Meet an AWC Fellow: Varun Chounal

Learn about one of our Armed with a Camera Fellows from the Class of 2018 - 2019, Varun Chounal, who directed the short film CURD that premiered at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

The Armed With a Camera Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists application for the 2019-2020 cycle is now open and will close September 15, 2019. For submission guidelines and more info, click here.

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How has life been after AWC? What projects are you currently working on?

AWC gave me an outlet to showcase my thoughts and helped me meet some amazing filmmakers who I am proud to call not just collaborators, but friends. The experience in the fellowship helped me improve as a filmmaker and inspired me to be better with every successive project. With this knowledge, I am currently working on a documentary about the unfair education system which plagues the people of the states that share their border with Mexico, and developing a web series about the struggles of first generation Sikh-Americans living in the United States. Apart from that, I am directing/editing a web series in collaboration with two up-and-coming Indian stand-up comics. I am also editing a feature, which is a first for me.

How did you first hear about AWC and what pushed you to apply?

I am always on the lookout for good mentorship programs and fellowships. One of my long term collaborators got me on board to help with writing and producing his AWC project (Varun Chopra, WRECK IT RAJ). The experience was amazing, but I craved more. I wanted to be a part of the entire program first hand, be mentored by highly skilled professionals, and collaborate with eclectic filmmakers.

Tell us about the film you made as an AWC Fellow.

CURD is the story of Hira, who is visiting her son in the US. Unable to spend time with him because of his busy schedule, Hira feels trapped in her house and struggles with the alien culture and loneliness. Following a botched dinner preparation, Hira is compelled to take her first steps towards assimilation.

The inspiration to tell this story stemmed from the will to share my and thousands of other immigrants’ shared experience. I remember feeling anxious and insecure over every action I did because of the huge culture difference, and eventually started avoiding contact with people. It was my first run in with culture-shock, but I didn't realize it then. What was also surprising was that the other immigrants I met in my time here also went through the same turmoil. Their experiences gave me comfort but also inspired me to tell our story. I started to compile these ideas along with my collaborator Varun Chopra (AWC 2017-2018), and thus CURD was born.


How has the program affected your filmmaking mindset or process?

The program highlighted the importance of frugality and resourcefulness . Every filmmaker in the program had 5 min to tell an effective story, so each frame of my film had to matter. I had to be extremely thorough and sure towards everything that was being shown on the screen, so as to have a satisfying and cohesive story for the audience to enjoy. This was also an independently funded film (with some support from Visual Communications), so I had to be sure that not even a single dollar was going to waste. I believe that these will be essential skills that I will use as I tackle bigger projects in the future.

What was it like to have your film premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival?

For an upcoming filmmaker to have a screening that is supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a life changing experience. It felt special because I was not only able to invite all my cast and crew to share the experience with me, but was also able to meet people from the industry and similar cultures to give us feedback on our work.

How did it feel to be part of the AWC Fellowship - working amongst AAPI filmmakers?

It felt inspiring and reassuring. I was reminded that there is a community that really wants to see my work (and me) thrive. I was intrigued by the ideas that these filmmakers were bringing to the table, and inspired by the way they chose to showcase them. They were instrumental in educating and bettering me, not only as a filmmaker but a human being.

What would you say is the importance of the AWC program?

Whenever I was on the lookout for actors or collaborators who belonged to the Indian diaspora, I was always informed that people were reluctant to commit to this field because they felt unwanted. They felt unwanted because of their color, their accent, and everything that made them who they are. Every actor was reduced to a supporting role or a caricature. I feel that a program like AWC pushes the creators in sub-cultures like ours to take action. It begs us to ask the question, “If I don't, who will?” It provides the platform to showcase the excellence that thrives within our communities, and inspires more artists to go out there and create. It makes us feel valued.

Looking back, what was the most challenging or most memorable part of the experience?

I loved the opportunity to meet and collaborate with like-minded and passionate filmmakers. These artists really helped me when I felt demotivated or unsure in the entire process. I remember struggling a lot with finding equipment to film and how each and every one of them jumped to action when i reached out to them.

I also want to include a special shout-out to our mentors, Milton Liu and Ann Kaneko. Their commitment and encouragement is what guided me in times of distress. They are truly one of the main reasons this program is so impactful.

What advice would you offer other young filmmakers or those just starting out?

Be patient and avoid laziness. There is no class or program which can prepare you for the tsunami of rejections that is about to come your way. But the only way to get through that is to be persistent and believe in your idea. I always like to remind myself of a quote which I read once: “Remember, someone pitched merging sharks and tornadoes as a movie idea to a room full of people and now it’s a franchise.” ANYTHING is possible.

Visual Communications’ Armed With a Camera (AWC) Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists will begin its eighteenth season this fall, as we cultivate a new generation of Asian Pacific American artists committed to preserving the legacy and vision of our communities. Donate here to support the program!