There’s no such thing as a truly “original” idea, and that’s okay. Because we work in a creative industry, there is often the pressure of trying to do something that no one else has done before. However, creativity and originality are not the same. I believe that creativity is the ability to transform your experience, knowledge, imagination, into something that you can share with others. I don’t think it’s about bringing something into existence or doing something no one else has done before, but rather, it’s about suggesting a new way of seeing the world. So don’t be afraid of not having an original idea — it is more important to tell stories in your own way.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing documentary filmmaker Andrea Yu-Chieh Chung.
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 Asian-American female film director holds an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University. Having endless curiosities about the world, she has traveled the globe, living across numerous cultures and producing films across four continents.
Chung’s interest in documentary film evolved into talent and strong passion, fueled by her background in arts along with her enthusiasm for understanding the world and humanity. As a result, she is highly specialized in and focused on telling stories of people who are in-between places, and those who strive to understand and transcend differences. Her documentary and multimedia work has allowed her to continue exploring the world and cultures of all kinds. She has made multiple, compelling films including “Como Núnca Fuimos (Like We Never Left)” in Cuba which explores ideas of home and what change in this intimate space can mean. Her time spent living in the United Arab Emirates culminated in “Finding Nasseebi,” an autobiographical film in which she documents her journey to learn about Islam and to love someone deeply, despite differences in religious beliefs. During her time as an MFA student at Stanford, she also made the films “Knead,” about an Afghan bakery that serves as a gathering place for immigrants; “Exhale,” about an Asian-American woman being estranged from her family because of her cannabis business; and “In Good Faith,” which explores the halal meat production process and how Muslims see the relationship between food, tradition, the environment, and their faith.
Chung’s work has screened at festivals around the world, including the London International Documentary Festival, Riga International Film Festival, Sharjah Film Platform, and Cinequest Film Festival. She has garnered several accolades for her work. Her film “Sleepwalker,” inspired by the Sunflower Movement that took place in Chung’s hometown of Taipei, explores the questions about home, identity, and navigating differences more explicitly and received a Special Jury Mention at the Tamil Nadu Film Festival. “Profiles of Purpose: Flowers in the River,” a short film Chung directed and filmed for the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, won Best Film and Audience Choice awards at The ESG Film Festival, co-hosted by the United Nations office for Partnerships and Investment News.
This year, Chung had the incredible opportunity to work as a co-producer with Greta Knutzen and Gabi Madsen on “When We Gather,” a multi-faceted art project celebrating the history-making inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris. The short art film, directed by Codie Elaine Oliver of the groundbreaking “Black Love” docuseries on the OWN Network, commemorates the role of women in ushering in sweeping change across the United States.
In her spare time, Chung gives back to the film community. She volunteers as a mentor at Reel Works, a non-profit which runs a free after-school program for underserved high school students to learn filmmaking. She also belongs to Video Consortium, is a member of the International Documentary Association and University Film & Video Association, and is a part of both Brown Girls Doc Mafia and A-Doc — Asian American Documentary Network. The former advocates for women and non-binary people of color in the documentary industry, and the latter is a national network that works to increase the visibility and support of Asian Americans in the documentary field.
A lover of the world and life, and passionate about helping others find their voice and the courage to tell their own stories, Chung continues working as a producer on international non-fiction productions and plans to develop her own feature films.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
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 — which literally translates as “guest people” — because of their large diaspora population. Hence, I grew up traveling with my family frequently, which sparked my sense of curiosity about the world and appreciation of different cultures from a young age.
My parents also cultivated in me a strong appreciation for the arts: they frequently took my sister and me to galleries, theaters, and recitals, and encouraged us to make art, too. Before high school, I spent seven years in a professional music program, training to become a classical bassoonist. While I enjoyed the program and my love for music remain to this day, I didn’t really see myself having a career in music or the arts in general. Part of me was trapped in the thinking that it is near-impossible to make a living as an artist, and another part of me was eager to explore what else is out in the world. I ended up making the decision to attend an academically rigorous high school where I could study a little bit of everything.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My endeavors around the globe and of disciplines both within and outside the arts 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 found my 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.
My new environment and the urge to find a way to process my new experiences inspired me to take an introductory film class called Sound, Image, and Story. One of the first projects I worked on in the class was a five-minute “portrait” film about Noufas, a 22-year-old who, like me at that time, had just moved to Abu Dhabi. He sold dates at the fruit and vegetable market to support his family back home in India. During one of the interviews, Noufas, looking straight into my eyes instead of the camera, shared that the piece of land that he had been dreaming of buying in his hometown was sold to someone else. As I sat listening to him, I found myself nearly in tears and utterly invested in a stranger’s story in a way I had never experienced before. Then and there, I realized how sharing a story is a powerful tool for understanding differences and forging connections among people from all walks of life.
