Seeing the world through a new lens with Portland filmmaker Annie Tonsiengsom.
The literary technique known as “tragic irony” dates back to classical Greece — the idea that the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience but unknown to the character. In other words, that character is unaware.
But there is no irony in that I’m writing this installment of “Fortitude” on International Women’s Day. Because my subject — my “character” — is Annie Tonsiengsom. And she is painfully aware.
Annie is Co-Founder and Executive Producer at Actual Industries, a Portland-based film company. With clients like Nike, YouTube, Amazon, Google Play and Converse, Actual doesn’t mess around. In fact, the Actual crew calls itself “fiercely dedicated.”
I know exactly from where that fierceness comes. I first met Annie when she was a Producer on our Mathematics Illuminated series for Annenberg (early 2000s). She was a director’s best kind of creative collaborator — the kind who is not afraid to ask the hard questions. We have been friends ever since.
Annie is a Thai American woman. I am a white American man. We are a generation apart. Yet we share so much in common: our careers, our creative sensibilities, our foodie impulses (Annie used to work at Food Network, we partnered in developing our own cooking show). And yet, as close as we are, in all the years we have known each other, we had never really talked about race.
Leave it to a pandemic — and the long overdue harsh light shining on racial injustice — to bring things into focus on a deeply personal level. So for this column, Annie and I agreed to explore (scratch the surface, really) the issues of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in the film biz here at home. She is uniquely qualified to speak to this. She is an activist woman of color, a gifted filmmaker, and with Fran Siriphan Bittakis, Co-Chair of OMPA’s DEI Committee.
I asked her, “After all this — COVID, George Floyd, the January 6th insurrection, everything — how is it playing out for you now?
“It’s like the rose-colored glasses came off,” she said. “There’s a lot of pain, a lot of anger. Even as you do your own anti-racist work, you realize this is a huge part of where you grieve inside.”
Let’s back up a sec. Annie and I share something that I’m sure many of you also share: our work as creatives has a direct line to our hearts and passion. We don’t do it just for the money. We do it because what we say through our art is important.
But Annie gave me a new understanding of this notion: she said that it’s impossible for her to decouple her passion and her work from her identity. I understood this to mean that what you express and how you express is irrevocably linked to “who you are.”
But what if somebody else is in control of “who you are?”
“You form your own identity as a kid,” Annie said. “Like James Baldwin said, you see all these white faces around you. You don’t feel you’re not white, but that you are just who you are. Then gradually you realize the identity society has prescribed for you is based on your color — and that how you feel in your own skin is not something you get to control.”
That’s like a trap, a prison. And not something white people experience or understand, generally. Because — like it or not, believe it or not — as whites, as the predominant culture, we are the prison. We have the keys to both the jail cells and the front gate.
“You form your own identity as a kid. Like James Baldwin said, you see all these white faces around you. You don’t feel you’re not white, but that you are just who you are. Then gradually you realize the identity society has prescribed for you is based on your color — and that how you feel in your own skin is not something you get to control.” – Annie Tonsiengsom
Oh man, I’m probably way out in the bushes, here. I’m no Greek philosopher, and there are countless people who understand this stuff way better than I do. But I’ll keep going. Because I know that humankind’s sense of “otherness” is pervasive. I’ve been on both the receiving end and the giving end of that spectrum. I’ve been “othered” — even recently. And I have othered, also recently.
Annie tells this great story of how, standing in line at a fast-food restaurant in Times Square, she was approached by a stranger, a woman whose colorful nails had recently been painted with Chinese symbols at some local salon. The woman thrust her fingers in Annie’s face and asked, “Can you tell me what this means.” Well, Annie is Thai, not Chinese, so how would she know?
You get the point. We all can be profiled as “other” — even within our own race. But for people of color, that boils down to daily encounters with fear of the other. Of being misunderstood. Underestimated. Dismissed. And much worse. Annie told me, “How others view you chips away at your own self-image and scratches your lens until it’s warped and distorted. You struggle to find a clear image of yourself.”
So here we are. A pandemic still raging. Racial injustice still tormenting. But hope, emerging. I asked her, “Now that the rose-colored glasses are off, do you see light at the end of the tunnel?”
She asked me, “Well, do you?”
Like I said, Annie is not afraid to ask the hard questions. There’s no dodging, here. I have hope. But I know I won’t see the light until I wipe away all the dirt from my own glasses. I was born into the old guard, the white male majority. How clear is my vision, exactly? What am I doing to change things … exactly?
For Annie right now, the light at the end of the tunnel is a bright light. She said, “Some people are feeling a little overexposed. It’s not like we suddenly have a magical way to interact with the world and see it in a way where things feel comfortable.”
Yep. Discomfort is a good thing. Getting out of your comfort zone is the way we grow as individuals and as a society. So take it local: to bring equity to our work as filmmakers, we need to be comfortable with discomfort. That means, hand over the keys to that prison.
Oh wait, there I go again, looking through my dirty lens. Better to burn the prison down, right? Annie says, “Destroy the cage. Reimagine all the constructs. Start with examining where you sit. How much power and privilege do you enjoy? How can you rebalance that?”
How? Actual Industries’ recent spot for the women’s boxing brand Society Nine was shot with a 90%-women and 65%-BIPOC crew and a 75%-WOC and 100%-BIPOC post-production team. Annie recently produced Director Alberta Poon and Comedian Katie Nguyen’s short film, Crouching Comic with an all-Asian cast and crew.
My editing crew on my current doc is 50% BIPOC. Of course, there’s only two of us, but still…
That’s where you start.
Annie joined OMPA’s board in December of 2019. Four months later, in March of 2020, she and Fran Bittakis took leadership of OMPA’s DEI Committee. Since then — with the help of many volunteers — their efforts have been instrumental in advancing: the Monthly Creatives of Color Oregon (COCO); the D-OPIF Diversity – Oregon Production Incentive Fund (Oregon HB 3010); Diversity Certification accountability tools for businesses; The Close Up community conversations; the Pathways workforce development program, and much more (follow the links and get inspired!).
These efforts have not necessarily been “comfortable.” Yet each is a step toward changing institutions and systems that perpetuate inequities and harm. And each step requires us to take off those rose-colored glasses and shine a bright light on ourselves and how we work.
If you’re white like me, you might take off your own lens and take a look inside. Got any of that “tragic irony” stuff going on in there? While the impact of your words and actions may be clear to the rest of us, they might be unknown to you.
Yes, you can get involved in this vital work! Email firstname.lastname@example.org and find out how.
 There is some irony, however, in that we remember the men of ancient Greece and not the women. Did you know that it was Themistoclea of Delphi who taught Pythagoras geometry and ethics? Hmmm. That was news to me, too. Look her up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR | DAVID POULSHOCK
David Poulshock is a writer/director based in the Northwest whose preferred genre is magical realism. davidpoulshock.com
Tell your state representatives to vote YES on HB 3010 for industry-wide diversity & inclusion