Interview #66 — Angeline Armstrong
by Immanuel Chuah
Angeline Armstrong is a Filipina-Kiwi-Australian writer, director and musician creating works which explore cultural identities on-screen.
Angeline's short films have been selected and awarded at international film festivals, leading to a mentorship opportunity with director Baz Luhrmann. She was one of ten screenwriters selected for the Film Victoria Plot Twist TV Writers Labs where she developed her two original TV pilots in a rigorous writers’ room environment.
Ange speaks to Immanuel as she reflects on creating space and representation on-screen, her faith, and the meaning of home in multiplicity.
"It didn’t occur to me at the time that the leads should be played by Asian-Australians, even though parts of the film were based on my own experience."
Your first independent short film, Bathrooms, is a story about a family and the bathroom that they hide in, which you wrote, directed, produced and co- edited. It was selected at Portland Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, Los Angeles Cinefest, and the Sedona International Film Festival. What drew you to creating this film?
The idea for the screenplay came to me when I was nineteen. I was in the bathroom one day, facing the mirror, when I realized that this room and mirror knew so much about me. This mirror had seen me frustrated and insecure. It got me thinking about the people in my family who also had secrets hidden in the same room; how in the spaces we inhabit, an inanimate wall can know more about us than the people we live with.
Since then, part of your work focuses on creating space and representation for femmes, and people from various backgrounds. What processes did you undergo that led you to this change?
Throughout my teenage years and into my early twenties, there weren’t many people like me getting the lead roles on screen, whether on Australian television, or films coming out of Hollywood. There wasn't a proportionate number of people being represented on-screen. There was a time in my teens when I pursued acting for a bit, and I remember a meeting I had with a casting director. He was an American, and sitting across the table from me in a café in LA, he eyed me up and down. In a matter of seconds, I was told that I would never be the main protagonist in any role. The context of our conversation was that people with an 'Asian' look would just never land a major lead role in a Hollywood film. That’s just one example of the kind of everyday statements that can come out of peoples’ mouths and really leave a mark.
With my first film, I played into default. I thought: it’s an Australian film, it’s going to be a family of white people. The main character is going to be blonde and beautiful. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the leads should be played by Asian-Australians, even though parts of the film were based on my own experience. I acclimatised to the so-called norms of representation for a long time. This bled into my own understanding of how identities inhabit particular roles beyond the screen. That was definitely damaging, but something I only realised in hindsight.
"The only reason we need to have specific diversity initiatives is that the industry, by default, is already skewed towards one side..."
In recent years, has there been a noticeable shift in what we see represented on screen?
In terms of supporting emerging artists from diverse backgrounds and trying to get unique voices out there, I’ve noticed a shift in the last few years. Major bodies like Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Creative Victoria are making changes, which is definitely a positive thing. Whether that’s by funding opportunities for Indigenous representation, or women-in-film, or through research and reporting about the percentage of POCs represented on-screen, there’s a growing awareness.
I know of white male writers who are now like ‘damn I can’t apply for this.’ And some might argue that we’re now disadvantaging someone else instead… but I do believe that to achieve real change in the industry, sometimes you do have to push in the opposite direction for a while, until things have reached a balance/equilibrium. The only reason we need to have specific diversity initiatives is that the industry, by default, is already skewed towards one side; it already privileges particular types of people.
You’ve spent some time between the Philippines, Los Angeles, New Zealand and Melbourne. Can you elaborate on how these experiences have shaped you, particularly now that we live in increasingly culturally-hybrid environments?
Well, actually, initially I thought I would hate LA. I had this vision of all that city sprawl, cracking concrete, tacky celebrity paraphernalia - I went thinking that LA produced trash Hollywood and that everyone I was going to meet would be arrogant and pretentious and namedrop in every conversation. I went there and certainly experienced a bit of that, but the positive experiences by far outweighed the negatives. There was so much genuine creativity, and energy on every level of the spectrum – from young emerging indie artists, small experimental projects, to people gaining traction with major TV networks and studios.
