Queen of Hearts: An interview Yellow Rose producer Cecilia R. Mejia

October 30, 2020 at 5:05 am Leave a comment

By storm, Yellow Rose, 2020

Yellow Rose (dir. Diane Paragas) is currently in the midst of its theatrical run in the US after taking the Asian American film festival circuit by storm in 2019. I talked with producer Cecilia R. Mejia about the film’s significance to herself and to the Asian American community at large.

BA: So it’s pretty exciting, to get theatrical distribution.

CM: When we got bought by Sony, it was exciting. And then with COVID, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but Sony said, we’re gonna do it anyway. So it’s been like a little weird, because we don’t know what the box-office numbers would have been if people felt safer to go to cinemas. But conversely, we also don’t know if they would have put us in that many theaters if COVID wasn’t happening.

BA: It’s funny because I had a film (Love Boat: Taiwan) that was playing at a lot of the same festivals as Yellow Rose, and it was always sold out before I could get a ticket. And it always won all the awards. I remember saying, “Yellow Rose is playing with my movie again–oh, well, there goes all the awards!” (laughs)

I teach Asian American film history, so that’s another reason I was super excited about this movie, because it’s a Fil-Am film, And the last Filipino American movie that I remember being in theaters might have been The Debut back in like 2000.

CM: I think they they also did it themselves–they self-distributed.

BA: That’s right, so it’s different because you got a major distribution deal. Are you the first Filipino American film to do that? Probably HP Mendoza did more like an indie route. He definitely wasn’t with Sony.

CM: I think it’s safe to say that we’re the first by major studio, so it’s super exciting to have that backing.

Music, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: What do you think contributed to you being able to get that kind of deal?

CM: I think some of it was the music. What makes our our film quite different is there’s the added element of the music and Sony also does music, so they also have the soundtrack that they’re pushing. I think what was appealing to them was, here’s this really interesting story about a community that’s never really seen on screen, and there is this element of country music, which is very popular.

BA: And Lea Salonga is in it too, right?

CM: Yes, she’s probably the most well-known Filipina in the world, along with Manny Pacquiao. She has a huge following. I think people really fall for Eva (Noblezada) too. People say to me, I feel like we’ve found a star.

BA: I’ve only heard good things about the movie. I mean, a film can be popular, but there’s always someone who’s hating on it. And I’ve never heard any hate for this movie.

CM: I know! We had a great festival run. We couldn’t have asked for a better opening than at Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival.

BA: How do you feel about like this giant Asian American film festival circuit? And how did that help out with getting more visibility for the movie?

CM: I think it helped a lot. I actually studied Asian American Studies in school, but I hadn’t really collaborated that much with other groups outside of Filipino Americans. And I thought, “I need to do that.” I feel like if we had been in those big festivals (like Tribeca), the film might not have been embraced the way that it was or understood the way that it was. It was just embraced by every community that we showed it in. And I just feel like it was nice to introduce some of our people and our crew members to the world of Asian film festivals because they hadn’t been part of any of that.

So I think I think it helped us because it gave us this boost and it helped build this community. I think the traction that we were getting at every festival was getting some buzz–people were talking about our film. Every time we were we were somewhere there was so much buzz.

BA: Yes, I think it was the buzziest movie last year at Asian American film festivals.

Buzziest, Yellow Rose, 2020

CM: Yes, and around this time of the year the festivals seem to all be around the same time. We had to divide and conquer–Diane was in Hawaii and San Diego. And I went to Philadelphia, Vancouver, Houston. It was like this whole circuit. And it was interesting, because we were all texting each other, “I think we won!”

BA: When you made the movie, I can’t imagine that you thought that it would be so popular. Do you remember what you were thinking when you started working on the film? Why did you decide you wanted to do this story?

