Exclusive Interview with Director Michael Tacca of 'Burmese Refugee'
Director Michael Tacca tackles the hardships of assimilating into American culture in his film, Burmese Refugee, which was screened at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, CA as part of NewFilmmakers Los Angeles. Keep reading to get to know Tacca and his latest project:
Tell us a little bit about your project and how long you’ve been working on it.
The film is about San Aung, a refugee from Burma, who struggles to adapt to life in America after leaving his family behind in a Southeast Asian refugee camp. Stripped of his homeland and identity, San Aung strives to define his place in the chaotic western world and dreams of the day when he and his family truly have a sense of home again. The film provides a unique example of the modern American dream, a notion that has somewhat lost its sense of romanticism, but is still a huge part of America's modern identity.
I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which actually has a pretty sizable refugee population. My mom taught ESL to a group of refugees and later became very close with one Burmese family in particular. Through her, I had the chance to meet many different Burmese refugees and I got to witness what their initial years in America were like. The hardships they had to go through just to get out of Burma and make it to the US were inconceivable to me, but the harsher reality was that even after they made it to a free country, their struggle was only beginning. These refugees had an unmatched resolve that really inspired me. Documentaries had been made about Burmese refugees, but I was unaware of any other narrative films. The film seemed like a unique opportunity to bring light to their situation, while telling a universal story that relates to all immigrants' struggles.
I had been thinking about making this film for a long time and I finally had a good opportunity last year. I made this as my thesis film at Chapman University and worked on it for about a year during my last two semesters of film school.
Is there anyone you'd like to thank for helping out with this film?
The film could not have been made if it weren't for the dedication and hard work of the cast and crew. As this was a low budget student film, everyone worked for free. I cannot thank them enough for putting so much time and effort into the project. I also really have to thank all of the people who donated to the film, without which the film also wouldn't have been possible.
In particular, I'd really like to thank Adrian Zaw, who played the lead, San Aung. We were really worried we wouldn't find a Burmese actor in Los Angeles that could pull off this role, but we were so lucky to find Adrian. He brought so much to the role, and the whole piece hinges on his performance. My professor, Dave Kost, at Chapman University was also such a great mentor throughout the whole process, and he really helped me to materialize my hopes for the movie and to focus the script. The producer, Pat Gooing, never stopped thinking about this movie his entire senior year at Chapman. I can't thank him enough. Obviously, I have to thank my parents the most for supporting my dream of being a filmmaker and willingly sending me across the country to pursue that dream.
How does it feel to have your film part of the NewFilmmakers Screening at Sunset Gower Studios?
I am really excited. This will be our Los Angeles premiere, and I can't wait to get feedback from an audience. It is such a great opportunity to be part of their program, and I'm sure it will help get Burmese Refugee and my future work out to a larger audience.
What inspires you?
The determination and optimism of the Burmese refugees I met convinced me to make this movie. So many of them have given up everything just to give their children a chance at a better life. These selfless acts epitomize what America is suppose to be all about, and are clearly its overlooked heroes. How can these people not inspire you?
Who are your influences and who do you admire?
I am a huge fan of movies and there are so many filmmakers I admire and draw inspiration from. Werner Herzog, in particular, has a career that I'd love to emulate. Obviously, those are tough steps to follow, but I can't help but admire the diversity of work. I really love his unique approach to his documentary, in which he seems to find simple facts uninteresting and instead hopes to capture raw, human emotion. He calls it his search for "ecstatic truth."
A more direct influence on this film was Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Its visual style constantly presents the characters as isolated and out of sync with their surroundings. We drew a lot of inspiration from that film in Burmese Refugee.
What lessons have you learned from the industry so far?
I am just starting out so I still have so much to learn, but it is definitely already clear that no one is going to hand you anything in this business. You have to create your own opportunities, and there is no point waiting for someone to "discover" you.
If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
I heard a rumor that Werner Herzog might be making a film in Burma in the near future. Obviously, I'd love to be part of that project in any capacity. If I could work with any actor someday, it would have to be Viggo Mortensen. His performances have such an unmatched physicality, and I am a huge fan of all his work.
What is the toughest experience you've ever had to overcome?
Luckily, I've never had to face the kind of hardships San Aung and all refugees worldwide must endure after losing their homeland and even their families. I will never fully understand what that must feel like; however, I can relate to the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign world. When I was in elementary school, my family moved to Germany and I had to leave all that I knew and go to a country where I didn't know anyone or speak the language. For a young kid, I remember it was initially really intimidating, but now Germany feels more like home in some ways than the U.S.
What advice would you give to new filmmakers starting out in the industry?
Just get out and shoot your films. With all the resources we have today, there's really no excuse not to go for it.
Where can we expect to see you next?
I am currently completing a documentary I shot in Kolkata, India this past spring. I went to India with a group of spinal surgeons who perform free spine surgeries for underprivileged children, who otherwise would have little hope of finding help. The film explores West Bengal's rapidly evolving health care system, while telling the personal stories of the doctors' patients.
I hope to keep making movies that interest and push me as a filmmaker.
Let our readers know where they can find more information about you and your projects.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I want to thank Newfilmmakers for drawing attention to new directors and filmmakers and giving them a platform to display their work. I can't wait till the screening.
Visit the NewFilmmakers LA Official Website at www.NFMLA.org for more information on screenings, tickets and more.
About the Author
Formerly an editor at Demand Media, writer at Citysearch, The Examiner, LA Youth Newspaper and proofreader at The Los Angeles Daily News, Christy Buena decided to start Disarray Magazine because she missed writing what she wanted. From hiring writers, to contacting publicists and making assignments, Christy is responsible for the editorial strategy of Disarray Magazine. Get to know the team of talented contributors.
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