- LOS ANGELES
While falling short of declaring that L.A.-headquartered MAJORITY rules at the Oscars, suffice it to say that the production company will enjoy a prominent place at this Sunday’s awards ceremony as two of its directors, Laura Nix and Siqi Song, scored Academy Award nominations--the latter for best animated short on the strength of Sister while Nix is recognized in the documentary short subject category for Walk Run Cha-Cha.
With much deserved attention being paid to the lack of female filmmakers in the marquee best feature director Oscar category this year, overlooked in some respects are the achievements of women directors in short film, including Nix and Song.
Fittingly, these two directors contributing to a measure of gender inclusiveness at the Oscars are affiliated with MAJORITY for commercials and branded content. Founded two years ago by partner/managing director and a notable director in her own right, Senain Kheshgi, and partner/executive producer Jonathon Ker, MAJORITY bills itself as a community of collaborators dedicated to cultivating and amplifying the careers of women in the ad space. The production house represents a roster of female directors for spots, music videos and branded content while they continue as indie filmmakers working on their own projects.
Those projects included Song’s Sister and Nix’s Walk Run Cha-Cha. SHOOT caught up with both directors who reflected on the work that earned them their first career Oscar noms.
Prior to the Oscar nomination, Nix was already an established, accomplished director. Her feature documentary Inventing Tomorrow, about teenagers worldwide tackling environmental issues through science, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast on PBS’ POV series, screened at dozens of fests internationally and won multiple awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival. She previously directed the feature-length documentaries The Yes Men Are Revolting (2014 Toronto Film Festival, 2015 Berlinale, broadcast internationally), The Light In Her Eyes (2011 International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) and Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig (Frameline 2003), as well as fiction feature The Politics of Fur (Grand Jury Award winner at the 2002 L.A. Outfest).
In 2017 Nix was awarded the Sundance Institute/Discovery Impact Fellowship, and she is a member of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Nix also has to her credit varied short films including Walk Run Cha-Cha, which was originally planned as a feature-length documentary--and that is still in the offing. When she was first asked to make a short from the long-form documentary she had been spending some six years making, Nix was hesitant. But ultimately she saw the value of the story as a short, part of The New York Times Op-Docs series of films telling the stories of refugees and immigrants. The success of the Walk Run Cha-Cha short, including its selection for the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and the Oscar nomination, has even spurred prospects for the story taking the form of a narrative feature as well, replete with a cast of actors.
Walk Run Cha-Cha introduces us to Paul and Millie Cao who fell in love as teenagers in Vietnam but were soon separated by the war. Years later they finally reunited in California as Paul, who came to America first, worked and lobbied vigorously to bring Millie to the U.S. Now, after decades of striving to build new lives for themselves as a married couple stateside, Paul and Millie are making up for lost time on the dance floor. The dance studio itself is a melting pot with Eastern Europeans and Russian instructors teaching Latin dance to people from the Chinese and Vietnamese communities in suburban Los Angeles.
Nix originally intended to explore the dance studio itself as the subject of her documentary. She was intrigued by this special place in Alhambra, Calif., where several dozen Asians were learning the tango. Nix took dance lessons there for a year during which time she became friends with Paul and Millie, and their moving story changed the nature of her filmmaking pursuit.
For Nix, the biggest challenge posed by the short was getting Paul and Millie to truly open up about their experiences. They were both eager to have their dancing filmed but it took trust and a personal rapport developed over time with Nix to prompt them to feel free talking about their courtship in Saigon, being separated for six years, what it was like to finally reunite, the initial uncertainty when they got back together. “That was the benefit of shooting for six years. They became more comfortable with me,” related Nix who during that stretch turned out two other feature documentaries while in the process of making this one.
The day before the Oscar nominations were announced, Nix spent the day with Paul, Millie and a gathering of their friends and family to celebrate not only the 40th anniversary of when he arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam but also their 30th anniversary as a married couple. Many of them then got together early the following morning to wait for news of the Academy Award nominations. For Walk Run Cha-Cha to garner an Oscar nomination 40 years to the day of Paul’s coming to America was particularly special.
Also special is the story told in this film and what it represents. Nix said she hopes viewers through Paul and Millie see the courage, perseverance and resilience of many refugees and immigrants--particularly during a time when there is negative, unfounded hysteria about people who want to come to this country and make new lives for themselves. Nix affirmed it’s important for stories to be told and shared about immigrants and refugees--those who are here due to a humanitarian crisis, as well as “the many people who have reinvented themselves in our country and are leading amazing, inspiring lives here. That’s who we are as Americans.”
Nix said the Oscar nomination is gratifying not just for the personal and professional recognition but because it can help the film and its story find a larger audience.
For Song, her stop-motion animation short Sister is deeply personal, a reflection on the lives impacted by China’s one-child policy in effect between 1979 and 2015. Song herself is a rare second child in a family born during that period. She was aware that under the laws of her country, she shouldn’t have come into existence. Song recalled being asked by so many friends what it was like to be and to have a sibling, in her case an older brother. For her contemporaries in China, this was a part of family life they had not experienced.
Yet the Oscar-nominated Sister, Song’s graduation film at the CalArts Experimental Animation Program, isn’t told from her perspective but rather that of a man who recalls growing up with an annoying little sister. Influencing Song’s decision to tell this tale from a male POV was Bingyang Liu, another Chinese student at CalArts whose narration helps drive the film. Liu shared with Song that when he was four years old, he was supposed to have a little sister but she wasn’t born due to China’s restrictive policy. Thus he would imagine at times what his life would have been like with a younger sister in it. Song said she took that experience to heart, meshed it with her own to create Sister. Additionally informing the film which she wrote, directed, animated, shot and edited, Song interviewed her brother quite a bit to tap into what he felt growing up with her.
Sister has resonated with audiences and industry judges. In addition to the Oscar, Sister has been nominated for such honors as an Annie Award, a Sundance Film Festival Jury Award, and a BAFTA Student Film Award.
While stop motion is her favorite medium, Song likes to bring a mix of animation disciplines to her work. “I don’t define myself with techniques,” she said, noting that she embraces whatever tools or techniques will best advance the story, whether that be 2D animation, CG and/or live action.
Song’s notable credits extend beyond Sister. Her subsequent stop-motion short The Coin debuted at last year’s SXSW Film Festival. She described The Coin as “more colorful and a happier story” than what was told in Sister. The Coin centers on a young woman who loses a jar on her journey to a new country. The jar contains lucky coins she’s collected growing up. Her life in a new country starts with her searching to find the coins.
The folks at MAJORITY saw Sister at the BAFTAs. “They liked the story, the animation style so we had a meeting and they signed me,” related Song who was drawn to the company’s roster of “amazing female directors,” the opportunity to connect with them as well as to tap into the shop’s expertise and resources.
Song is intrigued by commercialmaking and branded content prospects, noting that they can generate great visual and storytelling opportunities, as well as the chance to experiment with different ideas, animation techniques and styles. She is currently working on an undisclosed piece in the branded space via MAJORITY.
Nix related that many documentary filmmakers make a living from commercials and branded content. That’s in part because it’s difficult to make a living from just documentaries. “You have to figure out something on the side that allows you to keep working (in documentaries),” said Nix who’s been active in the ad space before and is now looking for her first such assignment under the MAJORITY banner.
Nix continued that there’s been “a gender barrier for women directors in commercials and branded content that has gone on for a long time. MAJORITY was formed to break that barrier.” And that commitment to opening doors for women was a prime factor attracting her to the company.