America-based Malaysian filmmaker Cheyenne Tan (second from right), pictured with Zee Avi (centre), aims to create films that are about social justice and that give underrepresented groups a platform to tell their stories. Pic courtesy of Cheyenne Tan

KUCHING-born, Los Angeles-based Cheyenne Tan is a documentary producer and director passionate about social, cultural and political issues.

Two of her shorts, Rasa Sayang and Starting From Scratch were official selections of the Columbia College Hollywood Film Festival 2017 where Starting From Scratch won the grand prize.

Starting From Scratch is about Athena Yap who quit her engineering career to open a dog bakery.

Rasa Sayang follows Malaysians Khim and Soon Teoh in their journey to open a restaurant in Anaheim, California.

Tan’s previous credits include Alt-Right: Age of Rage, which premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival 2018.

She is now an associate producer to award-winning Smriti Mundhra on two of Mundhra’s upcoming films — Dharavi, about a hip-hop crew in the slums of India and an untitled documentary about the rebuilding of Flint, Michigan after the water crisis of the last four years.

Dharavi is about Akash Dhangar who founded the SlumGods collective in 2008.

Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman and Bafta-winning filmmaker Shekhar Kapur are the executive producers.

Tan and Mundhra are also in post-production for an Al Jazeera documentary St Louis Superman about activist-politician Bruce Franks Jr.

She also worked with Mundhra on the recent BET documentary Vixen that highlighted hip-hop music video models in the 2000s.

The film went viral with 200,000 views in its first week of release.

Her other documentaries include Musical Journeys: From Malaysia To Los Angeles about Zee Avi, Alvin Wee and Rendra Zawawi, the musicians behind Arena Cahaya, the theme song of Ola Bola, and Samantha Tan about a model-actress who cooks Malaysian cuisine in her kitchen by night.

Tan graduated from film school with a Magna Cum Laude. Her hobbies are watching Korean dramas and listening to BTS.

Below is a recent interview with Cheyenne:

WAS FILMMAKING ALWAYS YOUR CHILDHOOD DREAM?

No. I have, however, from a young age realised how powerful the media is in shaping the human mindset. I’ve always known that I've wanted to be a storyteller.

Even after I found filmmaking, I didn’t know what kind of films I wanted to make except that I knew I wanted to make people leave theatres thinking about issues.

Then, I stumbled upon documentary filmmaking a year ago and realised it was my calling.

TELL US ABOUT THE TYPE OF FILMS YOU GREW UP ENJOYING

I enjoyed dramas and romantic comedies, the films I’m not interested in making.

IS ANYBODY IN YOUR FAMILY FROM THE PERFORMING ARTS?

None of my family members are in the performing arts.

I’m blessed to have parents who support my artistic endeavours and my mother is my biggest fan.

She was hesitant about me pursuing this career because she wanted the best for me — it is not an easy field to get into and I had zero film experience.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE STUDYING FILM AND WORKING OVERSEAS

I didn’t know that I wanted to have a career in visual arts until I was close to finishing secondary school.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, everyone in class knew the basics of filmmaking because they had gone through filmmaking programmes in high school.

Thus I read everything I could get my hands on about filmmaking and jumped on every opportunity to learn new things.

I was an almost straight A student throughout college but I never believed that I was good enough until my senior year when I made my first documentary.

I suppose it is because I enjoyed documentary filmmaking so much, it gave me fulfillment and joy.

I started working immediately after finishing my last class in college and have been working on exciting projects ever since.

TELL US WHAT YOUR MAIN FILMS IN RECENT YEARS HAVE BEEN ABOUT

Starting From Scratch is about a Malaysian, Athena Yap who quit her engineering career to open dog bakeries.

My co-director and I were interested in this film because of the beautiful blend of a strong woman, dogs and cupcakes.

I also worked on Alt-Right: Age of Rage as an editing assistant.

In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an activist, combats the rise of the Alt-Right movement, while Richard Spencer, an Alt-Right leader, fights to gain ground, culminating in a showdown in Charlottesville.

WHAT TOPICS ARE YOU MOST INTERESTED IN WHEN IT COMES TO MAKING FILMS AND WHY

I’m most interested in films that are about social justice and that give underrepresented groups a platform to tell their stories.

There are stories out there that for political or social reasons we don’t get to talk about enough.

I’m drawn to stories about women and the way women of colour are treated.

TELL US SOME OF THE BEST PRODUCERS AND ACTORS YOU HAVE WORKED WITH AND WHY

I have been working with Smriti Mundhra ever since I left school last year.

Smriti is an incredible boss who is kind, funny and talented.

I am always in awe of how she can manage to juggle multiple projects.

She is eager to get me out of my comfort zone and expose me to challenges that have allowed me to grow.

I’ve been part of a documentary about activist Bruce Franks who is the most captivating subject I’ve worked with.

After going through so much despite his young age, Bruce has inspired me to create change in my community.

Bruce has shown that one person can make a difference through activism, and I know that I can through filmmaking.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR PROJECTS IN MALAYSIA AND INTERNATIONALLY

I am producing and directing a documentary about the musicians behind the soundtrack of Ola Bola, Arena Cahaya namely Zee Avi, Rendra Zawawi and Alvin Wee. This documentary, Musical Journeys: From Malaysia to Los Angeles, follows these talented people after the success of the soundtrack.

Young Malaysians need to see that the arts is worth pursuing and watching people excelling in it is important for one to pursue his or her dreams.

WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE AIM AS A FILMMAKER? DO YOU THINK MAKING FILMS OVERSEAS WAS THE RIGHT DECISION WHICH PUSHED YOU TO EXCEL?

My ultimate aim is to make films that people can talk about for years, not only about how great it is artistically but more importantly, how crucial it is to talk about the content.

I would like my films to change laws and help minority groups, and change the mindset of the masses about important things in their lives.

Making films overseas was the right decision to push me to excel. The abundance of opportunities, to be creative without the fear of being judged and the network are all invaluable to me.

Being overseas means I don’t have to censor myself and learn to tell stories without caring about what others think.

This makes me brave enough to make a film by creating much out of little.

BESIDES FILMMAKING, DO YOU EXCEL IN ANY OTHER AREAS IN THE PERFORMING ARTS WHICH COME HANDY IN YOUR FILMS?

I was a debater in secondary school for a year and I wasn’t very good. Despite that, I give debating credit for my success because it has allowed me to think critically and speak with confidence.

I was a good oil pastel artist as a child before I quit in Form One, but I am getting back into it now.

I started going to art classes when I was about 6 and that set the foundation for me as a filmmaker in terms of how I want films to look like.

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