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.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s very hard to pinpoint the most interesting story — I’m grateful for the fact that as a documentary filmmaker, every day at work is a bit different than the day before, and I also feel extremely lucky to have had the privilege of visiting many different parts of the world and witnessing important moments of people’s lives. Some of my highlights include: filming a surprise farewell party a family held for their 15-year-old daughter, who was back in Cuba for the first time after immigrating to the U.S.; getting to know one of the only four women that work in Abu Dhabi’s official fatwa hotline, where scholars of the Quran answer callers’ questions about Islam and advise them on the proper way of practicing the religion in modern everyday life; documenting how an innovative company in India collects waste flowers from the Ganges and turns them into incense sticks and sustainable replacements for leather and Styrofoam. Of course, there have also been less glamorous days, when I had to hike in Joshua Tree while carrying heavy equipment or ride in a truck driving on dirt roads for hours and hours in the Okavango Delta — they were all worth it in the end, though.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This was my worst nightmare came true: I accidentally formatted a memory card in the camera, wiping out everything on there, in the middle of filming an interview. It was toward the end of a long shoot day, and we had run out of blank cards. I had to format a card with data already backed up to continue filming. Trying to get back to the interview as quickly as possible and not waste our interviewee’s time, I formatted the wrong card. I had to gather myself and continue the interview, asking the interviewee to repeat some of her answers “just in case.”
There is no profound lesson learned from this, only the basics that professors and mentors always stress: over-prepare for every single shoot, bring extras of everything you need when possible, keep organized, and label everything. And perhaps the most important of all — be level-headed and don’t rush, for that is when mistakes tend to happen.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Last December, in the middle of the pandemic, I was lucky to work as one of the producers on When We Gather, a multifaceted art project that celebrates the role of women in ushering in sweeping political change across the United States. The project is led by Cuban artist, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, in collaboration with Okwui Okpokwasili and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. They originally envisioned the piece to be a live performance staged around the White House, but because of the pandemic, we transformed it into a short art film with an accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary. Now, as the world slowly opens back up, we are organizing in-person screenings and live performances, and developing educational materials, in the hopes of reaching more people with the central message of this project: heal, unite, create.
I am also currently producing a documentary short, Bodies of Light (working title), directed by Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo, in collaboration with Roger Ross William’s production company, One Story Up. The film is about the many ways light is taken, manipulated, and commodified in New York City. We just finished principal photography, and the film is scheduled to be released on Topic by the end of the year.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
I have to start by saying that success in this industry, and in life in general, comes in all shapes and sizes. Making a film and pursuing a career in this field are both long, challenging processes, and there is really no other way than to tackle it one step at a time. One piece of advice that I got from a mentor and constantly remind myself of is to file away tiny little moments of “success” carefully, and take these memories out when motivation and encouragement are needed.
It is also important to remember that awards and mainstream recognition are not the only measures of success in the industry. 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.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
There is no doubt that the choices we make in the film and television industry affect culture and have real-life consequences. Media mirrors our culture and the times we live in, but more importantly, it has the power to shape it. Thus, we should strive to create a world we want to live in with the media we create so that the real world will catch up.
It’s important to have diversity represented in film and television because media is often the first place we learn about the world and perspectives beyond our own. It should reflect the diversity in the real world, rather than perpetuate the unjust systems that oppress and silence the voices of those that are not in power. Additionally, media not only shapes how we look at those from backgrounds different from our own but also shapes how we look at ourselves and how we are conditioned to navigate the world.
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 every position in the industry, both in front of and behind cameras, but perhaps more importantly, in positions of power, where decisions of what projects get major funding and what films get shown at big festivals are made. 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. And when we understand all that, it should be amply clear why diversity in media is so important.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’ve six things I wish someone would have shared with me when beginning my career journey that I’m happy to share.
- You don’t have to love operating a camera or be a “film buff.”
There are so many different roles and ways to be part of the film industry that being a director or a cinematographer are not the only options. While there are plenty of people in the industry that grew up playing around with cameras, making home movies, or are able to speak at length about classic films, even those who do not have this background have a lot to contribute to the field. For me, when I was first starting out, that meant drawing from my musical background to work as a sound mixer and designer, or even playing the bassoon for original soundtracks. I think it’s important to try out different roles available in the industry and find something that you enjoy doing and gives you both a sense of accomplishment and opportunities to grow.
2. Who you know in the industry is very important to your career advancement, but probably not the kind of people you are imagining.
Many people will tell you that your connections are everything in this industry, which is true, but can also be daunting for those like me, who are introverts or have moved around a lot and don’t have a solid home base. Instead of thinking that you need to get to know the most powerful, influential decision-makers in the industry, what I find is even more important is to have a few mentors that truly believe in you and your work, who are willing to be your cheerleaders. In addition to that, cherish your peers — create together, give each other feedback, share resources, lift each other up.
