Jacintha Charles- Creating Change

Intro (0:20): Welcome to Audium Listens. I’m Dave Shaff. We’re asking Bay Area artists about their lives and their art in this new world of pandemics, climate change, and protests. Today we’re talking with San Francisco filmmaker Jacintha Charles. We’re going to hear her stories of inequality in the film industry, and how film shoots and film festivals are handling the pandemic. We’ll also chat about her efforts to support women in the film industry, and her new project Singapora. By the way, some of the music you’ll be hearing in the background of today’s episode is by composer Holly Mead, from Jacintha’s film The Gift. You can find a link to more of Holly’s work in the show notes. 

Dave (1:21): Well, maybe we can just start off– so you’re from Singapore, maybe you could tell us a little about how you got started in film in Singapore?

Jacintha (1:32): Well, I’ve always, always been interested in acting since I was a, I was a kid, really… And so, I think when I reached my teens, I thought I would love to be an actress and all that but, you know, living in Singapore you kind of wonder how that’s going to be because I, actually I never saw any person who looked like me being on TV. So there were no, like, Indian actors or actresses who basically acted in English. However, as time went by, I think Singapore started opening up and having, like, English dramas and I started getting these, like, little bit roles, but the roles that I was, that I was getting, was, uh, (laughs) that of a maid…

Dave (2:24): Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Jacintha (2:26): Uh, uh, yeah, I mean, there’s one iconic role I remember– I was a maid that got killed by a spanner. Uh, someone–

Dave (2:32): (laughs) Oh, no…

Jacintha (2:33): Yeah, (laughs) someone hit me on the–

Dave (2:33): By a wrench? 

Jacintha (2:34): (laughs) Yes, a wrench. And, you know, I took a tumble on the stairs and that’s, that’s what you get –death by a wrench. 

Dave (2:40): Oh, no…! (laughs)

Jacintha (2:42): (laughs) And, you know, I literally had to be zipped up in a body bag, by the way. Um… (laughs)

Dave (2:46): Oh my god. (laughs)

Jacintha (2:48): (laughs) So I was like, oh I don’t know, I don’t know if this is what I want to keep doing, but I decided, like, to just keep on, uh, trying and then I got this, uh… I got my big break and that was when I got the role of Lawdy in Army Daze and Army Daze was this Singaporean movie. It was, it was actually based on a Singaporean play that was written years ago by this writer Michael Chiang, and I thought, oh great! There it is, my career is about to start. Yay, you know!

Dave (3:19): So you had, well a role in a successful film was Army Daze, but that didn’t really help you getting any acting gigs after that in Singapore, huh?

Jacintha (3:30): My career pretty much ended right after (laughs) Army Daze.

Dave (3:34): oh, no.

Jacintha (3:36): Yeah. ‘Cause you know, I, I went, I started getting all these maid roles again, and I, I thought that’s just so weird, like, and we’re talking about 7 years later, you know, I’m still getting called for roles like that. 

Dave (4:49): Mm-hmm. Well you said yourself that there weren’t many roles for people with darker skin in, in the industry and Singapore, right?

Jacintha (3:57): Exactly. When I was still in Singapore, it, it was hard to come by for an Indian woman, you know? I, I, I thought I would be able to play a range, but instead I got pigeonholed, you know, and on top of that, they will also sometimes ask me to put on an accent which I’m like, what kind of accent do you want from me? And it got a bit demoralizing, to be honest.

Dave (4:28): So the next step of your journey, you came out to San Francisco. And you, I guess, decided to continue trying to pursue an acting career. Um, what was your experience here, compared to Singapore? Were you able to get many more roles in America?

Jacintha (4:46): I did think to myself that, you know, things are going to be different. And for me, I had to start from the very bottom because even though I sort of had a career back in Singapore playing roles, nobody in the U.S. has heard of a show called Triple Nine (laughs). That was the show that, I died by wrench. Um, (laughs). Nobody knows who I am. So I started from the very bottom and what I did was I started from being an extra on TV shows. I just wanted to get the feel of how production is and, and to me it was, it was such a big eye opening experience because everything is so much more bigger here and everything is so much more expensive. So coming here I, I had to sort of grasp what the rules were… After years of working as an extra, I got, I went union and I started doing a lot of commercial union jobs. I told myself, Jesse, if you want to really pursue then maybe you just have to go to LA. I landed an agent and through that agent I started going for more, uh, prolific shows. Like, like I said it’s not like every Singaporean actor or actress gets to go for big time auditions in, in Hollywood. So, I would say I got lucky and I, I got to be seen for more projects, I got to go for more auditions. And nobody asked me to come in as a maid. So that’s, (laughs) that’s a good thing, right? (laughs)

Dave (6:32): Yeah, there weren’t as many stereotypical roles that you were coming up for, but at the same time, did you feel like you were given the same, uh, opportunities as, as actors with lighter skin or do you feel like there was still issues with that?

