Sinakhone Keodara is an award-winning producer and writer, a 2014 NBC Universal Talent Lab fellow, and studied at the Santa Monica College Film Program. He is also the founder and CEO of Lao Films & Television, Inc. An LGBTQ comedy—“I Love You Both”—, which he was associate producer of in 2015, won the 2016 Cinequest Film Festival New Vision Award.
In 2015, his screenplay, “Where Our Worlds Meet,” was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival’s Teleplay & Screenplay Competition. WOWM tells the story of a gay Asian man coming to terms with his lover’s death. WOWM draws from Lao and Latino culture, telling a story not often shown in Hollywood.
I connected with Keodara to talk about his Indiegogo campaign to take WOWM to the next level—filming a short film—and to get his thoughts on LGBTQ and Asian representation in the media, and his own writing.
Can you share what inspired you to write WOWM?
This story is inspired by a personal tragedy where I wasn’t allowed to visit the love of my life in the ICU when he died from AIDS-related complications in a hospital in Atlanta, GA in 2005. His family shut me out so I never had closure. I didn’t know what to do with the grief. I wrote some feelings down on paper as sort of a goodbye love letter that became the impetus for the screenplay.
In 2007, I sat down to try to write a screenplay because I felt that our story needed to be told but I had to put it away because it was too painful. It wasn’t until 2013 when I took a directing class and I wanted to pitch this story as my thesis film that I completed the script.
I’m sorry for your loss. It’s interesting that this comes from such a personal space for you. A lot of writers struggle with making art out of such personal and painful moments; did you have any reservations or obstacles in sharing this story? How did you overcome them, or did you?
For the rest of my life, I’ll never know what it was like to be by my partner’s side, holding his hand, whispering into his ears telling him I love him during his transition to the next realm. Writing this script has been a gut-wrenching and emotionally exhausting experience. Each draft of the script was brutal. Those wounds hadn’t healed. I still cry one of those deep, ugly, painful cries every time I read through the script.
In 2013, I launched a failed Kickstarter campaign so my hope was crushed and I had to focus on survival and took my first industry job. I put off this project but it kept coming up, so I went back to it. I decided to revamp the story and not make it completely biographical and dramatized a lot of the scenes but kept the essence of what happened, giving myself creative freedom to create a script that is cinematic and dramatic that fosters a lot of Lao culture.
I hear that a lot, when people try to make art out of very personal things, that in order to do it well, sometimes creative license and freedom is necessary. What were some of the things that changed?
In some ways, in rewriting the script, I gave myself a happy ending in my movie that I wasn’t afforded in real life. I had some reservations about the privacy of his family so I changed the race of my partner from white to Latino. I also decided to do a scene that dealt with the violence committed against gay men by straight Latino men because I wanted to shine a light on homophobia within the Latino community. I had some reservations about that because I’m an outsider to the Latino community. However, after some reflection, I decided I am an artist and it’s my job to push the envelope, so it goes.
Well you really are pushing the envelope—an interracial, gay romance is not the norm in media—did you always want to write and direct movies?
I came to Hollywood in 2006 to pursue my dream of becoming an actor and I started doing background work with Central Casting for a couple of years and tried the actor’s life but found that there is a lack of roles for Asian actors and I gave up acting to find a “real” job.
When I took the leap of faith and jumped on that greyhound bus with two suitcases and my dreams, I had no inkling that I wanted to be a writer or director or any position behind the camera. I came to Hollywood to be a star (like everyone else…lol) and wanted to be in front of the camera. While on set I was introduced to Joseph Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth” and one thing lead to another. I decided to pick up a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist Way,” and took the workshop of the same name with the venerable teacher Kelly Morgan. I discovered my hidden talent of writing.
Writing was the last thing on my mind because I avoided English classes to save my life. English is a hard language to master especially grammar and being that English is my second language I just never imagined I wanted to be a writer because I struggled in High School and College in English and Literature classes.
You’re a director as well, was that something you discovered along the way too?
I fell into directing almost by accident. Back in 2008—post-Prop8—I was one of many LGBT activists fighting to win back the civil rights that were stripped from us by the voters of California.
