Reel Asian celebrates AHM! Interview w/ Albert Zablan and Althea Balmes

Time for the final interview of our Asian Heritage Month School Tour filmmakers series. Last week I sat down to chat with Albert and Althea after dim sum and we covered everything from Deadliest Warrior, suman and of course their filmmaking experience at Reel Asian. Time flies when you’re with good company!

Eva: Thank you for meeting with me today to do this interview. Can you both please introduce yourself and tell me what you do? How did you both get into filmmaking?

Althea: My name is Althea Balmes. I’m currently working on a comic book project called Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love. I got into filmmaking kind of by accident. My background is actually in anthropology and international development. That’s what I studied in school. My first experience with filmmaking is actually with Reel Asian with the summer youth workshop. That was really cool. I kind of just applied without really thinking that I was going to be a filmmaker

Albert: My name is Albert Zablan. I’m a recent graduate from the University of Toronto. I did a double major in economics and cinema studies… so I guess that’s where the film plays in. It was more watching films and writing about them, reading texts and theories. I guess I wanted to get more of a hands-on experience and make films. This opportunity came up with Reel Asian and I saw the Summer Workshop program so I thought “Why not?”

Eva: This leads to our next question – the Reel Asian Summer Youth Production Workshop. You both went into this program with no prior filmmaking experience – directing, setting up shots, storyboards…etc. It was almost like a crash course, right? Tell me a bit about it. How long was the program, again?

Albert: I think it was about a month

Eva: Wow, so you just had to dive right in

Althea: Yes. We just had to go for it. Well the good thing is we went into the program with an idea already. This really helped. The program itself was divided in certain groups like writing, directing – to refine your idea, basically.

Albert: We also had to be realistic because it was such a short shooting schedule and we had a lot to learn. So we had to be realistic about what type of films we could make. For me, a huge problem I had was getting actors and that sort of limited what I wanted to do

Althea: We had really good mentors. Without our mentors, I don’t think we could have been successful with our movies. Especially with Tony Lau – he was really there for us to support us

Albert: And Arthur

Althea: Yes, and Arthur

Albert: They were literally there every step of the way. We had mentors who would come in weekly and assist us with certain aspects of the filmmaking process

Althea: When it came to the actual shooting – they were also there. They were pretty available. So it was really nice having so many people who were experienced to help us out. Also our other members were really supportive! You need a really good crew to make a movie and I think we were there for each other

Albert: There were definitely some grueling moments where we had to do back-to-back shoots and go 24 hours but I think we stuck it out pretty well.

Althea: Yeah, that was intense. Like these guys, they came to my shoot sleep-deprived

Albert: and we had pizza for breakfast…

Althea: There you go! But when they were there, they were really professional

Eva: Any interesting anecdotes or memorable experience?

Althea: (laughs) A lot

Albert: For some reason, when you first said that, I thought of Simu. Out of all people. He’s the actor in Thila’s film, “Summer Child”. He was just a cool guy (laughs) and very willing to take his shirt off on camera

Althea: Of course he is!

Albert: That was interesting… I don’t know why!

Eva: Haha that’s the one thing you remember most?

Albert: His abs just immediately went to my mind (laughs)

Althea: For sure, our first shoot was really memorable. We were there really early in the morning so it was pretty intense. But it was a good first day for shooting because it set the tone for the entire shoot. That was really memorable

Eva: What was your biggest takeaway experience from the workshop program?

Althea: For me, I think it would be the networking. Meeting all the emerging filmmakers and mentors who are all really willing to help you out. I still keep in touch with some of them. It was really good learning from them and having that connection

Albert: I completely agree with the networking. Reel Asian really put us in a good place to make a film and to sustain it. I always feel like they’re always nudging us to continue it

Althea: Yes, that’s so true!

Albert: I needed that encouragement constantly and I feel like Reel Asian always has my back (laughs)

Althea: I like that you guys do maintain that relationship and always talk about your talents and to not forget about them.

Eva: Yeah, I think it’s easier to second-guess yourself along the way. One of the most reassuring things ever is to have that sort of encouragement. And like you said, even after the whole workshop, Reel Asian always asks if you have any updates, or asks what you’re up to. It’s like they’re continuing to nurture right?

