A chat with Director Andrea Yu-Chieh Chung

(Andrea Yu-Chieh Chung)

The very talented Andrea Yu-Chieh Chung is a Taiwanese documentary filmmaker based in the New York metropolitan area.

Born and raised by a family full of wanderers, the director tells Reel 360 that she has endless curiosities about the world and has lived and produced films across four continents.

Andrea is passionate about telling stories of people who are in-between places, and those who strive to understand and transcend differences. 

Profiles of Purpose: Flowers in the River, a short film Chung directed and filmed for Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, won Best Film and Audience Choice awards at ESG Film Festival, co-hosted by the United Nations office for Partnerships and Investment News.

Andrea’s work has also screened at festivals around the world, including London International Documentary Festival, Riga International Film Festival, Sharjah Film Platform, and Cinequest Film Festival. Chung holds an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University.

Reel 360 had a chance to speak with Andrea and learn a little more about her vision and inspiration.

Andrea, what’s your current role and title?

I am an independent documentary filmmaker. In addition to creating my own work, I work as a producer and editor.

What’s your origin story? Take us through Andrea’s journey.

I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, to a family full of wanderers. My mother is a flight attendant and my father’s side of the family belongs to a subgroup of Han Chinese called Hakka, who got their name –– literally translates as “guest people,” ­–– because of their large diaspora population.

My family distilled in me a deep love for traveling and learning about different cultures, and that led me to attend New York University Abu Dhabi.

In addition to studying with and learning from classmates from all over the world, I was given the opportunity to spend time away from our home campus to study and intern in Havana, New York, Accra, Brussels, Budapest, among other places.

It was also during my time in college that I developed a passion for filmmaking. While I loved all the new experiences I was afforded, as an introvert, I often found it hard to connect with the new people and places on a deeper level, especially since I was moving around so much.

Making documentaries allowed me to connect with people and start conversations I otherwise would not have had, both during the production process with the participants in my film and when the films are in distribution, with the different audiences I got to screen my films for. With each film I made, I became more determined to pursue documentary filmmaking as a career.

Filmmaker to filmmaker – how did you get into the filmmaking industry?

My journey into the filmmaking industry has been fairly conventional. I majored in film in college and earned an MFA in documentary filmmaking after that. Throughout my formal training, I constantly seek out opportunities to apply what I was learning in the classroom to projects in the “real world.”

I believe what has helped me tremendously since day one was having the willingness to try everything and not be afraid to do something just because I didn’t completely know how to do it.

I said yes to being a boom operator on set, yes to producing for an animated video production company, yes to editing commercials and virtual events, and yes to teaching and mentoring high school and college students. Each small gig taught me a few things and led to something just a little bigger.

Who were your mentors?

Joanne Savio and Wendy Bednarz were my first film production professors in college. I was going to major in Social Research and Public Policy, but found a voice I never knew I had in their classrooms.

They taught me the ABCs of filmmaking, inspired and encouraged me to pursue this career when I didn’t think it was possible, but more importantly, they opened my heart to realize how we are actually the strongest when we are not afraid to be vulnerable.

I am also beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to work as a co-producer with Greta Knutzen and Gabi Madsen on When We Gather, a short art film that celebrates the role of women in ushering in sweeping change across the United States.

They have been very generous with their time and knowledge. Even when we were busy rushing to meet impossible deadlines, they made sure I was in a position to learn and thrive. I have endless admiration for them for always finding ways to lift others up, and aspire to do just that whenever I am in the position to do so.

While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest win to date?

I am really proud of my film, Finding Nasseebi, not because it’s the best film I’ve ever made, but because of how I navigated the process of making it. When I first set out to make the film, I wanted to tell the stories of the female scholars who work at Abu Dhabi’s official Islamic hotline center, where they answer questions and guide people towards the right path according to the Quran.

Not having grown up with any religion, I was fascinated by their devotion to religion both in their personal and professional life.

Watch trailer to Andrea’s short, Finding Nasseebi, below:

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However, halfway through the process, I found that despite the trust that has developed between us, the scholars were not entirely comfortable with sharing their personal stories and opinions on camera.

As I became frustrated with not getting the story I wanted, I stopped and asked myself:  If I am afraid to be open about my own story, how could I expect others to reciprocate with the same honesty?

At the time, I had been in a serious relationship with a Muslim without telling my family or the scholars, fearing their disapproval. After the realization about honesty, I turned the camera to myself and transformed the film into a self-reflexive one. While the plot of the film changed, the essence of it remained as I intended: an exploration of love and faith.

