to the wider world. Making this project and witnessing all these stories of struggle, pain, anger, strength, and resilience has moved me along my decades-long journey from rejecting to embracing my heritage, and today, I’m prouder than ever to be Asian American.

Benjamin Holtrop, Taiwanese American Stylist © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: There is so much moving material here and I’m sure nearly all the stories continue to stick with you – is there one or two that you care to share that hit you particularly hard?

Lee: Benjamin’s story hit me particularly hard. He was so open and vulnerable in sharing his story. I can’t begin to imagine the mental and emotional toll of all the experiences he’s gone through- from feeling that he needed to prove himself to his own adopted family, while also to the Asian community, and on top of that, facing all the hurtful stereotypes within the gay community.

Albert’s story hit me in a different way. At 16, he is the youngest subject, and a point of view that was very necessary in bringing the present generation to the stories told. He truly radiated warmth, humor, and confidence on set and on camera. To me, he embodies the next generation of strong voices and passionate activists.

Albert Tsai, Taiwanese American Actor © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: Joy is such a key component to the second half of this film – balancing out the struggle and stereotype – a kind of victory…

Lee: By emphasizing joy and optimism as part of the Asian American experience, I hope that stereotypes about Asians being quiet, humorless, or stoic begin to be dismantled and challenged. The struggles and pain make feelings of joy even more palpable and it was important to leave the audience with a bit of hope. That by telling our stories, we begin to evoke empathy within the community, which starts to incite change.

Lindsay Watson, Hawaiian Actress © Natasha Lee

The Luupe: The title “In The Visible” plays off of, and challenges the concept of the “invisible minority.” Can you talk a bit about this idea in the context of your film?

Lee: It was important for this story to be told in a cinematic medium because for so long, Asians, many times perceived as shy and/or quiet, tend to seek out in the background, to blend in. As immigrants, as children of immigrants, we were groomed to believe that we’re on borrowed land, on borrowed time. We often feel the need to express gratitude to our white counterparts and thus were unwilling to rock the boat or step into the spotlight. Even generations in.

Natasha Lee on set © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: What does visibility mean to you?

Lee: In The Visible was created so that the storytellers themselves were front and center: faces seen, voices heard. Visibility. Asians can no longer sit back and let others tell our stories anymore. We can no longer be complicit in our own invisibility.

The Luupe: Cultural testimonial is such an important document and evidence of life, struggle, existence. Thinking of the Shoah project and also Kris Graves’ Testament Project, do you see this work on some level being in conversation with that larger history and legacy of cultural testimonials?

Lee: I’m honored that this question is being asked and feel that only time will tell. I hope that the film has and will inspire conversation, curiosity, awareness, and optimism. I hope that for every person who is affected by it and shares it with their own community, the film will begin to take on a life and legacy of its own.

Joy Cho, Thai American Designer © Jennelle Fong

The Luupe: In its current form, sections from longer interviews are edited together to tell a diverse yet shared story. Will the individual interviews also be available for viewers?

Lee: Because the goal was to reflect the many facets of the Asian American experience, the editing process in weaving together a shared story was long and intense. That said, there are several teasers that share a few additional stories in further depth. They are available here:
https://www.instagram.com/inthevisibleco/ (Highlight reel: Teasers)

The Luupe: Is this a completed project / do you see yourself continuing the project in the future?

Lee: In its current form, In The Visible is a completed project. However, I’d like to continue digging deeper into some of these ideas, possibly through a long-form documentary or narrative.

The Luupe: What do you hope viewers will come away with?

Lee: I feel that of our subjects, Lien Ta, said it best towards the end of the film so I will quote her: “Hopefully, these stories should surprise a lot of people….and surprise is an underrated emotion. Surprise ought to lead to curiosity. And I hope that people will be much more curious about what’s inside an Asian American’s mind and heart and the value they can bring to any circumstance.”