CM: The backstory was that I have been working on this for almost a decade with Diane (Paredes), the director and writer. She herself has been working on this for more than 15 years and she had just sort of given up at some point and started her career as a commercial director, did a documentary. And then she decided,  “I want to tell the story.” I was working with the Philippine American Legal Defense Fund at the time, was just out of grad school and I wanted to embed myself more in the public policy world. I was also working in and out of the UN, signing up people for DACA and working with Jose Antonio Vargas. And Diane came to our office to do research. She said, “I’m doing a film on an undocumented Filipino immigrant who loves country music,” and she showed me the look book. And I was so intrigued by it, because I’ve always been a lover of films, especially indie film. I didn’t think it was possible for me to infiltrate or be part of that world. So when she was showing it to me, I was really fascinated–I had never met a Filipino filmmaker before. So she asked me, “Do you want to do help me do research on it?”

So I was helping her and it snowballed. I was working on a really short documentary about undocumented Filipino immigrants who were detained, which we used as research. And then we were writing grants, and I was helping her reach out to the Filipino community and reaching out to different people. As the years were rolling on I started working as a full-time producer with her.

You mentioned The Debut–I had never seen a film that represented us since The Debut. I was waiting for something like that and so that was one of the driving forces for me–the whole backstory of a girl trying to find a home and understanding that experience from that perspective. So my goal was always to get the movie made, that was always kind of in my brain.

Changing culture, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: Is there anything else that you personally really have gotten out of this experience? How has it changed your life?

CM: If I hadn’t worked on this film think I probably would be in some sort of government position, or heading towards public policy. But I’ve come to realize, especially in the last three years working with PJ (Raval) that there’s this medium of art and activism that is quite powerful. And if you watch someone like PJ navigate what he’s doing with his documentary Call Her Ganda, you see the impact of it. So this whole experience has helped me define where it is I want to go. It’s melded the things that I love most, as far as work is concerned–art, education, and philanthropy.

I think for most people film is a medium that reaches almost everyone. Whereas in public policy, you have to play politics more, and it’s also such a huge system. And you have to be like an ambassador or someone who works closely with  an ambassador to get anything really done, otherwise, you’re just sort of kind of moving the machine and absorbing information. Whereas I think with film you’re able to do stuff quicker.

BA: Even though it takes like five years to finish a movie. (laughs)

CM: It’s not just this whole traditional medium of film, but art in general, I think, that has a way of changing culture in a way that nothing else can.

My goal is for people to leave the theater after watching this film and changing the way they think about immigration and about how they experience the Filipino community.

Education, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: Is there anything else you want to add before we finish?

CM: Yeah, there’s this. There was a review we’d read early on that was clearly written by a white woman. And she said that Yellow Rose was a white savior type of movie, because we have a lot of white characters. And I thought that was such an unfair comment, because I don’t think she did the research about who was behind the film. I also thought it was a dangerous review, because it also deters people from wanting to see the film, and supporting a community like ours, supporting filmmakers like Diane. So I thought, you know, how dangerous and irresponsible for a reviewer to do that. I don’t think people know the Filipino community, which is why maybe she said that, because she has no familiarity with it. So maybe since this month is Filipino American History Month, people maybe need educate themselves on who the Filipino American community is.

We had generally great reviews for the most part, but when I read that review, I thought, maybe because she saw Sony was behind it, maybe she didn’t know the backstory of how long it took for this movie and that it was actually the Filipino community that that funded this film. Or how historic it is to put Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga in one film together, and someone like Princess Punzalan who’s an icon to the Filipino community, and the fact that Diane is the director and writer, and that this was a Filipino American-led film.

I think that that’s that’s something that mainstream viewers can’t understand, why it’s so important that these movies are there for us. It means more than just paying money for a ticket and watching something. We have our hearts and souls invested in these films.

BA: I just I just feel like every Asian American film that gets finished is like a miracle, honestly.

CM: Yeah, And I hate that some people say, well, we already had The Farewell. So literally, there’s that (Asian American film) for this decade. We’re two totally different stories!

Yellow Rose is currently showing at theaters across the US.

Entry filed under: yellow rose. Tags: , .

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