The film screened at a dozen of festivals on three continents, including Cinequest Film Festival, and Asian Women’s Film Festival, run by the India chapter of The International Association of Women in Radio and Television. But looking back at it, I believe the real achievement is finding the courage to share my own story and not giving up until I find the best way to tell the story I set out to tell. 

How about your biggest disappointment?

I don’t really have any big disappointment in my career or in life in general. I would like to think that I am pretty good at taking setbacks as stepping stones and just keep moving forward. Dealing with disappointments is part of a documentary filmmaker’s job.

As we make art from reality, so many things can change and not go the way we want them to: the all-important event that is supposed to be the climax of the story gets canceled, the only filming location you have access to is next to an airport, the film doesn’t get accepted to that one festival you thought would be a great fit…

The list goes on and on, but we find creative ways to get around it. The results might be flawed but that is life and the beauty of it.

If being a woman is your superpower, how has it helped you?

Growing up as a girl, I was always looking for women who excel in their fields to look up to and draw inspiration from. It quickly became clear to me that sometimes I need to make extra effort to find those women, and that only made me more determined to learn their names and find out about all the wonderful things that they have accomplished.

I think those experiences have made me very aware that there are so many more people who are successful and worth knowing about beyond the names we always hear.

And the reason why they are less known is mostly not due to any of their own shortcomings, but that of our society’s. I have since made a point of seeking out diverse sources and highlighting stories and perspectives that are too often left in the margins, and that has helped make my worldview that much richer.

What’s Andrea’s Kryptonite?

Before I decided to pursue a career in filmmaking, I spent almost a decade training to become a classical musician. I studied in a specialized music program that was extremely competitive, and I also became extremely competitive, always thinking about how to rank at the top of my class at our final performance exams and taking home awards at the next competition.

I decided to leave the program after realizing that the desire to win distracts me from making music from the heart and enjoying the music I was making. Even now, working in the film industry, that competitive mindset still sometimes creeps in. It is so important to remind myself that every story has its own merit, and we cannot wait for awards, festivals, and publications to affirm that. When you choose to make a film and tell that story, you have to believe that merit and be its biggest champion.

Andrea, if you’re Batwoman, who’s Robin?

Time. Filmmaking is an art form that cannot exist without the passing of time, and the only way to find out where the process leads you is to constantly put one foot in front of the other. Relationships take time to develop, and clarity only comes after countless edits, trials and errors.

In a world where we are often striving for productivity and efficiency, I often remind myself that I need to allow myself the time to feel, to think, to fall, and to grow.

What can the industry do better to promote true inclusion, especially for those of Asian descent?

Let’s start from the beginning: unpaid entry-level jobs and internships should not be a thing. Sometimes students even have to pay tuition for unpaid internships to count toward their degrees.

If this is the case, it will always be difficult, if not impossible, for those who cannot afford to take unpaid jobs to enter the industry.

We must move past the idea that diversity is only about gender and skin color, that representation is only about having a certain number of people from a certain background on the team. It is imperative that we consider how people’s lived experiences contribute to or deter them from telling a story in a way that empowers its participants and does justice to all its complexities and nuances.

We need more people with different perspectives in positions of power in the industry that decide what projects get major funding and what films get shown at big festivals. We need more people who would stop before taking a job and think, is there someone else that is more suitable for this and can bring something to the table that I cannot?

Why don’t I collaborate with this person or share with them the resources to tell this story? We need to make it clear that documentaries do not represent the truth with a capital T. We need to acknowledge that it is only a version of the truth, filtered by the filmmakers’ own experiences and biases.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to realize that the decisions we make do have real-life consequences. Media shapes culture, and we should strive to create a world we want to live in in the media we create, so that the real world will catch up.

What’s the engine that pulls Andrea?

I have an insatiable desire to know and understand the different corners of the world. Having moved around a lot in the past few years, I have been drawn to exploring the grey areas that are not here nor there, making films about people who are in-between places and stages of life. I believe that it is in this limbo-like place that we redefine home and identity for ourselves, and become strong enough to transcend differences in languages, cultures, and beliefs.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career as a filmmaker?

Believe in yourself, your abilities, and the unique perspective that only you can bring to this work. Surround yourself with those who have even more faith in you than you do, who are better at this craft than you are. Find communities and projects that make you feel safe about asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes.

Cherish those people and work that bring out the best of you. Take every opportunity to bring yourself and your artistic drive into the things you do – even if it’s not that dream project you’ve been wanting to work on for years.

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Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at colin@reel360.com or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1