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Suja Thomas Wins CAAM’s 2023 Ready, Set, Pitch Annual Documentary Contest


Staff member
Mar 19, 2024
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This year’s highly-anticipated Ready, Set, Pitch! – an annual contest where emerging documentary filmmakers present a project in front of a panel of esteemed jurors – represented the diverse array of Asian American storytelling, with stories from the Midwest and South.

The pitchfest is the conclusion of the year-long CAAM Fellowship, a program which pairs emerging documentary filmmakers with established professionals in the field. This year’s fellows and Ready, Set, Pitch! participants were Jason Rhee, Andy Sarjahani, and Suja Thomas. They worked with mentors Jason DaSilva, Deann Borshay Liem, and Farihah Zaman. In addition, they worked with a pitch coach, accomplished filmmaker Violet Feng, who recently produced and directed Hidden Letters (2022) and produced Dear Mother, I Meant to Write About Death (2022).

While the competition was close, Suja Thomas’ project, as yet Untitled documentary, came out as the winner.

“This is so important to our democracy, and I must tell you, it feels like a crushing responsibility to get this out to the world,” Thomas told the judges during her pitch to the panel.

Thomas will take home $10,000 in support of her project, with funding provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The virtual presentation which took place on October 24, with close to 50 people in attendance including filmmakers, partner media arts organizations, Asian American donors and CAAM Board members.

The event started with CAAM’s Director of Programs Donald Young emphasizing the importance of community and storytelling. “Ready, Set, Pitch is one of CAAM’s most cherished community gatherings, and community is perhaps more important now than ever,” Young said. “It’s your collective vision and wisdom that will ultimately help change our world for the better.”.

Suja Thomas, CAAM 2023 Ready Set Pitch

Sapana Sakya, CAAM’s Talent Development & Special Projects Director, introduced each CAAM Fellow and thanked CAAM mentors. “We wouldn’t be here today without the warm support and nurturing from our CAAM community,” Sakya said. She also thanked CAAM staff members Czarina Garcia (Media Fund Manager), Christopher Yau-Weeks (Programs Assistant), and Waverly Chao-Scott (Event Manager).

Violet Feng, who helped the three CAAM Fellows prepare their pitches in the months leading up to Ready, Set, Pitch! said she really enjoyed working with all three filmmakers. For Thomas in particular, she really saw her growth in confidence since Thomas comes from a different professional background; they collaborated on developing Thomas’ voice in the pitch and trailer. “She worked so hard for it,” Feng said about Thomas’ pitch.

Feng adds that it was refreshing to see that all three projects are carried by strong personal voices. “They present a stronger voice from the filmmaker, and that is really something to celebrate,” Feng said. All had universal appeal, as they are “not just necessarily about their ethnic identity, but the three projects are very relatable to people outside of the Asian American community.”

CAAM Fellows had eight minutes to present a pitch and a video clip, followed by 15 minutes of feedback and answering questions from the judges.

The Films

EJ Lee: All-American by Jason Rhee

Rhee’s project, a documentary about unsung basketball legend EJ Lee, kicked off the pitchfest. Rhee spoke about his passion for basketball, and the connection to Lee’s story as a Korean American. “Before there were Asian superstars like Jeremy Lin or Yao Ming, before there was Chloe Kim, or Michelle Kwan, there was Eun Jung Lee,” Rhee noted of the Korean American unsung basketball hero. “EJ Lee: All-American is a basketball story that’s never been told before. A female Asian immigrant in the Southern U.S. who reached enormous heights as a player, and attempts to do the same as a coach.”

Iranian Hillbilly, by Andy Sarjahani

The second CAAM Fellow who presented was Sarjahani, whose personal narrative explores his Iranian and Muslim heritage with his upbringing as a mixed race child in the Ozarks of the American South. “Iranian Hillbilly is a film that explores identity silos and the cultural fault lines that Americans like me are asked to live our lives,” Sarjahani said. “What better way to interrogate the American experiment than through the lens of a good old fashioned road trip movie?”

