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During a panel on the future of Pasifika storytelling held in downtown Los Angeles Thursday evening by the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti, PEAK co-founder and executive director Kristian Fanene Schmidt proposed a question to the participants: Should the AA be separated from the PI in AAPI? The answer regarding Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood is as complicated as the enduring fight for greater pan-Pacific presence onscreen, the panelists noted, though the undercurrent of the hesitant responses was indeed “yes.”
“Last night at the Writer’s Guild meeting there was an Asian writer who walked up on the question side and said, ‘I’m Asian, I’m an Asian American writer, and it’s Asian American month, and I screamed out, ‘What about the PIs?’” recalled Freddie Gutierrez, a writer for Nickelodeon’s That Girl Lay Lay, who hails from Guam. “She looked and she just kept on going. That kind of sums it up in a sense,” he added. “Sometimes we include the AAs, but it doesn’t feel like they include us a lot. It feels like we’re always left out.”
The sentiment of being left out dominated the conversation organized by the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti of which Samoan writer and producer Dana Ledoux Miller is a co-founder and board director.
“I really feel strongly that there should be more of us and there should be more of us working and telling stories,” Miller told the audience. “Not just stories about who we are from our culture. But we should be able to walk into any room that other people have traditionally been allowed to walk into and be a part of that because we bring something different. We have a different lens, inherently, in who we are and that’s important. That kind of specificity makes storytelling sing.”
A 2021 study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative titled The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than 6 percent of speaking roles and less than 4 percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films from 2007-2019.
“I remember in drama school when I went into the class, it felt like an open canvas for anybody, it didn’t matter where you were from, you had the opportunity to create something, be onstage, and do whatever,” said Tongan actor and Young Rock star Uli Latukefu. “Then, you step into the industry, and it’s not like that. It feels like our imagination as Pacific people is limited, and what I would like to see is a level of excellence and a standard that people gravitate to just as they do the Black community and the Latinx community.”
Allyship with those other disenfranchised groups is key to achieving parity, Schmidt pointed out. It’s for that reason Miller isn’t so sure about separating Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans. “We’re all fighting for ourselves and for the people we know and to have a little piece of the pie. I feel like the AAPI moniker almost pits us against each other, like there’s only so much, and we can’t all have it,” she said.
“My hesitation in separating the AA from PI isn’t because I don’t feel like we should have our own space. I obviously believe that,” she continued. “We’re here today. But it’s politics, and there’s money, and we want some of that money, and we deserve some of that money so that we can further our own programs. Right now, that falls under that larger category, and I don’t want us to miss out because we’re angry.”
Many pointed to follow panelist Kerry Warkia, a Melanesian producer at the forefront of the New Zealand film industry, whose feature films, Waru and Vai, tell specific Māori and Pacific stories, as an example of what the community wants to see in Western entertainment.
“I think it’s about us not feeling like we have been locked out of storytelling and not feeling like we have ridiculous standards set from people who don’t come from our communities,” she said. “That’s what it is to me, to be able to embrace the spectrum of storytelling, of our humanity, and to be able to dive into that in whatever way we want to tell it, whether it’s action or horror.
“There’s a school of people in certain places of power who are like, ‘Just go tell that environmental story about the island sinking.’ They try to keep you in boxes, and we want to eradicate all of that,” Warkia added. “We are in the contemporary. We are people here and now. We are not the past.”
Gutierrez shared that goal. “People don’t realize how hearing just one word of your language means so much,” he said, fighting back tears. “People tell me how much it meant for them to hear Håfa Adai [Chamorro for “Hello”] or something like that on a show that I wrote, and I want to keep perpetuating that and giving us a voice.”
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