It’s a city that feels like a hundred little cities in one, and it’s all about finding your own little space in it all. I forged strong relationships with incredible artists over there, often in rather unexpected places and circumstances, including the songwriter/producer Jordan Ruiz who produced my first solo EP "Ivory Town" (we met at a baseball game!), as well as producer Jarrad Rogers who I'm currently writing an EP with for our pop project "Inka Wood". Also golden hour is absolutely divine in LA, a filmmaker's dream. It's a relatively flat city architecturally, so the sunsets are long and dreamy because of all that LA 'haze' (air pollution). So even the city sprawl grew on me after a while.
In Los Angeles, you directed the narrative short film Portions, a co-production with the Middle Eastern Women’s Leadership Network (MEWLN), which received Best Short Fiction Film in Dubai. How did this come about?
I met Shirin at a women-in-the-media dinner in LA. It wasn’t a big Hollywood razzle-dazzle conference or anything; it was a very intimate sort of gathering held at someone’s home. Shirin was sharing a vision she had to help women in the Middle East, through film, to share their stories and life experiences. She grew up with a Muslim-Iranian father and an Irish Catholic Mother, and so had this interesting contrast of two worlds that seemed completely at odds with one another. There was something about her story that just, it’s hard to explain, but I can vividly remember my heart starting to beat really fast. I felt this pull to be involved somehow, even though I had no idea how my skills could contribute at that time.
The film was heavily visual, poetic in the way it used symbolic imagery to tell the majority of the story, then translated into multiple languages and used as a resource in countries/regions (parts of the Arab world, Turkey, Iran) where broadcast laws are often strict about anything that questions the status quo. The vision was for femmes to watch this in their homes and have accompanying questions to discuss afterwards—all of which were very open-ended, and relating to things like identity, feeling free to question certain precepts/structures in society, talking openly about whether they desired more in life than what they’d been taught. There was a lot in that film when you unpacked it in that kind of environment, which I was very excited about. In addition to that, we also did the traditional short film thing and took it to several festivals but the project was more than that: it was about creating space for conversation and reflection.
"In terms of artistic practice, I honestly do see a tendency for artists to put themselves through more torture and pain than they have to, almost as if there’s this subconscious hunger to live a life full of feelings that will create so-called ‘serious art’. I think it’s an oversimplified way of seeing the whole vocation or creative life, or whatever you want to call it."
Aligning as a Christian, how does your faith tie into your artistic practice, and function in a mainly atheist/agnostic climate?
If you mean having a faith agenda, I don’t approach a work with the mindset of convincing someone of an opinion or converting someone to my faith the end of this work. Like any artist, it’s a question of: how do I reflect and mirror what I experience in the world? How do I explore the questions that I have and that other human beings around me have?
You notice, though, patterns in your own work. I find myself drawn to stories that explore the moral consequences of characters that make bad decisions, of characters that hurt other people but also have a redemptive quality. Which I think is important in the current anti-hero era of long-form narrative stuff at the moment. There’s still room to explore injustices and not to just leave it at ‘let’s glorify the anti-hero, just for the sake of breaking the norm of a traditional hero that saves the world and strives to make it a better place.’
In terms of artistic practice, I honestly do see a tendency for artists to put themselves through more torture and pain than they have to, almost as if there’s this subconscious hunger to live a life full of feelings that will create so-called ‘serious art’. I think it’s an oversimplified way of seeing the whole vocation or creative life, or whatever you want to call it. My faith is something that helps me let go of that—my identity is not tied up in success or in the art that I make, which is hard because the artist and their art is, of course, always closely tied together. I guess I kind of see God as the ultimate artist in a way.
What can we expect to see from you in the coming years?
At the moment, I’m writing a magical realist drama with dark humour. The main thing I’m exploring is Imposter Syndrome between three women who live in an apartment block, set in an anonymous downtown location. One day, some absurd, uncanny thing happens. And it shoots their lives off in directions they never thought imaginable. All kinds of people are brought together in this one apartment block. So it’s like two stories will cross each other in the corridor, and become intertwined. The interconnectedness of day-to-day human life really fascinates me.
