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Malaysian film graduate gets candid about filmmaking in the United States during the pandemic!

"YOU get used to the patterns and the rituals pretty quickly," says the giggling young woman to me over Zoom call, describing a typical day at work. "Testing is the key thing: temperature checks for everybody every morning, and everyone's tested every morning."

It sounds like the experience of a frontline care worker, but this is filmmaking in the age of Covid-19. She's on set every day to keep an eye on social distancing and cross-contacts.

Sets are fogged every night, as are all the costumes. "This isn't what I had in mind when I studied filmmaking," she confesses. But she's grateful to have a job. It wasn't easy at first.

For many young starry-eyed graduates, the pandemic had upended even the best-laid plans and like millions of young people across the United States and Europe, Laavanya Anand Hunt, 24, suddenly found herself shut out of the labour market as the economic toll of the pandemic intensified.

"I had big dreams," sighs the young film and production graduate. "I'd planned to get a full-time job while producing independent films to make the most of my time in the United States."

Just two months before graduating, the Covid-19 pandemic started rapidly fuelling a new youth unemployment crisis globally. Young people were being disproportionately hit, economically and socially, by lockdown restrictions, forcing many to make painful adjustments and leaving policymakers grasping for solutions.

"It was the worst time to be a graduate of an industry that almost got upended by the pandemic," she remarks drily.

Not exactly an ideal situation, considering she had a mere two-month window before she graduated college, and just a year following her graduation to get a job, or she would have to leave the US. Things were looking bleak.

RAY OF HOPE

"I applied everywhere, went for countless interviews and received so many rejection slips. I was beginning to lose hope," she confesses. With her deadline nearing and chances of her well-laid plans crumbling into dust, there was a sudden unexpected glimmer of hope. "Thankfully, the universe had other plans for me," she remarks with a grin.

She received a call from her friend who suggested that she applied for the Covid Health & Safety job on a FX show called Snowfall. "I wasn't sure what the job entailed but by this time, I was ready to do just about anything. So, I did my research and applied anyway," she recalls.

"Nobody had heard of that position before," says Laavanya, adding: "They were just coming up with what that meant." When the line producer described what was needed for the role, it sounded like someone who doesn't exist. "It's like hiring a unicorn!" she remarks gaily with a laugh.

"You need someone who knows production, and who can oversee health and safety and the complicated logistics that entails," adds Laavanya. The gutsy youth took it on nevertheless, and soon found herself catapulting into a professional Hollywood production.

The Health and Safety Department, explains Laavanya, is a new addition created when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in last year. She oversaw the Covid-19 testing of the crew involved and ensured that every precaution was taken to keep everyone safe during filming. "Because the actors would have to perform scenes without masks, it was something that needed careful planning and prepping to ensure the safety of everyone on set," she adds.

The friendly woman tried making friends while working on set. "I struck up a random conversation with a crew member one day, complaining to him about the horrible blisters I obtained while working in the rain the previous night," she recounts, grinning. "I went into such disgusting details about my blisters, but he continued to listen politely, looking a little grossed out. Towards the end of the conversation, I asked him what he did on the show. He replied that he was the executive producer and writer." She shakes her head ruefully, continuing: "I think I died a little that day. What a great introduction!"

Painful introductions aside, she remains grateful to be right in the thick of action where filming and production were concerned. "My dreams simply took a slight detour," she tells me with a grin. "But I'm still learning a lot about filmmaking this way. I know I'm on the right track."

COLOURFUL PAST

"I've always had the most interesting life!" she declares, not without a little pride lacing through her voice. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Laavanya and her older brother found themselves shuttling to a foreign country at an early age when their father found a job opportunity in Dubai.

He'd been working overseas for a long time. "We missed him, and I think he found himself missing a huge portion of our childhood while he was working away in New Delhi," she recounts. Life in Malaysia was wonderful, recalls the young woman wistfully, adding that it was hard to leave.

She speaks gaily of drives with her English-teacher aunt with the music of Linkin Park reverberating loudly through the car. "Listening to songs like In the End and Numb during those rides sort of encapsulated my early childhood. I still love Linkin Park to this day!" she says, grinning.

At the age of 8, Laavanya and her family moved to Dubai to reunite with her father. "We were a complete family again," she says softly. But there was a lot of adjusting to do. She joined an international school where she met with other "third-culture" kids who hailed from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, who, like her, had moved away from their home countries.

The idea that a sense of belonging is challenged by the straddling of cultures is hardly a revelation. But rarely do we hear stories of so-called "third-culture kids" and the private, nomadic worlds in which they're raised, marked by a certain shared disorientation and the sense that home is everywhere and nowhere at once.

