Art Across Borders
Updated: May 5
These two young international artists are bringing their own life experiences to screen, redefining what it means to create films about internationals and immigrants in the U.S.
I came to the USA for college and I'm here on a visa. I’ve been called an array of names from international student to foreigner, from immigrant to non-resident alien. And I must say, coming to the USA, I have never felt less inline with what is constantly considered or referred to as an international student. Latinas like me weren't thought of as international students–people would immediately assume we were immigrants, while the Europeans were called expats or international women. I take pride on being called an immigrant though.
I have a lot of issues with the term “international student” after seeing how differently the experiences are for those who fall under that term. When I would attend international-women-led events, they were always filled with white Europeans. I would enter the room but I would never feel like I fitted well in there because my experience as a Latina living abroad was nothing like theirs.
In the globalized world we live in, there are more international people than you think, but their stories are often left aside. While diving more into this topic online, I came across two pieces that for once, focused on what it means to be international: “Parked in America'' and “Transplant."
Tuânminh Dō, the music composer for "Transplant," and Deana Taheri, the creator, writer, and lead actor for the project, gave an exclusive interview to Mi Voz Media to share their stories and the process of bringing this short film to life.
How do you feel this project has allowed you to explore your multicultural identities?
Deana Taheri: Despite having lived internationally, I have never truly had the opportunity to explore my own identity in my art. I am the daughter of an Iranian father and a British mother, and have grown up moving all around the world from England to California, back to England to Qatar, and now to New York. I have spent most of my life believing that my identity was defined by my blood; but it really doesn’t. My identity has been sculpted by all the places I’ve been, people I’ve met, and cultures I’ve experienced; and by forcing myself to believe that I was purely defined by my blood had left me feeling so confused and unsure of my identity. This project has allowed me to explore and begin understanding the make-up of my identity, as well as reminding me that I am not isolated in my experience.
Tuânminh Dō: As the composer for this project, I had the most fun translating Deana's beautiful language into music. I think what is often embedded in multicultural experiences/identities/communities, what have you, is the ever-present level of translation. What did I understand? What context did I understand it in? How did I come to learn this word or sentence structure? Music is exactly the same, one of the most ancient languages that exists in the world. As I went about my process, I would think about the music structures I was thinking of implementing, when I learnt them, who taught them to me ,and what my personal relation to music is.
When it comes to media displaying international stories, what patterns do you see and whose stories are often never told?
D: Even though so many children are raised being moved from country to country, the realities of the identity crisis that can accompany it is not something that is often explored in a narrative format, or at all. "Transplant" delves into what it means to belong as a person who cannot define themselves by one single culture or way of life, interrogating the international experience.
T: The term "international" is often used as an oppressive term to divide people who travel throughout countries and shift communities, it can diminish the important differences between those people. "International" is often used synonymously with "European," to satisfy the American standards of White excellence, whereas other international artists of color fall into other categories like "foreign" or "immigrant." This is evident in other parts of culture, like food, dance, names, etc. It's like Hasan said [paraphrasing] if you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasah Minhaj. "International" stories revolving around Europe often contain notions of romance, beauty, ease while the works of international communities of color often deal with struggle, pain and loss. It is a direct reflection of Western colonization. That's also mainstream media, there is so much stuff out there. "International" literally means any country or culture outside of yours, so about 194. With that number in mind, I invite everyone to think about which country's work they have seen and if their personal narrative was transplanted in there for their convenience.
How does "Transplant" explore a topic that's rarely if ever been discussed on film?
T: "Transplant" portrays the complexities of multiplicity of origin in the most beautiful and elegant way that centers a specific experience as opposed to trying to speak for "a people." Deana's generosity gives space for other artists to provide their own narratives which brings in more examples of humanity we all can relate to.
D: "Transplant" discusses the experience of international children who have spent their upbringing being constantly uprooted and transplanted into new soil, with the hope that their roots will survive and continue to grow. Despite this experience being a lot more common than you might imagine, it is not something that has ever been discussed in a narrative format and makes this film the first of its kind.
Being an international student in it of itself is a privilege, how do you use this privilege when deciding the stories you tell/the work you create?
T: I acknowledge that my work is always informed by many cultures and viewpoints, just like any domestic student. What's Raza boxes? Suzuki? Stanislavsky? Grotowski? Art travels and moves. To forget that means to foolishly walk down a one-dimensional path of emptiness, a deadly place for any artist.
D: Despite any difficulties, being international is absolutely a privilege. When I was a student, and now as someone working in this unpredictable industry, I will continue to use this privilege to break continental boundaries in my work. I never want to be blind to the world that exists outside of our Western NYC bubble, because the beauty of art is its ability to transcend borders. I think it can be easy to forget that entertainment is not of exclusively Western invention, and there are so many incredible stories that go unrecognized and under-represented because they don’t conform to the Western standard.
How did you come up with the concept of this film?
D: The concept of "Transplant" came from my own personal reckoning with what home means to me, particularly in regards to the visa process. As an international person, there is an emotional rollercoaster which is often spent without wearing a seatbelt. It is incredibly confusing when you have made a home for yourself, made connections, started a career, and you’re then told that you may have to leave it all behind. Through the creation of "Transplant," I developed an understanding within myself that I do not have to define myself by where I am from, and New York can be my home.
How do you respond when someone asks you "Where are you from?"
D: The infamous question! Honestly, being asked where I’m from has sent a pang of anxiety through me. However, I have recently become more comfortable with the indirect answers I have no choice but to give to that question. I am an Iranian/British woman, who lives in New York, but grew up in England, and California, and Qatar - take from that what you will. I am a conglomeration of everywhere I have been, and the blood in my veins and, despite how confusing that might be, that is me!
T: Depends on their tone, This can be a genuine open-minded question. If that's the case, get ready for a paragraph. If not, I'll mention where I was born.
Any future projects we should be on the lookout for? (or shout out a project you've completed that you'd like people to check out)
D: "Transplant" was developed in collaboration with Bad Behavior Lab, which I co-founded with Zac Branciforte and Julia Di Lorenzo. Bad Behavior is an artist’s lab dedicated to creating original works by multi-hyphenate artists, and one of our ongoing projects is our “Go To Your Room!” series, which is a bi-weekly event streamed on YouTube consisting of two parts. Part 1 being a series of short works created by our close collaborators and artists who want to submit work for a chance to debut it on our platform, and part 2 being a live streamed original play performed by us and directed by a professional director. All of the events live on our Youtube channel, and you can submit your short pieces for consideration to our email: firstname.lastname@example.org
T: I'm the founder of Bai-Ka LLC, a multi-platform production company focused on promoting stories of international/immigrant/global artists. We just completed shooting our first project titled, "Lời Ru," a short film focused on Vietnamese identity and are aiming to complete the project by the end of this month! Plenty of other projects to come. Follow our social media account to check out more! @baikaproductions https://www.facebook.com/baikaproductions
These two artists have completely different upbringings as international/immigrant artists and I think it's valuable to tell as many diverse stories as possible. After all, there's no one way to be "international."
Be on the lookout for “Lời Ru” , Tuânminh Dō's latest project focused on Vietnamese identity. I, for one, am sure excited for what Bai-Ka LLC will put out, and who they’ll collaborate since I’ve never seen a company focus on immigrant/international narratives.