I’ve always juggled numerous creative outlets—writing, directing, producing, songwriting, and performing—but I’ve recently found that the most satisfying expression of all these things rushing around in my head is dramatic screenwriting, with seasons of a show in mind. The ultimate dream would be showrunning my own original drama series. I love how screenwriting for long-form television gives you so much space and freedom to explore characters, relationships and the changing nature of the world that they inhabit. And I do find that I see my writing through the perspective of a musician a lot as well—finding the rhythm and musicality in dialogue, listening for the best flow and pacing of a scene to best echo the tension and emotion underscoring it all. With online streaming, you don’t have to cater to a mass broadcast audience, but can really play on your own voice and taste in a fragmented market…we’re entering into a very exciting time of bigger and bolder creative risks with story. I feel very fortunate to be an emerging writer at a time when the industry is itself emerging and evolving into this new thing.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
So my advice today comes in the context of the wintry cold, sad, darkness outside that is Melbourne in winter, and that makes me feel a looming sense of doom. About everything.
In the face of this I would say: have goals, have dreams, have ambitions. Know what you need to do to get there, practice your craft, and strive to make quality work in every opportunity you're given, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem. And then when that voice of insecurity and doubt starts speaking in that spiteful voice—that happens to be your own voice—tell it to shut up.
Start talking to yourself like a friend you know really well and see the potential in, and want to encourage in their times of deepest self-doubt. Tell yourself that you've done a good job when you have. Or that you're working hard, and the fact that you're putting the time in and pushing through the process—that is all admirable, and that is what makes you an artist.
What are you listening to?
This is kind of funny but I’ve been listening to both of Charlie XCX’s 2017 albums.
What are you reading?
I’m halfway through re-reading The Seagull by Chekov, because it’s my favourite play. I am fascinated with the disillusionment of a weird Russian world that has similar parallels to Hollywood. There's something about shattered dreams, love lost and disillusionment.
How do you practice self-care?
To a degree, I definitely see the value in being aware of your mental health because we live in a society that pushes high-productivity. With phones and laptops, there are ten different commitments all in your pocket. Being able to switch off is really important. But it’s funny when it’s reduced to the notion of having a spa day, or doing something which will inevitably cost money. Of course like everything, we’ve successfully commodified it now, so that the notion of ‘self-care’ and mental health has become something you can purchase at a mall or as a voucher, which is kind of ludicrous.
Maybe we need a bigger community perspective on what self-care looks like, in the sense of caring more about other people. Do we care about people more than our work, our ambitions? Are we valuing our family and friends, in a way that doesn’t need to be shown through a capitalist framework? Because I think we’re going to get stuck if it’s like: I work on my work, and then I take a day off to work on me. I’m not sure if it really works like that. I think self-care can come from caring for others, intertwined with a healthy inter-dependency.
There are also spiritual practices that I apply in my day-to-day life that stem from my faith. I take time out to read the bible and pray, and also a day off as a Sabbath—usually does end up being a Sunday, just to create some space to reset before Monday hits again.
"In the last few years, I have fully come out of a place of feeling insecure, and a phony, where I used to say to myself: you’ll never be the front woman of a band, you’ll never be an actual writer, you’ll never be a director – those important roles just aren’t for someone like you."
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
There are things in my past that I can identify as attitudes expressed by other people in my life that heavily contributed to the feeling of inadequacy in myself. Growing up watching Disney princesses—I saw beauty as something that only white people were. Things like that made me wish I was white. I used to put sunscreen and talcum powder on my face when I was much younger. I didn’t know how to use makeup at the time, but I thought it would make my skin whiter. It’s scary because you go to Philippines, even today, and people have whitening cream built into their facial products and lotions and soaps!
In the last few years, I have fully come out of a place of feeling insecure, and a phony, where I used to say to myself: you’ll never be the front woman of a band, you’ll never be a ‘real’ director, you'll never be 'running' the show—those important roles just aren’t for someone like you. And it came from this feeling of inadequacy, feeling like I’m not a real Australian (I mean, that’s a joke in itself really), but also that I’m not a real Asian, because my identity is half way in-between. I think I’m learning to let go of that struggle with multiplicity, because in the end it shouldn’t be about this need to prove your “authenticity” to someone else just so they know how to define you. I’m realising lots of other people from diverse backgrounds are in the same position as me, and that the notion of ‘realness’ in relation to your racial identity, well, it’s as much as you feel it. You are what you are. No one can take that away from you.
Interview by Immanuel Chua
Photographs by Leah Jing