A group of us LGBT activists organized an event called “The Revolution at the West Hollywood Auditorium” and I decided to tape a “Take A Vow” video of attendees making a vow of commitment to winning back our rights. I found that I really enjoyed being behind the camera and was moved to tears by these strangers who were pouring their hearts out on camera. I was hooked on being a midwife to the magic that happens between the camera and her subject and I had a little voice in my head telling me that I was good at connecting with people and that I should go to school to become a film a director.
I was reluctant because I didn’t think that I had it in me to be a film director. It just seems like such an overwhelming task. But then a year later, during a Day of Decision rally that LGBT activists put together to send a message to the Supreme Court of California, I heard Cheryl Lee Ralph up on stage singing a song at the rally that imparted the wisdom of the power of the pen. It was my call to adventure.
It was one of those moments when things clicked and I felt my Higher Power was communicating to me. So I resolved that in order for me to have any kind of opportunities in Tinsel Town as an Asian gay actor, I would have to create it for myself. So that’s how my long and winding journey into becoming a filmmaker began. I have Cheryl Lee Ralph to thank for it. She is such a fierce and powerful spirit, and she oozes charisma and inner beauty, besides the fact that she’s physically beautiful.
It’s interesting you bring up opportunity for Asian actors. Lately campaigns like #whitewashedOUT have highlighted the lack of PoC, specifically Asian, representation in media. Clearly there are a lot of stories to tell, why do you think the representation is still so small?
I’m so glad you brought that up. It is deep rooted in systemic racism and a culture of white supremacy.
I give Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu and Margaret Cho a lot of credit for jumpstarting this revolution by starting the conversation on whitewashing that led to the #whitewashedOUT movement. Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu will always go down in my book as the heroines of this movement because they stood up for all of us risking their careers. It is groundbreaking and there has been a shift of consciousness. There is no going back. And to quote British actress Gemma Chan, “the drumbeat is getting louder.” Hollywood will be shamed into changing and the studios will have to take actions to change the status quo.
To be frank, I’d always been frustrated with why for so long popular Asian actors and directors have not used their platform and been more vocal on this issue earlier. But, timing is now ripe so it was music to my ears to see actresses Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and director Ang Lee and Producer Janet Yang et al take the Academy to task for making fun of Asians at our kids’ expense during the Oscars this year. I believe that led to us having more courage to speak up.
I love seeing my Asian sisters leading this revolution. That is something that is both powerful and ironic because Mother Culture has put them in the servile and subservient category but they’ve proven that they are fierce warriors. We can never thank them enough! I’m a Ming-na Wen and Constance Wu fan for life. I will do anything for those ladies. In fact, a sci-fi script that I’ve written titled Frog Eats Moon has them in mind for the two leads. But first things first. LOL. I’ve got to get this movie made.
To get back to your question, I believe this all goes back to propaganda and a culture where the only images of beauty, of heroes, and of historical figures that are great have been forced fed to us are white people. It’s in the textbooks that we studied, the novels that we read, magazines that we perused, movies that we watched, music that we listened to; and the scientists and geniuses that have been recorded or afforded face time in our educational videos and documentaries have mainly been white people. It’s subconscious.
We’re subliminally taught that white people are superior to everybody else and that is a lie. We are all great in our own right. Greatness exists in every race and creed. We are all divine spiritual beings having a human experience. How I see race is like this, each race is like a flower decorating this beautiful garden called earth. We complement each other. No race is better or worse than the others. Period.
I agree. I also think that when there is a chance for representation, it’s always skewed to one perspective. WOWM is definitely atypical in regards to Asian representation in the media. Do you think there is an additional hurdle for LGBTQ Asians?
There definitely is an additional hurdle for being LGBTQ of Asian descent. It’s both sexual orientation and race. We face sort of a double-whammy of hurdles. We experience discrimination from within our community of origin (for being gay) and within the LGBTQ community for being Asian, so there is this crisis of self-esteem for my Gaysian brothers and sisters.
