Last week, I was undulating between two emotions: pride and disappointment. For one, my film I CAN I WILL I DID screened at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York to a sold out crowd. It was invited back for an encore screening the following week and picked up its third festival award (this time the Audience Choice Award). In addition to that, we received invitations to two mainstream film festivals. I am beyond thrilled! I want to thank my Facebook friends, film collaborators and blogging community for the kind congratulatory words that were sent my way. Filmmakers bare their souls for everyone to see and make themselves vulnerable to scrutiny and pain. An audience that is moved by what you have to say, is everything.
To hell with self-promotion. In the spirit of wanting to be a more honest artist, I want to share about something that we all go through in some shape or form. Let me tell you about the time ICIWID received the opposite of accolades. Rejection is a bitch.
We’ve been sent a number of festival ‘thanks, but no thanks’ already. This is normal, because festivals have their unique sets of criteria when it comes to programming. One committee might exclusively look for high concept social dramas and another for fun horror flicks or family friendly comedies. Many operate on star power and most have a tendency for nepotism; your film will only be viewed if you know someone who works with the festival. The odds of you getting in are always stacked against you.
This particular rejection, however, came from the San Diego Asian American Film Festival, the same one who seven years ago gave me the George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award for my film school thesis short films. At that time, I was over-the-moon happy about the support and thought of this festival as a home to showcase all of my future works. AA fests help push their own to the foreground, after all, especially female Asian American directors who are essentially unicorns in media. So after I won that award with them back in 2010, I sent them my first feature film SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW, but right out the gate, they oh-so graciously declined it. I was perplexed. They were the only Asian American film festival in North America to reject us. I was stunned, but in the end, I figured okay, I will try again. They must really think that “The script is contrived, trying way too hard to be hip (in the dialogue and in the situations, like those of drugs and sex), and hinging on a laughably unbelievable revelation.” That was verbatim from a feedback email with the festival director. Okay then. Although I didn’t author the screenplay, it was still my first feature film, so it still sucked not getting some love from them. But I thought, you just wait and see, San Diego.
Applying this year with I CAN I WILL I DID, I figured to have a winner on my hands. This film was crewed by 50% women and led primarily by POC, a rarity in a sea of movie sets with pay gaps for women and minorities. It’s suitable for a broader mainstream audience. It has a diverse cast, featuring an especially positive representation of a Korean gal who happens to be a wheelchair user in the female lead role. It does not follow the white savior trope; he actually has to save himself. And, to top it off, it is spearheaded by an all Asian American team. And the final clincher of confidence: I believe it’s a genuinely heartwarming film with a positive message. Maybe not a great film, but good at least, okay at the worst. Asian American support worthy for sure.
They’ve rejected me again.
SDAFF is not a top tier festival but it still stings, because these are supposed to be my people. The one festival that I thought would be most supportive of my career, the one that had championed me as a young filmmaker back in the day, didn’t think my film fit into their programming yet again. This time I didn’t even bother getting feedback. I know that I can’t let that sting grow into a painful burn by barraging myself with questions of self-doubt (“Did they have a problem with my casting a white actor in the male lead role even though everyone else was of color? Did they expect flashy martial arts scenes? Was the dialogue too dense?”). Now I know that no matter what I submit, there are movies and filmmakers they just deem way better and fitting their criteria of AA stories. I can’t pull an anti-affirmative action/Harvard stunt and demand entry just because I thought I checked off all the marks on their list. I get it. It’s not personal. I’m just not their type. I’ll take Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbs “He’s just not that into you,” for three hundred, thank you. That is the valuable lesson. I should never expect that my community will support my work just because I, Nadine Truong, made something. They don’t show up for you just because you’re a woman or a minority. It’s just something that is or is not.
Here’s my plea to my fellow artists. Your product of creativity matters. Every application that gets turned down, every critique that blemishes the intention of your vision can cause any sensitive artist to spiral into a vortex of self-loathing. These no’s remind us of the time, when a boy or girl you thought was super cool in kindergarten, didn’t want to play with you. They trigger painful memories of not feeling good enough for your parents. They make you relive the excruciating heartbreak you couldn’t prevent after having invested blood, sweat and tears in a romantic relationship. Rejection pours salt into a wound that refuses to heal completely.
But here’s the thing: The laws of the universe favor the concept of balance. There’s always a form of rejection that follows a period of praise. This teaches you that you must know your worth regardless of success or of failure. Although there’s always something to improve, you must remember that you are already enough. It makes sense. After a big high comes a big blow. Your “good” is not when you’re feeling high. Your good is when you’re feeling steady. Learn to sit with the sadness that befalls your heart when someone does not appreciate what you’ve made. It eventually will fade. You are courageous. Acknowledge your bruised ego, then lean into it. It will heal. Then go back into the arena and create again.
So who else is working on their next manuscript?
Also published on Medium.
This is amazing, I thank you for your honestly. I thank you for the glimpse into this world of film festivals. Not everyone is comfortable in sharing their “No’s” when they talk about their creations or their success. Getting the chance to read what you went through with I CAN I WILL I DID reminded me of what my mentor admonished years ago, about auditions and sometimes you are rejected because honestly, you are not what they are looking for for a particular project (even though you’re Asian and they’re looking for an Asian).
I was bummed that I couldn’t see you in Boston when Boston was hosting the film festival. But hopefully one day I’ll get to meet you! I get so excited when I read about another Vietnamese American art enthusiast. I can not wait to see what other projects you’ll be giving us.