Untitled, by Suja Thomas

Thomas presented last, with her project focusing on the U.S. court system. The protagonists from Thomas’ film are from diverse communities, while Thomas’ voice as the narrator weaves in the storytelling and commentary.

CAAM 2023 Ready Set Pitch

The Judges

The jurors this year were Jon-Sesrie Goff (Ford Foundation), Jannette Napoli (ITVS), Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs (Sundance Institute), and Abby Sun (IDA and Documentary Magazine).

Judges ultimately selected Thomas’s project and spoke of how assured she is about her film.

“I love how your approach makes it so incredibly accessible,” Molnar-Szakacs told Thomas during the Q&A.

“I love a person who’s just unabashed and out there,” Napoli said. “And that’s why I respond most with her, I think she’s really upfront.”

Goff said about Thomas’ film that “She’s incredibly smart, [with] incredible hustle and I think she’s done an amazing piece of documentation to expose this issue.”

Thomas is a lawyer and professor, and hopes to use the award to get her film across the finish line. Thomas already has a rough cut and is working on strengthening it.

“Jason and Andy have amazing projects so, to win, feels a bit surreal,” Thomas said. “I am very thankful because a lot of people took time to help me prepare including the pitch coach Violet Feng and my mentor Jason DaSilva. Thanks to the esteemed group of jurors for their support of the CAAM Pitch and their feedback on our projects.”

The judges noted that all the projects had compelling stories that represent the diversity of Asian American storytelling.

“I was riveted listening to all of them throughout, the projects also have an incredible range, what they represent in terms of Asian American stories,” Sun said.

2023 Pitchfest Jury

Jon-Sesrie Goff

Jon-Sesrie Goff is part of the Creativity and Free Expression team and makes grants globally in documentary film, new media, and visual storytelling for the foundation’s JustFilms program. As an accomplished multidisciplinary artist, curator, and arts administrator, he brings a wide range of experience to Ford after serving as executive director of the Flaherty Film Seminar and creating the inaugural film program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. His body of work includes extensive institutional, community, and family archival research, visual documentation, and oral history interviews in the coastal South on the legacy of Black land ownership and Gullah Geechee heritage preservation. Jon engages with his work from the paradigm of a social change instigator. He studied sociology, economics, and theater at Morehouse College, completed his B.A. at The New School, along with an MFA from Duke University in experimental and documentary arts. Jon’s work as an educator includes Duke University, Villanova University, and West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and his grantmaking and jury panel work span the National Endowment for the Arts, Tribeca Film Institute, the International Documentary Association, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Blackstar Film Festival, Oberhausen Seminar, and CinemAfrica Film Festival, among others.

Jannette Napoli

Jannette Napoli is a San Francisco-based film professional with experience in development, production, and exhibition. As Manager of Content and Initiatives at ITVS, Jannette oversees a development portfolio while working across various funding initiatives. Prior to joining ITVS, she was the Executive Assistant at the Telluride Film Festival. Jannette produced the feature documentary Bleeding Audio by director Chelsea Christer (Cinequest ’20, Slamdance ’21). Her writing has been published by Cleo Journal and featured among IDA’s Essential Doc Reads of the Week. Raised in the U.S. and Mexico, Jannette brings her mixed roots to all aspects of her work.

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs is the Director of Artist Accelerator at the Sundance Institute where she heads up development of a comprehensive funding strategy across the Institute’s Artist Programs and oversees nearly $4 million in yearly granting and fellowships. She oversees multidisciplinary initiatives focused on creating opportunities for artists to address equity, sustainability and access issues. Hajnal is committed to tackling the power imbalance between funders and filmmakers, and has passionately led initiatives to increase transparency and accountability in grantmaking and artist support. Hajnal is an active member of the independent film community and serves as an advisor for international film festivals, pitch forums and funds and is an active panelist and lecturer. She holds a MSc in Public Management and a Bachelor of International Business and German. Originally from Romania with Hungarian roots, Hajnal is currently based in Venice, California.

