Toronto’s Asian Film Festival trains inexperienced youth in cinematography

Program participants of Unsung Voices 2. From left to right: Shehzeb Iftakhar, Betty Xie, Nicole Wong, Tiffany Kwan.

Program participants of Unsung Voices 2. From left to right: Shehzeb Iftakhar, Betty Xie, Nicole Wong, Tiffany Kwan.

He hits the floor of the boxing ring with a heavy thud. The main character, a young Asian man, lies on his side deciding whether to fight back or run. His doppelganger appears, a rough-talking Australian fight coach. He yells at the young man to get back on his feet and fight. The young man stands back up and finds himself looking into the face of an experienced mixed-martial arts fighter.

This is just one scene from the short film Open Gym, produced in Unsung Voices 2, a program created by the Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival that throws six young filmmakers (with little-to-no cinematography experience) into a six-week video production workshop.

Now in its second year, the program’s participants have ranged from high school students, to an accountant-turned-actor to a computer engineering student.

Participants soak in the wisdom of professionals in the film industry, who guide them from the very early stages of refining their story idea to filming and editing. The final products were screened last Wednesday at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This year’s short films ranged from stories of lost love to a young rapper pursuing his dream, despite his family’s disapproval.

Simu Liu, one of this year’s filmmakers, believes Unsung Voices 2 offers an outlet for young Asian creative minds to showcase their talents in an industry that can often discount the community.

“It’s hard to know you can make it in this community, especially as an Asian actor,” says Liu, 24.

“There’s no Asian Brad Pitt.”

The festival’s director of education and programming, Aram Collier, says the program offers a rare opportunity for Asian youth to experience the art of filmmaking.

“A lot of the Asian community loves film, but when it comes to your son and daughter doing it, then people aren’t as enthusiastic,” says Collier.

Liu’s experience was similar to what Collier describes. Up until April 2012, he was an accountant at a “top four” firm until being laid off. He jumped into the world of acting, something he had always been interested in pursuing as a child — but couldn’t see through because of family pressure to become a professional.

The inspiration for his film, Open Gym, is a personal one. Realizing being an accountant wasn’t for him, and then subsequently losing his job, was a low point in Liu’s life.

One chapter of Liu’s cinematography journey may have ended, but film lovers can continue to check out contemporary Asian cinema this week. The Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival continues until Nov. 16.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 13, 2013.

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