Jacintha (6:47): Oh, absolutely. There were always, uh… I think until today there’s always issues with, with actors with lighter skin versus actors with darker skin. I mean, I-I just remember when I go in for auditions, you know, they would say they’re looking for ethnically ambiguous or open to all races. So they will open it to all races but most of the time it’s, it’s almost certain that it’s going to go to a white person. You can’t say anything. The only thing you can do is you go in and you just give the best audition you can. Um, so I-I think that even now although people are more open to, um, actors and actresses and, and filmmakers of color, and giving them a platform to tell their stories, I-I still do think that there is that resistance to people like us there, and, and it’s really up to take advantage of the platform that we have right now and, and try and break down that barrier.

Dave (7:50): Yeah. Well, it’s, it’s exactly–  when you are comfortable, when you’re the person in power it’s easy or it’s easy to kind of, kind of forget about challenges that other people are facing. 

Jacintha (8:00): Exactly.

Dave (8:11): I was curious– so a few years ago, you went back to film school in San Francisco, and uh, so what was kind of behind that decision?

Jacintha (8:20): I started, uh, writing. So I decided to go back to film school where they, they taught you all these aspects of filmmaking, um, and including screenwriting, and also cinematography… It was a, it was a sort of a turning point in my life because while I was there I knew I wanted to write stories of my own. I mean, stories of me as an Indian. I realized I can talk for a lot of other Indian people, or I can talk for Asian people, uh, on the whole and with that my stories can actually expand and not just be about me, but it could be about, uh, it could be about so many other things that’s within my race.

Dave (9:07): Mmm. yeah, and that’s, that’s, brings us into what you’re working on right now, right, is, uh, Singapora?

Jacintha (9:13): Yes, Singapora. Correct.

Dave (9:15): And that kind of, kind of takes you back to, to your own roots in Singapore.

Jacintha (9:20): Yeah. I’m always drawn to stories about relationships. I have always been fascinated with the ‘60s, um, and then I started thinking about, well, you know, what, what story can I write that encapsulates, you know, something that is in Singapore, that’s in the 60s, that’s something to do with relationship, and something to do with race. And I thought the perfect thing was really the, um, 1964 race riot. It’s really a coming of age story of, uh, a friendship that is being born, um, while chaos is going on. And, um, it’s a story about this young Malaika and this young Chinese boy who have an un, who have an unexpected friendship, um, and, and for them to have their friendship tested, um, while the race riots is going on and the race riots being between the Chinese and Malays themselves. So that, so I felt very strongly that my lead actor be a minority because you don’t really get to see that a lot in, in films because we’re talking about two young individuals that’s being, that’s being affected by the politics that was going on at that time. The reason why you can have a beautiful story like this is also because of the politics that came into play, so like…

Dave (10:53): Right, yeah. Now we’re thinking about the politics of it all, and you were kind of writing it just when things have been getting really intense all across the world in the past few months now with the protests and Black Lives Matter. Has, has that, um, had any influence on, on your thinking about the film?

Jacintha (11:12): Yeah, it definitely definitely has. I-I-I mean, (laughs) I finished writing the first draft, I want to say, about a week and a half before, uh, George Floyd passed. And I, it was just so surreal, because I just came off writing about protests and riots and about race. (laughs) So it was just such a surreal, so surreal to sort of, you know, turn on the news, and I remember thinking to myself, I, I wrote a riot scene just like that, you know, it’s just so…

Dave (11:49): (laughs) But now it’s happening.

Jacintha (11:50): Yeah, I sort of had to stop for a bit and really think because, there’s this quote that we are the consequences of history and, and it’s so true. It’s going to trickle down to your, to the generations after and it’s going to be remembered, and in some way, it’s gonna flare up again. When I watch the news, and, and I see, I see the interviews and what people are thinking, how black, the black community is feeling.

Dave (12:20): Hmmm…

Jacintha (12:21): I take that all into account, and it-it really helps to inform me and inform my script. So that, you know, by the time this film is released to people, there’s something that they can relate to when they see on screen. 

Dave (12:34): Right, right. Taking the raw emotion of the moment and putting it into your script. I mean, that’s, that’s beautiful. 

Jacintha (12:41): You wanna, you want to keep it real, right and, um, and I want to try and keep it as real as I can. The feelings, the anger, the, the chaos and all, it’s exactly the same.

Dave (13:03): So you have a short film that’s been out for a little while now. It’s called The Gift. 