Both: Yeah

Albert: I think that’s one of the toughest things because we went through that experience and we really needed that continuity

Eva: Can you tell me a little about the film that you made for the workshop and the inspiration behind it?

Althea: My movie was called “Suman Ladies”. It’s about this Filipina lady who was selling these sticky rice called “suman” on the streets of Toronto. Visually, you follow what her motivations are for doing it. But the narration is about a bigger thing – about food and culture and politics of migration. My inspiration was my own personal experience when this one woman approached me while I was walking with friends and she called me and said “Psst! Are you Filipino?”, which is what I used in the film because that’s what happened. She was selling suman and it was a fundraising. That whole experience…it was interesting to me because I was in Toronto and you don’t really see that happening because it’s illegal. But because I was Filipino, they were able to connect with me and be on the down-low that kinda thing. So that was my inspiration. A lot of the narration was based on what I learned in school through anthropology about food and culture and relationships with people. And it’s also people’s memories of suman.

Albert: My film, “New Home”, is kind of about the back-and-forth correspondence between a mother and her sister-in-law who’s taking care of her children in her native country. I primarily used voiceover narration, matching captured scenes of the neighbourhood to the audio. I don’t want to say it’s experimental but I kind of smashed together images of my neighborhood I grew up in with the voiceover running over it. It’s autobiographical and it was borne out of conversations I would have with my mom. I was genuinely curious to know what it was like for her when she first moved to Canada so I continued to prod and form the basis of the story. At it’s core the film is about a mother going through the hardships of transition: moving to a new country, leaving her kids, taking on temporary work and fear of the future. Being from a multicultural city, I hoped that the film would be accessible to a wider audience, beyond the immediate Filipino community.

Eva: So your mom starred in it right?

Albert: She starred in it, yes so… She definitely went through torture. I made her go through some torture, like fold clothes, do laundry…

Eva: Right, because she’s not used to someone saying “Ok, action! Take one! Take two!”

Albert: Exactly. “Do that five times. The first three takes weren’t good”.

Eva: “That same shirt – again!”

Albert: That’s exactly how it was! It was kind of fun (laughs). I feel like the short film format itself lends to the more personal stories. It seems the feature films focus more on the larger sweeping histories whereas for my film, I wanted to make a more personal history

Eva: Cool. Next question – why do you think it’s important to have more Asian filmmakers out there?

Althea: I think it’s important because of the amount of diversity you can get from multiple voices. “Asian” is a BIG term – this could expand from Central Asia all the way to Southeast Asia and all these different environments change depending on where they’re from. So I think it’s important for that diversity to be represented because our stories are not always the same. We all have different experiences and I think it’s good to capture and present that. It goes back to self-representation. You have a voice. Other people have a voice that might not resonate with you. But to have someone who’s similar to you or has had similar experiences, you can see that. That’s why it’s good!

Albert: I definitely think that maybe Asians have a stigma – they’re more associated with more conventional professional careers. So I think we’re actually under-represented in Canada. Even though Toronto prides itself on being a diverse environment. But I still see a lack of Asians in films and Asian content.

Althea: From my experience, a lot of the artists that I know are politically conscious of where they stand. In terms of arts in general, you have this idea that art has to be beautiful and it’s all about creating something like a story that’s magical or whatever but it’s also a statement. You can make a statement through arts. It’s good to just have that channel or venue to use especially if you’re a minority (laughs). It’s one of the best ways to have people listen to you

Eva: Are there any filmmakers or creative individuals that inspire you?

Albert: Althea Balmes (laughs)

Althea: Albert (laughs)

Albert: haha and Henry Wong

Eva: You’re just naming everyone from Reel Asian

Albert: Yup everyone here…Arthur Yeung (laughs). The list goes on…

Althea: A lot of the local Filipino artists here are a big inspiration to me. I think it’s cool – they’re so talented, like this musician Alexander Junior, Catherine Hernandez. These are all Filipino artists who are very conscious of Filipino culture and politics and they bring that into their work. They make it fresh. It’s really cool and you see it doesn’t have to be depressing all the time (laughs). In terms of filmmakers, I going to say this Filipino filmmaker, Lino Brocka, who was also politically self-conscious and he made a lot of these films back in the seventies. They were really well made and just one of those films where even after you finished watching it, you can always think back and kind of reflect back on the message

Albert: I’m going to say this Finnish director – Aki Kaurismäki. I think I’ve only seen two or three of his films but I really like his working class background. How he started off doing odd jobs like being a dishwasher and stuff so different from films. But he ended up being a pretty major filmmaker.