Coined by the American sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1950s, the term "third-culture kid" was conceived for expatriate children who spend their formative years overseas, shaped by the multicultural, peripatetic spheres of their parents, many of whom are diplomats, military members or working in foreign service.

They relocate frequently and enroll their children in international schools, exposing them to miniature realms cultivated by peers from nations far and wide, whose customs, languages and mores coalesce, birthing "third" cultures that are globe-spanning, diverse, highly empathic, and oftentimes, difficult to translate outside these environments.

After four years in Dubai, the family relocated to Chennai, India when Laavanya was 12. "The struggle is real," she reveals Laavanya. "It's certainly hard to maintain a sense of 'self' while embracing yet another culture."

She confesses to struggling with her identity despite being exposed to a unique life that gifted her a maturity and sense of independence beyond her years. "I found myself struggling to belong. Whenever I returned home to Malaysia, I felt a huge disconnect. Suddenly, I wasn't 'Malaysian' enough and I was often called a 'coconut'… brown on the outside and white on the inside!"

She eventually found peace in accepting that belonging had little to do with geography, but rather a collection of personal interests, ideas and relationships accumulated over time. "Growing up with different cultures around or inside me, I felt that I could define myself by my passions, not my passport," she muses thoughtfully. "In some ways, I would never be Indian or Malaysian, and that was quite freeing… though people may always define me by my skin colour or accent."

While living in Chennai, she took an avid interest in photography and studied under Belgian photographer, Virginie Vlammick, who'd take her on excursions around the city to capture riveting street scenes. Eventually, she found herself involved in creating and editing videos, putting together short films and videos for school, family and friends.

She returned to Malaysia to complete her last two years of school and started mulling over what she wanted to pursue in college. "I decided to study film. I loved watching movies and dreamt of being a film producer. Pursuing film and production in the US, the mecca of moviemaking, was my first choice. I mean, who doesn't love Hollywood?" she points out, with a wide smile.

Laavanya went on to study film and cinema at Columbia College, Chicago. Over the four years she spent at Columbia, the ambitious youth worked in over 30 film productions and was one of 40 students selected to join an additional semester in Los Angeles.

She interned at Partizan Entertainment, a multi-award-winning production company that was twice listed in the Gunn Report's as the "best production company in the world". Partizan is one of the industry's leading content creators for music videos, commercials, documentaries, feature films, animation, digital and branded content for online as well as interactive events and installations.

This gave Laavanya her first real taste of Hollywood, while working for the critically acclaimed company that had projects with successful brands and artistes, including Apple, Spotify, Amazon, ESPN, Adobe, Vogue, Katy Perry, Dua Lipa and Tom Petty.

BIG DREAMS

Then the pandemic struck. "I was forced to move my internship to my home. It was hugely disappointing but inevitable," she recalls. Upon graduating, securing a job became a huge challenge and seemed like an impossible task — until she found herself working in the Covid-19 safety department.

Laavanya has since been working on shows for Disney Studios and Sony Pictures. As the Health and Safety assistant, the young graduate is responsible for preventing the spread of Covid-19 on sets. She has worked on some big Hollywood TV shows, including Mixed-ish, Grown-ish, For All Mankind, Reservation Dogs, and an upcoming comedy series co-created by Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi.

"It's been a very interesting and strange journey," insists Laavanya, adding: "I mean, how many people can say that they're working on big Hollywood productions. How many can talk of growing up in different countries?" But she insists that a deep connection to her country of birth remains.

"I want to showcase our beautifully diverse culture through the films I'll make someday," she says, adding: "I feel the most important aspect of being a filmmaker is to be really aware of what forms you as much as what's in front of you. So, I always try to keep in mind what I could've been experiencing during my youth in all these places through the prism of these complex stories I'll tell one day."

Laavanya dreams of setting up her own production company and producing Asian stories told by Asians for Asians. After working in the industry for nearly two years, she noticed a lack of diversity in the sets she has worked on — especially behind the scenes.

"It's gravely disappointing, considering Hollywood's obsession for diversity. Yet it doesn't seem to be reflected on the people working behind the cameras," she remarks.

She wants to change that and provide opportunities to underrepresented groups.

"Growing up, I really wished I could identify with the heroines I saw on the big screen. But every time I saw a brown person on screen, it was always slightly offensive, and they were usually the butt of the jokes," she laments. But things are slowly changing, she says. Today, she's inspired by artists like Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhag, Lilly Singh, and Aziz Ansari who create stories that are both educational and celebrates diversity.

She's still that same girl with stars in her eyes. "In an industry that strives to turn imagination into works of art, there's always room for one more dreamer," she insists, before concluding with a smile: "Today, I'll work as hard as I can, and I'll dream just as hard. Tomorrow, I'll turn my dreams into movies. There's no telling what can happen next!"

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