Nurturing ‘Asia-aware’ talent in the New Zealand film industry

The New Zealand Film Commission and other agencies are working to grow the number of “Asia-aware creatives” in the film industry to widen the range of voices telling contemporary New Zealand stories. Raymond Suen, NZ Film Commission’s Asia Outreach Executive, speaks to the Asia Media Centre about his work connecting with storytellers from Asian communities.

Tell us about your role at the Film Commission. 

Raymond Suen:  “I sit in the international relations team – we look into Asia capabilities in the screen industry. We want to increase the number of ‘Asia-aware’ talents, not just filmmakers but creative talents, so we can raise our ability to work with Asia and also find new voices and new content that’s relevant to New Zealand, and can travel outside of New Zealand.

“What we’ve been doing is reaching out to different communities in New Zealand – Auckland, Wellington, also a bit in South Island, just seeing who is in the industry.

“There’s a real mix of people: Students coming through from various schools and colleges, all the way up to people who have worked in the industry for years both here and abroad. It’s exciting that we have a really good range and diverse skill-set.”

a life like this film image 6 595

Isaiah Tour's short film A Life Like This explores his father's refugee story as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. (Photo: The Outlook for Someday)

What kinds of stories are being told by Asia-aware creatives?

“There is a big interest in telling life stories. It’s about people coming to New Zealand, how they found it, their struggles.

“Recently we did a cast-and-crew screening in Auckland of 13 projects done by Asian-Kiwi crews. We got all the cast and crew to come along. We got other funding agencies, other media platforms, ethnic media partners and production houses to come along.

“The interesting thing from that session was all 13 projects were very different. We had horror stories, life stories, sci-fi, fantasy, animation docos. The topics were so vast. Some talents are fairly extreme; they push some boundaries. It’s about people finding their niche or what the market wants.”

Why does it matter that the Commission invests in Asia-aware creatives?

“One part of my role is about finding new content, new voices. That relates to how we look at Asia-aware creatives, particularly ethnic Asian creatives here in New Zealand.

“If you think back to all the feature films we’ve seen in a New Zealand cinema, Roseanne Liang [My Wedding and Other Secrets] is one of them. But can you name any others? That’s why we’re investing time to seek out Asia-aware creatives to see how we can push them forward to make feature films or screen projects.

“But note that Asia-aware creatives are not necessarily ethnic Asians because there are a lot of people who have done OEs, studied or worked overseas. We want people like that because they understand the Asian markets, the audience; they understand the Asian industries in whatever territories they’ve worked in. That’s really important to us because with an increasing amount of contact between our film production companies and with Asian markets, we need people like that to be the bridge. 

“It’s worth our time to look for these creatives and invest in them. They are not going to change the world tomorrow but they are the future of our industry and they are a part of New Zealand, so they should be engaged and involved in the whole New Zealand scene.”

film commission meetup

Filmmakers, various casts and crews at one of the NZ Film Commission's "Asia talents meetup" sessions in Auckland. (Photo: NZ Film Commission/Facebook)

Is there a sense that now’s the right time for these stories to be told?

“Diversity is a topic that’s been talked about for decades – we’ve always talked about more inclusiveness, more representation in terms of content. I think it’s the right time now to bring this topic up again, to create a platform for it. New Zealand as a society has matured enough in multiple ways. There is a desire and interest and curiosity in society to hear and engage with more of these topics.

“If you look around the screen industry, there’s a lot of new platforms that are very accessible to emerging artists to tell their stories. It’s not just about feature films any more. There’s short films, docos, web stories. It’s a lot easier to get access to channels to tell those stories.”

What is the potential for New Zealand?

“The potential is huge. Having more Asia-aware creatives in New Zealand telling their story in whatever art form is great for the development of society, the development of our culture. It shares what New Zealand is.

“With more Asia-aware creatives coming into the industry, apart from developing their own projects, they come in and to work for other productions, which is particularly important for any Asia-related projects. There is an increasing amount of interest and more projects in the pipeline from Asia. If we get more of those, that means the screen industry overall is going to be bigger. That’s good news for all creatives looking for work, for all the businesses getting more traction.

“There’s actually a third thing in terms of opportunity. There is something else coming in now, it’s the gaming side of things, with the help of new technology like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). If you look at the new technologies ... what they need is narrative culture. That’s what sells, that’s what gets people engaged. If we can get screenwriters to write narrative content for gaming platforms on new technology, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

“The gaming sector is huge, especially in Asia, and growing. Which is why we want to get a lot of Asia-aware creatives so we can capture the opportunity in the Asia market. It’s a huge audience market, with huge money going into R&D.”

Interview by Rebecca Inoue-Palmer. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

– Asia Media Centre 


Films that the New Zealand Film Commission has screened at its quarterly “Asia talents meet-ups” include:

• A Life Like This (Isaiah Tour) 

• Asian Men Talk About Sex (Chye-Ling Huang) 

• East Meets East (Julie Zhu and Tema Pua)