Eva: Right, it’s inspiring to see how you can go from there to here. So many times when we express an interest in being a filmmaker, it almost seems like there is a shelf life.  Like if I don’t become a filmmaker by this particular year, then I might as well not be a filmmaker at all. The first example that comes to my mind is Ang Lee and how he did not achieve international status and acclaim until much later into his career. So I understand what you mean! Everyone has different starting points. You can still achieve great things and time should not be a limiting factor to what you can and want to do

One of the cool things about both of your stories is that now you seem more confident of yourselves as filmmakers, would you say that? A lot has happened in the past year. Did you imagine yourself to be in this sort of position a year ago?

Albert: I honestly was kind of praying for an opportunity like this because going back to what you were saying about the shelf life thing, I felt like I missed out on the workshops and all that stuff when I was younger. Just looking back, it was a definite whirlwind  – we actually made a film. We went through the vigorous process of writing, directing, everything…and we got a pretty grand screening with interviews and all that. To see it still relevant and going forward, it’s really cool and encouraging

Eva: A lot of the film programs and grants out there – they usually require you to already have some experience or credits under your name. These types of requirements are discouraging for a first time filmmaker. It’s like what about the people who just want to try? I think that’s what’s good about this program

Althea: I think it’s kind of cool that I made one film… and I guess it turned out kind of successful having won the award

Eva: It’s like the film had legs! And it ran! (laughs)

Althea: Haha yeah! For sure! I was really surprised that it won an award at Reel Asian. I was like “What? Seriously? That’s awesome”. It became a stepping-stone for more art projects. Like I never considered being fully committed as an artist for a career because most people don’t really consider being an artist as a job

Eva: (laughs) Right. It’s hard to confidently say to people that you are an artist; this is what you do and have it taken seriously… especially being young

Althea: Yeah. So that was a big stepping-stone for me because I just graduated too and I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Then the Reel Asian program came along and I just went for it.

Eva: I love how when it happened and with the award, you were so surprised. It was almost a moment like “Hmmm…maybe I do have it. Maybe I’m supposed to be doing this” and that’s such a good feeling

Althea: Yeah! Exactly! It was a really big encouragement! Coming from an Asian background, art is not something that you commonly pursue as a job. It could be a hobby – fine, but go get a real job or something (laughs). So being able to do something that you love is great

Eva: It’s weird how we need that validation for the arts

Althea: Ya oh my gosh, for sure

Eva: It’s like you need someone to say to you, “Hey, you’re pretty good” and then you ask yourself, “Am I? Am I really?”

Althea: Yeah. The validation is really good

Eva: Now you guys are doing the school tour as well. There has got to be young people out there in the audience who might never have picked up a camera or never even thought about making a film before. Any words to say to these individuals?

Albert: Pick up that camera (laughs). Honestly, I’d say just start. If you feel that you have an inclination, then just do it. Filmmaking is so accessible now. There are so many venues and online channels to show your work that there’s really no excuse to not try.

Althea: Yeah – just experiment. Tell people that you’re a filmmaker! Or that you want to make films because eventually there will be someone who comes along and they’d want to help you out

Eva: Are either of you currently working on anything? What are some next steps that you have planned?

Althea: For me, I think this year would be more focused on my comic booksRight now I’m doing a comic book project. It’s a community-based comic book project about the lives of live-in caregivers. We work closely in collaboration with caregivers about their lives and I’m illustrating for that project. We’re trying to publish it next year some time in May. I’m also in the Hot Docs accelerator program right now.

Eva: Cool!

Albert: I am working on a film with Althea… right?

Althea: Yes!

Albert: We’re doing it, right? Ok. So I’ll be working on a film with Althea soon but right now I’m currently enrolled at Ryerson for accounting. I’m still trying to keep the film thing going so we’re in preliminary talks. Tossing ideas around.

Eva: Sounds great! I can’t wait to see it! Thanks so much for your time today.

Keep an eye out for our 2nd edition of “Unsung Voices: Reel Asian’s Youth Summer Video Production Workshop”.

Read the other interviews in this filmmakers series! Stephanie Law, Leslie Supnet