3. There are many opportunities to combine your other interests with filmmaking.
Don’t be afraid that when you choose to pursue filmmaking, you’re “giving up” other career paths or interests that you might have. One of my favorite things about being a documentary filmmaker is that with each film I make, I get to delve deep into a topic I am interested in and learn through the process. If anything, any expertise or experience you already have prior to stepping foot into the industry could only help you provide deeper and unique insight into the projects you create.
4. There’s no such thing as a truly “original” idea, and that’s okay.
Because we work in a creative industry, there is often the pressure of trying to do something that no one else has done before. However, creativity and originality are not the same. I believe that creativity is the ability to transform your experience, knowledge, imagination, into something that you can share with others. I don’t think it’s about bringing something into existence or doing something no one else has done before, but rather, it’s about suggesting a new way of seeing the world. So don’t be afraid of not having an original idea — it is more important to tell stories in your own way.
5. The mental health and safety of you, your crew, and the participants of your documentary are more important than anything else.
I think as a filmmaker, it is important to step outside of your comfort zone and be willing to take certain risks, but above that, it is even more important to take care of yourself and those that make your films possible. Be a human before being a filmmaker, because without people, including yourself, the films will not be made.
6. Your films have their own lives.
Each film is made of the experiences and biases of every individual involved in the making and the viewing of the film, multiplied by the relationships between these individuals. Embrace the chemistry and the dynamics of these connections. Your film is not a representation of you — it will always be an incomplete picture, a snapshot of where you are at the time of its making. Give every project the care it deserves and everything you can offer, but don’t fret if it’s not what you thought it would be. We change and grow, so does our vision.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is always challenging, especially because many of those working in the film industry — including myself — work as freelancers, sometimes not knowing when the next project would come. To compensate, I often find myself taking on too much when I have offers coming in. I think the most important thing to do is to develop a strong network of fellow filmmakers and clients that appreciate your work, so you know you have people to reach out to and offer your service when you become available. Second, when you have no choice but to take on a lot of projects all at once, I find it helpful to have different types of projects that allow you to utilize different sets of skills, so at least you’re resting and recharging some part of your brain sometimes. Lastly, this is kind of a combination of the first two tips: I think to thrive in the industry, it’s more important to work with the right people than to work on the right projects. You might be able to put successful projects and the awards they garner on your resume and portfolio, but a project always ends. On the other hand, even when a project ends, the people you work with and the relationships you’ve built could continue to help you grow.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Reel Works, a Brooklyn-based organization I volunteer for, that runs free after school filmmaking and mentorship programs for underserved youths in New York City, empowering them to share their stories and gain practical skills that help them pursue successful careers in media and beyond. As someone who was only able to pick up filmmaking and in turn find my own voice because of a generous scholarship, I am passionate about helping others access the resources they need to gain the skills and courage to tell their stories. I also deeply believe in Reel Works’ motto that when you change the storytellers, you change the world. I appreciate all that they do to make the industry more diverse and accessible and will continue to support their work in any way I can.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am beyond grateful for Professor Joanne Savio, who taught Sound, Image, and Story, the first film class I ever took. She 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, she opened my heart to realize how we are actually the strongest when we are not afraid to be vulnerable.
Growing up, I was quiet and did not feel comfortable expressing myself through speech. I was scared of not making sense when I spoke, or not being able to defend my stance if challenged. Sound, Image, and Story forced me to confront my insecurities, and I began to see beauty in being vulnerable.
Joanne often used the phrase “human being” in class, especially as part of a compliment. I have always found that expression is beautiful, because it strips people off their labels and allows them to just be, and show their true selves without worrying what others might think. The classroom of Sound, Image, and Story was a haven where I found my new voice. I came to understand that it is only when I am faithful to being who I am that others will be willing to reciprocate with the same honesty. Moreover, by helping others share their stories, I was also, in a way, making myself heard.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I see this quote reflected in my own journey of leaving the professional music program thinking that I wouldn’t be able to “make it” as an artist, but later on, deciding to pursue filmmaking as a career.
In film, I’ve found a voice and realized that art is sometimes a more powerful way to communicate with the world compared to speech. I create art painfully honest that reflects my feelings in a raw way so that it could speak for me. By creating art so close to my heart, I have left bits of myself in each work, and every piece of my art is essentially just a part of me — without my art, I am incomplete. In a way, my return to the path of being an artist was not a choice, but something inevitable.
While at first, it seemed like the years of exploration outside of art only led me back to square one, having to start from scratch in a completely new field. The truth is, I found myself in a place that felt familiar, but not quite the same because of a new, more mature perspective. I returned to where I started and got to know the place with a fresh mindset, just as Eliot described. But I think there is another way to think about the quote: Perhaps the reason we return to where we started even after exploring is that the first place is the closest to our true selves. We always return to it because it is where we belong, and after every new endeavor, we come back with a more defined sense of ourselves.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Sharon Mashihi, the creator of Appearances, one of my favorite podcasts of all time. As a fellow lover of storytelling, audio, and intimate, vulnerable personal narratives that wears many different hats in the industry, I have so much to learn from her about her creative process and career journey.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!