Jacintha (13:08): Mm-hmm. 

Dave (13:09): And it’s kind of a fantastical tale about a girl who gets bullied quite a bit, and it centers on her relationship with this strange, mysterious crow. (laughs) And the film’s getting a bit of buzz recently, uh, you’ve got, uh–

Jacintha (13:27): Yeah. 

Dave (13:27): Number of different, you got to a number of different film festivals. So, you worked with Kenderick Gough and Emma Skully on this film. It’s notable that you were three women working together to write this and produce the whole thing. 

Jacintha (13:50): Yeah, it was really important to us because– So Kendra and Emma and I, we met in film school and we were always admirers of each other’s, not just work, but our work ethic as well. The first time we met was over strawberries and champagne. (laughs) 

Dave (14:07): Not bad.

Jacintha (14:07): Not, not, not bad!

Dave (14:08): You guys have the best brainstorm.

Jacintha (14:10): I know, but that’s the thing! From day one, we told ourselves, if we’re going to do this, it’s really important that we have women in the heads of departments. There’s so

many, so many talented women out there who are not given a chance to showcase their work, and, um, so it was really important for us to do that. So I directed, Emma the production design, Kendra was the DP, and also she ended up editing the film as well. Then we had other, uh, women that came in and-and they did like, we had the VFX makeup, we had the wardrobe stylist, we had our casting director, and we had our AD’s — they were all women. It was really, really great.

Dave (14:53): Yeah, to put people who don’t normally have that kind of role, or are less likely to have that kind of role, that’s how you start making change. So you guys have gotten into a, a bunch of festivals recently. Everyone’s kind of reinventing what they can do here in the new world that is, uh, COVID. So I’m wondering about, you know, how-how are they doing things differently I guess, are some of them live versus some of them are virtual?

Jacintha (15:32): Our first film festival that we got into was actually held in January. We were

lucky enough to experience that but then after that, everything was either cancelled or it went virtual. So the virtual ones are interesting, um, obviously, as filmmakers, you know, you want to be there. Because it’s our time to network with people, talk to other filmmakers, and maybe even the next collaboration can come from someone you meet at a festival.

Dave (15:59): Right, right. Have the, have the festivals tried to kind of foster any kind of community like, virtual mixers or anything like that with the filmmakers?

Jacintha (16:09): Yes, they have. So, the one that’s coming up, Dances With Films, um, they do have a, uh, virtual- they had a virtual mixer, they also have a virtual filmmakers lounge. And they, and we’re gonna have a virtual Q&A after our film is shown. So yeah, it’s a matter of logging into your Zoom and, you know, you meet everyone. But. still, it’s not the same. I do think when it comes to the festivals, um, I think for them it’s a very scary undertaking. They have been doing these things for years and years and years, and all of a sudden, all of a sudden they’re being told no, you can’t do it. And the, and the only way you can do it is to do this, this, this, this. I feel like when I read their emails they are screaming because they are screaming in fear, because they’ve never done this before. So they want to make sure they get every single little thing down. To me, it just, it just seems like they’re just freaking out. And it doesn’t help us. (laughs)

Dave (17:17): Yeah. you know, I mean, everyone’s like kind of wondering, you know, in each art form, like is this gonna work? So I was curious how COVID is affecting production on set. I know you have another project planned to shoot next year?

Jacintha (17:40): Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s so up in the air at this point. I-I know, um, some friends of mine have gone back on shoots, but obviously with precautions ‘cause they all like having masks on. I heard from a friend yesterday that they have COVID offices on set, and–

Dave (17:56): Mhm, mhmm. I’ve heard about that.

Jacintha (17:58): Oh! Yeah, so like apparently they’re on set to make sure that, um, everyone’s observing the rules. Um, set is being disinfected every time. Every time someone goes to the porta potty everything is cleaned each time. It’s, it’s going to be interesting to see how this takes shape, but I do hope to shoot it next year and hopefully next year, things will be a bit more settled. Thank you so much, Dave!

Dave (18:30): Thank you, Jacintha! Thanks for taking time.

Jacintha (18:33): Oh, absolutely!

Outro (18:44): If you want to find out more about Jacintha’s work on films like The Gift and Singapora, check the link in the show notes. Also linked in those notes is composer Holly Mead, who’s music is in the background right now. Thank you very much to Holly, as well as our intern Nate Todesco for his help on this episode. So, we’re putting together the next episode as we speak here, this one’s going to be with local jazz drummer, DJ, and music educator Cairo McCockran. Think it’s gonna be a good one! He’ll be sharing some COVID insights on preserving black culture and getting artists back to work. Until then, be calm, be strong, and make some change.