In the spirit of celebrating women directed shorts with potential, we have interviewed Feng-I Fiona Roan, director of short film Jiejie, about her recent win at HBO’s Asian Pacific American Visionaries 2018 short film competition.
Jiejie, which translates into English as “Older Sister”, is an autobiographical short film that tells the story of two sisters, who immigrated to America with their mother in 1997. With a female-dominant cast and crew, Fiona presents the intricacies in the conflicting feelings between familial love and the need to fit in. Anyone with siblings, in particular Asian immigrant families, will recognize the small actions, the power dynamics they represent, and the emotions that cause them.
Being able to premiere exclusively on HBO during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May 2018, has garnered an unprecedented amount of attention in the media (including: CTI, Skylink, Sinovision, Singtao USA, China Daily, and many more). HBO has provided a platform that is now fueling her current and future works. This includes a series pilot, Lady Luck, as well as a feature film with the working title American Girl.
Below is the interview with director and writer Feng-I Fiona, whose film “Jiejie” was selected as a finalist in the HBO Asian Pacific Visionary American short film competition.
K: Hi Fiona! Congratulations on your win at the competition! I would like to start off by talking a little about the film. The film tackles an often-overlooked conflicting relationship between the two generations of immigrants; neither generation fully understands the other generation’s problems and this is a source of many familial disagreements. What drove you to tell this story in particular?
F: JIEJIE was my thesis film from American Film Institute (AFI). Given the restriction that it had to be shot in LA, the challenge of fundraising and managing a large budget, and the working time span of a year, I felt like the Asian immigrant story told from a child’s perspective in a day was the most ideal for a short film format. This story is also something I knew inherently, giving me enough confidence to lead a creative team.
K: What would you like the first-generation Asian immigrants to take away from this film, and vice versa, what would you like the second-generation Asian immigrants to take away from this film?
F: As I was making the film I was thinking a lot about my family, and looking back on how my mother really gave her best at difficult times. It wasn’t evident to me as a child. Parents immigrate with the best intentions for their children, however, children’s emotional needs are often overlooked in the process since the parents are overwhelmed with new relationships and responsibilities. In the film we see the mother is often preoccupied with chores, and dismisses Fen’s(protagonist) outcries, fueling the underlying tension between them. I think the take away would be to communicate more about one’s emotions.
K: You mention in a previous interview that you got into the film industry because you wanted to tell more stories from the female perspective – could you elaborate more on your motivation for that?
F: The first film that made me realize there was indeed a “female perspective” was Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon(1943). The first narrative feature that made it even clearer to me was Thelma & Louise(1991). As I looked for other films like them I realized how scarce they were. I initially wanted to be a screenwriter and was too intimidated to take on directing. However, my film studies professor challenged that idea by telling me that film is the director’s medium, and if I ever want to make films like Maya Deren I will have to direct myself. Ever since the first short film I’ve committed to expanding and exploring that perspective.
K: Do you have any influences as a filmmaker? Do you have any favorite works by female filmmakers?
F: I love family dramas, my favorite director’s are Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Koreeda, and the Dardenne Brothers. I learn new things every time I rewatch their works. My favorite female-centric works are Tom Boy(2011) dir. by Céline Sciamma, Fish Tank(2009) dir. by Andrea Arnold, and also recently Summer 1993(2017) dir. by Carla Simón.
F: Not really. The culture of this community is that women were often initiated by other women, so it was natural for female roles to be speaking more.
K: How much of your crew were female and did this affect your story in any way?
F: I think they all really understood that long hair means everything to a young girl, and therefore the importance of the butterfly clips to Fen needed no explanation. The mere fact that we had a shared experience of growing up in the 90’s as a girl made my job a lot easier, I really enjoy working with people my age.
K: What were your biggest challenges throughout the entire process of creating this film?
F: Balancing point of views in a short film format. It could have easily been a mother-daughter story with a change of few scenes. The original title was called TRIO because it was about the three of them. In the film the mother is the one making active decisions throughout the film, taking them to church and questioning Fen about the clips.
K: The award has garnered you a lot of publicity - how do you think this type of publicity will help you, as a female filmmaker, going forward?
F: Absolutely. I am very grateful to HBO and strongly feel the importance of such programs and awards. This story is highlighted within this context. Also, the media support from the Asian media was beyond expectations.
K: What other projects are you working on? Could you talk a little about those and what your aims are for them?
F: I finished co-writing a pilot Lady Luck with Amy Tsang, these new original series explore gambling addiction in the Asian American Community. Apart from that, I am now writing my feature with the working title American Girl. It’s JIEJIE but 5 years later when we immigrated back to Taipei in 2002. It was heavily inspired by Lady Bird, my experience of an all girls catholic school really made me resonate with it. Also, I think we see very few Asian all-girls school environment on screen.
K: What advice would you give other up-and-coming female directors on how to move forward in this male-dominated field?
F: Find a team because a film cannot be made alone. Work with people you can have long dinners with. Take time in your casting process. Don’t be afraid to work with non-professionals. Start with something personal.
More information about the film can be found at: www.jiejiethefilm.com
Winning Films are available for viewing on HBO Platforms.
We wish all the best to Fiona, and look forward to seeing Lady Luck and American Girl!
© Katusha Jin (6/7/18) FF2 Media
Photo One: Jiejie Film Poster
Photo Two: Director Feng-I Fiona Roan
Photo Three: "Fen Liang" (Eva Du), "Lily Liang" (Leann Lei), and "Ann Liang" (Harmonie Zhu) in their kitchen.
Photo Four: "Fen Liang" (Eva Du) touching her hair clip at a Church gathering.
Photo Credits: A Trio Production