Abby Sun

Abby Sun is IDA’s Director of Artist Programs and Editor of Documentary magazine. Before joining IDA, Abby was the Curator of the DocYard and co-curated My Sight is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film & Video with Keisha Knight. As a graduate student researcher in the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Abby edited Immerse. She has bylines in Film Comment, Filmmaker Magazine, Film Quarterly, MUBI Notebook, Sight & Sound, and other publications. Abby has served on festival juries for festivals like Hot Docs, Dokufest, Palm Springs, and CAAMFest, as well as nominating committees for the Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye. Abby has reviewed projects for grants and markets such as IDFA Forum, BGDM, NEA, SFFILM, LEF Foundation, Sundance Catalyst, and spoken on and facilitated panels at Locarno, IFFR, TIFF, NYFF, and other film festivals. Along with Keisha, Abby received a fall 2022 Warhol Foundation Curatorial Research Fellowship. She produced Shared Resources and, with Jordan Lord, received a 2022 American Stories Documentary Fellowship for the upcoming The Voice of Democracy. Her hometown is Columbia, Missouri, U.S.

CAAM Fellows and 2023 Pitchfest Participants

Jason Rhee

Jason Rhee is a Korean American writer and director with a passion for telling stories centered around his childhood and the AAPI community. Jason was selected as a script intern and writer’s PA for Conan, as well as a writing intern and contributor for The Onion. Jason is currently working on personal projects, including a documentary about the “Korean Magic Johnson ” that has received support from Kartemquin DVID fellowship, CAAM, CNN/Film Independent, Southern Documentary Fund, and the Catapult Film Fund. He is a proud member of the Asian American Documentary Network and the Writers Guild of America East.

Andy Sarjahani

Andy Sarjahani is an Iranian American documentary filmmaker and cinematographer raised in a working class community outside the Arkansas Ozarks. His current work focuses on masculinity, nuance within the American South, threats to democracy, and climate change adaptation. He holds an MS in Sustainable Agriculture/Food Systems and left academia in 2012 to tell stories with a camera. He worked on the critically-acclaimed documentary Tower (dir. Keith Maitland, 2016) and has worked as a documentary cinematographer for VICE, Al Jazeera, Story Syndicate and PBS. His personal work has been supported by The New Yorker, CAAM, ITVS, DOC NYC, New Orleans Film Society, Southern Documentary Fund, Reel South, Arkansas PBS, Arkansas Humanities Council, Asian Doc Network, Video Consortium, and Antenna. His current feature documentary, Iranian Hillbilly, was a Southern Documentary Fund 2022 production grant recipient and the winner of New Orleans Film Festival 2022 South Pitch.

Suja Thomas

Suja Thomas was a fellow with the Kartemquin Films Diverse Voices in Docs program. With TED, she produced an animated video on the U.S. justice system—which has over 750,000 views. Suja is the narrator in her first feature documentary film about the justice system. Inspired by her experiences as a lawyer, she exposes injustices in the system that insiders accept every day. The film is supported by, among others, the Harnisch Foundation and the Dobkin Family Foundation. Suja is the Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana and has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Law School and Vanderbilt Law School. Her research on topics related to the documentary has been profiled in the New York Times, Slate, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal. Her books on subjects related to the documentary have been published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Suja will be working with Mentor Jason DaSilva for their CAAM Fellowship.

2023 CAAM Mentors

Jason DaSilva

Jason DaSilva is a prolific filmmaker. He has written and directed four short films and four feature length documentaries. In 2005, Jason was diagnosed with primary progressive MS and he turned the camera on himself, advocating and giving a voice to people with disabilities through his films. This led to the start of the non-profit AXS Lab, where he serves as president, overseeing AXS Map and AXS Film Fund. AXS Lab produced Jason’s feature When I Walk (2013) (Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Programming) and its sequel When We Walk (2019) (Best documentary at CAAMFest). Jason is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has also won the following awards: the Christopher Award for Excellence in Film and, Made in New York recognition at the Gotham Awards, and most recently, was recognized by NYWIFT with the Loreen Arbus Changemaker Award at the MUSE awards.