We don’t feel good about who we are as gay people because we’re being discriminated against by our gay brothers and sisters for being Asian and we can’t feel good about our Asian-ness because our family of origin doesn’t understand what gayness is and there isn’t a lot of support in the beginning of our coming out. But I do see PSAs now coming out where we see Asian parents—specifically East Asians—speaking out proudly about loving and accepting their gay children, so that is progress.
My family has gone from thinking that I am gay because of bad karma from a past life (it’s a Buddhist thing) to now accepting me fully. I bring all my ex-boyfriends home for the Holidays. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and they’ve learned to deal with it. All my nieces and nephews have called my exes uncle. But, when I was newly out—this is about 21 years ago—my family didn’t have any information on gay issues, so when I went home it became uncomfortable around the dinner table.
Would you say there is more information now than when you were first coming out?
There is still a lack of education in SE Asian communities on gay issues, and the major LGBT organizations don’t dedicate resources to translate literature into Southeast Asian languages—especially not Lao. Not to my knowledge at least—I called around and couldn’t find any. As recently as last year, I had a dear Lao friend contact me on Facebook frantic about her nephew and his struggles of coming out and how his parents don’t know how to deal with their son being gay. We searched high and low and finally found one PFLAG pamphlet in the Lao language about gay people that was incoherent, and that no one knew about or used. In order words, if you’re gay and SE Asian, or specifically, if you’re gay and Lao, good luck with your coming out process. You’re fucked because you’re left to fend for yourself and deal with your coming out on your own.
I don’t recall ever seeing the gay press cover an Asian gay man or woman coming out. They’ve all been about everybody else, but mainly white gay men. But, I’ve not yet seen one gay media cover an Asian person’s coming out story because to the LGBT press, our stories don’t matter because we don’t matter to them. They don’t see us. We’re even more invisible in the LGBT community as Asians. It’s worse than the straight world.
That’s a pretty large indictment of the LGBT presses, what work do you think needs to be done?
There is a lot of work to be done on that front. The LGBTQ media doesn’t cover LGBTQ of color—especially Asians—unless we’re someone already famous like George Takei, Alec Mapa or BD Wong. So it’s harder for emerging Asian LGBTQ artists to even get press on our creative endeavors let alone representation in the media. Prime example was an HBO show about a group of gay men in SF and how they managed to not cast a gay Asian man in that series. They had one black and one Latino male lead and a stereotypical—if token—straight Asian nerd, but no Gaysians are to be found. There was a big uproar and a boycott from the community because we’re talking about SF, a 3rd of the population is Asian. The show eventually got canceled.
I’ve been trying on several of my projects to get coverage of my project by the gay press but none was given. In my first Award-Winning feature film that I helped produced (I Love You Both, 2016) we got press from Australia, New Zealand, and the UK but none from the US. It was laughable actually. But, I take heart in seeing more gay Asian filmmakers making their art and distributing it online.
In my line of work, what I’m trying to bring attention to is how lonely it is to be an LGBTQ of Asian descent. How we have to deal with our own coming out on our own because our families of origin don’t know how to embrace us for being gay and when we turn to the white LGBTQ community whom we thought would embrace us for being gay, but some—mostly gay men—reject us because we’re Asian.
That’s interesting that you point out gay, white men specifically. Why do you think there is such difficulty for them to accept gay Asians?
Gay white men are taught by the same media, which emasculates Asian men, dehumanizing us by making us the butt of jokes. Apparently we’re made to be freaks that are somehow weirdly socially acceptable to be made fun of even in 2016. We only have to look at the Oscar telecast for confirmation. So to see Asian American members of the Academy stand up and unequivocally demand, “No more! Enough! We’ve had enough,” is empowering.
So while Asian representation is trying to gain more headway, do you think that LGBTQ representation has taken strides recently?
Yes, most definitely. Shonda Rhimes (she’s a Goddess) and Lee Daniels have really pushed the envelope in presenting gay leads in their shows in a non-stereotypical and unapologetic way. And I want to continue following in their footsteps in telling Asian gay stories for the big and small screens. Full disclosure, I don’t watch much TV (Empire is the only TV show I watched in the past year and that was because I was briefly Lee Daniel’s assistant) but I do read about it in the trades. I have a suspicion that if I consume too much TV it’ll mess with my own creative output.
