Filmmaker and Sundance Women to Watch x Adobe Fellow Elizabeth Ai’s “New Wave”
Elizabeth Ai never actually meant to get into filmmaking. She didn’t dream of it as a young child, nor did she attend film school. But what she does possess (in spades) is a passion for being in service to her community and for storytelling. She has the uncanny ability to organize and bring people together.
After leaning into the work she was doing for non-profits after graduating from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Creative Writing, she felt a shift. She leaned into what she knew how to do — mobilize people around a message.
Ai, currently working on NEW WAVE, a documentary about displaced Vietnamese refugee youth who fled their country, and in the 1980s Orange County, California, redefined their identities through a counterculture music scene they called New Wave. Ai spoke about how her familial upbringing inspired her work, how her involvement with non-profits brought her into the world of film, and her experience as a Sundance x Adobe Fellow.
Heritage and identity
“I’m a daughter of refugees. I come from three generations of refugees actually, my great grandparents fled China, my grandparents and parents fled Vietnam. I want my daughter to be proud of her lineage and what our people have collectively been through. When I was coming of age in the 90s, media representation for Asian Americans was virtually non-existent. It’s so important for our children to see images and hear stories of people who look like them on screen. I knew so little about the collective Vietnamese American experience, and our film New Wave was born from that.
Growing up I had these teenage aunties and uncles that I really looked up to. They were so cool — they didn’t have much, but they caused a lot of trouble and had a lot of fun. They showed me fun is worth fighting for — it’s worth getting in trouble for. There’s so many coming-of-age stories, but there weren’t any about my people. The war ended in 1975 and that’s where most Western movies end their narratives. When the diaspora started growing roots in the 80s, the 1.5 (youth) generation struggled with identity and where they belonged.
We’ve been making this film for five years — gathering archives and stories, and the community has grown so much. I found amazing teammates in producers, Rachel Sine, Betty Hang, So Yun Um, and impact producers Gabrielle Nguyen, and Connie Chweh of Azn Americana who were responsible for launching our impact campaign last month. It brought our AAPI community together in ways I didn’t think possible. It’s amazing what you can do when you have a passionate team who all believe in building toward the same goal.”
The representation we’re starting to see is inspiring. It’s a privilege to live in a time when you can see it happening, and witness history. I’m hopeful my daughter will grow up in a world where she feels she belongs, and a film like New Wave can contribute to her understanding. I'm excited to be a part of this wave of AAPI wave of storytelling. It’s been slow coming, but it’s not going away.
I couldn’t do what I do without Adobe Premiere Pro. The editing tools and the new speech-to-text function saves me. Adobe has really democratized technology and creativity and I’m so grateful. As a documentary filmmaker I have to comb through pages and pages of transcripts, and Premiere Pro gets it to me on the spot. I upload it, and I’m ready to go."
From daughter of refugees to Adobe Fellow
I’ve been a producer for most of my career and have gotten good at pitching on behalf of others — helping other brands, clients, and filmmakers have a point of view in telling their stories.
When I was pregnant with my daughter I just thought — I’ve been helping everyone else find their voices, it’s about time I defined my own.
These fellowship opportunities like Sundance Women to Watch x Adobe Fellowship are so rare to come by. Being recognized for your hard work is important, but the best part of it is to find community. Earlier in my career I was often the only person of color, the only woman, or both. I’d often feel ashamed of my heritage, thinking I’d be thought less of because of where I come from. But now I’m wearing that vulnerability as my strength — I’ve endured a lot as a person and I have a lot to share.
I’m very thankful to Adobe and Sundance for the workshops and support but it’s the people they’ve brought together that makes it all worthwhile.
NEW WAVE follows a filmmaker on a mission to excavate an untold story of rebellious teens in the electrifying world of 80s Viet new wave in Orange County, California, until she unexpectedly confronts buried traumas that lead to forgiveness and a new beginning.
Through intimate accounts from Southern Californian Vietnamese music industry veterans, viewers will learn of how they healed and transformed by building a raucous music scene that the Vietnamese diaspora and fans worldwide still celebrate today, nearly 40 years later.
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