Deanne Borshay Liem

Deann Borshay Liem is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian known for films that explore war, memory, family and identity including her landmark adoption films First Person Plural, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee and Geographies of Kinship. Her work on the Korean War including Memory of Forgotten War, Crossings and the oral history project, Legacies of the Korean War, explores divided families and women’s role in peacemaking. She has served as Executive Producer, Producer, Executive in Charge and consultant for numerous films including The Apology, Mimi & Dona, Seeing Allred, Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk of Lightning, Ishi’s Return, The Eddy Zheng Story and AKA Don Bonus. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, California Humanities, Sundance Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, San Francisco Film Society and others. She is currently serving as Producer for the ITVS-supported film, Vivien’s Wild Ride.

Farihah Zaman

Farihah Zaman is a queer Bangladeshi-American filmmaker, critic, educator, and curator whose award-winning work as a director has screened at Sundance, Toronto, New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, and more. Her first feature was Remote Area Medical, followed by This Time Next Year, and the doc-fiction hybrid Feast of the Epiphany, as well as several shorts (Kombit, Nobody Loves Me, American Carnage, and To Be Queen, part of the Emmy-nominated NYT Op-Doc series From Here to Home). She produced the Sundance-award winning Netflix Original Ghosts of Sugar Land, which was shortlisted for 2020 Academy Award nomination. Zaman currently serves as the Director of Grants + Fellowships at nonfiction nonprofit Brown Girls Doc Mafia. She was Documentarian in Residence at Bard College 2018-2019, named a Top 40 under 40 filmmaker by Doc NYC, is currently an Impact Partners Producing Fellow and Firelight Spark Fund Recipient, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

CAAM Pitch Coach

Violet Feng

Violet Feng is an Emmy-winning independent documentarian and a 2022 Sundance Creative Producing Advisor. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and an adjunct professor at the Journalism School of Columbia University. Violet directed and produced the most recent Oscar Shortlisted Hidden Letters, which premiered in competition at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. She directed the PBS/CPB special program Harbour From the Holocaust with music performed by Yo-Yo Ma. She has directed, produced and executive produced 13 documentaries. Her producing credits include Dear Mother, I Meant to Write About Death (2022), which received a Special Mention at Busan International Film Festival; Singing in the Wilderness (2021), nominee of Golden Alexander Award at Thessaloniki International Film Festival; Confucian Dream (2019), winner of a Special Jury Award at Karlovy Vary International Festival and the Chinese Academy Award of Documentary Film; Maineland (2017), winner of a Special Jury Award at SXSW and Please Remember Me (2015), winner of three awards at GZDocs with a successfully theatrical release and impact campaign in China that resulted in policy changes. Violet started her career as a co-producer on the critically acclaimed 2007 Sundance Special Jury winner, Peabody and Emmy winner Nanking, which was distributed theatrically around 30 countries throughout the world, and was the highest grossing documentary in China. Violet is the producer of the forthcoming films Night of Nights and Running with the Prime Minister. Born in Shanghai, and based in New York, Violet holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Fudan University and received her MJ in journalism from University of California at Berkeley.

The 2023 CAAM Fellowship is supported by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

About the CAAM Fellowship

The CAAM Fellowship Program is a year-long career and project development opportunity for Asian American filmmakers. The Program creates space for relationship building between veteran and emerging media makers and incorporates opportunities to deepen professional development. The fellows have monthly meetings with their mentors and gather as a cohort at mentor-led masterclasses and more. The core in person convening for the Fellowship takes place at CAAMFest’s Filmmaker Summit. Ready, Set, Pitch! is a vital experience within the Program where fellows learn the art of the pitch and have the opportunity to elevate their projects to a wider community of peers and gatekeepers in the field.

CAAM’s Fellowship Program is designed specifically for the next generation of Asian American documentary filmmakers, prioritizing emerging and mid-career filmmakers from under-represented geographies and identities. Most fellows are documentary directors and producers, however, we also seek cinematographers, editors and other creatives who are making the transition to directing or producing.

Apply to the 2024 Fellowship Program, now open through November 30, 2023.
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