I get that, I find social media definitely gets in the way of my writing—mostly because I’m a horrible procrastinator, lolz. But back to the point, of the shows that do feature prominent gay characters, most of them are white. Do those representations help/hurt non-white gay representation (or is it neutral)?
It’s never neutral. Both those identities are an intrinsic part of who we are. We can’t choose our gay identity any easier than our racial/ethnic identity.
But, this is exactly the same issue that we’re dealing with in the overall Hollywood whitewashing of Asian roles. When you have TV shows and movies featuring gay people as being only white, it invalidates us LGBTQ people of color. It’s the same tired white man standing in for all of humanity again, gay or straight being irrelevant.
Last year Roland Emmerich whitewashed his epic gay historical film Stonewall by casting Jeremy Irvine (a straight white actor) to play the lead of that movie about the gay revolution and cast aside transwomen of color. In that film, Roland made Jeremy throw the first brick when in reality it was a Latino transwoman named Silvia Rivera who threw the first heel. Roland’s excuse for rewriting LGBTQ history and giving the credit to white people instigating the Stonewall riot (when it was drag queens and transwomen of color who rose up first that night) was because he believed straight white people in Middle America can relate better to a white gay man than a transwoman of color. The community was up in arms and we boycotted that movie which tanked.
I remember that! I chose not to go see it too. I do wonder what it would have been like had they stuck to actual history for that movie. What I mean is: a big hot topic is writing the “other,” often meaning white people writing PoC characters. Do you think that non-PoC writers should be doing that? Do you have any advice on how they should go about it?
This is a little tricky. I do think it comes down to perspective. A non-POC writer could never have the experience, cultural context, and perspective of someone who is a POC. But I don’t believe in censoring what people write.
In my script, I researched the Latino characters to death and workshopped what I wrote with my Latino classmates and colleagues just to make sure I got it right. So, my advice for white writers writing PoC characters is to hire cultural consultants, which brings to mind a #whitewashedOUT discussion where several activists suggested that movie studios (and TV studios for that matter) hire POC consultants.
And I do think that Hollywood TV studios need to open up their writer’s room to a more diverse group of writers. My belief is when we erase any group of people from the media and discount their voices the whole world loses out on the contributions and gifts from those people’s experience, strength, and wisdom.
Many argue that there would be more representation and roles for PoC if the white writers with access started writing PoC characters. Do you count those stories (PoC characters written by non-PoC writers) as part of the solution to the representation problem?
No. That’s an easy way out. It’s a way to keep the status quo. That’s like saying white actors can play Asian people better than Asian actors can play ourselves. It’s offensive. PoC writers can write ourselves better than white writers can ever attempt to write us.
The gatekeepers, the movie studios and the producers and directors want to keep it that way because it serves them. Hollywood is run by the (to use the words of Ava DuVernay) “white patriarchy” and they’ve been doing things the usual way for as long as Hollywood has been in business.
There really aren’t any excuses left—not that there were any to begin with—to explain whitewashing of ethnic roles in 2016. I’ve seriously been told in a room full of people at a film festival last year—by literary managers and agents—that they don’t sign PoC writers because our skills are not up to par (presumably to our white counterparts) and because PoC writers only write niche stories. And these lit agents’ and managers’ conventional wisdom inform them that ethnic stories don’t sell.
Yep. They said it in a room full of people. I was livid and let them have it. Some of them defended their indefensible position on video. I reminded them that I was a finalist in a screenwriting competition at that film festival.
That’s rough to hear. What advice would you give another PoC filmmaker trying to make their way through the industry?
I haven’t made it yet so I can’t really give any advice on that front. I’m still trying to make it. This is my first film. Ask me after I get this film made and after I get to direct my three features (two written and the feature version of this film to be written) I have waiting in the wings.
With that, thank you for your time. Good luck on the campaign, I hope to see WOWM as a feature soon.
To support “Where Our Worlds Meet” donate today, and spread the word. Any amount is welcome. Additionally, perks for donating range from receiving a free download of WOWM, to being an extra in the film, to even gaining an executive producer credit!