Edson Oda is a Los Angeles-based, Brazilian writer/director of Japanese descent and a recipient of the Asian American Feature Film Program Fellowship, supported by the A3 Foundation. Oda’s fellowship included participation at the January Screenwriters Lab with his project "Nine Days," which he writes about below. Applications for both the 2018 Asian American Feature Film Program Fellowship and the 2018 January Screenwriters Lab are now open.
Since I moved to the U.S., I’m often asked a question that inevitably arrives at the same result: awkwardness. “Where are you from, Edson?” I answer, “I’m from Brazil.” It’s usually followed by a subtle but noticeable facial change and, “But you don’t look Brazilian.” I’m tempted to apologize, but since I don’t, they continue, “You look Asian.” It’s a common, funny, and harmless routine for me. But if I stop to think, this recurring experience means two things:
1) I can’t be Brazilian and Asian for these people. It’s either one or the other one.
2) Because I don’t fit their concept of Brazilians, I can’t be one.
I don’t get offended, but I do think it says a lot about us. Instead of trying to discover who the other person is, we tend to search for traits that reinforce our idea of what we think that person is. It’s easier – I do it, you do it. However, sometimes this can be dangerous.
But why am I starting a post about the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab with this commentary? Because the lab creates an environment that is antithetical to this way of thinking. We are constantly encouraged to discover the other – the other person, the other culture, the other race, the other sex, the other beliefs, the other way of making films. At the same time, we are encouraged to find our true selves, instead of becoming what people think we should be.
Here are some lessons that made those five days at Sundance Resort so special to me.
Being vulnerable is good.
In a world that asks us to be assertive, to know all the answers, and compete against each other, vulnerability can easily be interpreted as weakness.
This is not the case at the Screenwriters Lab.
We were encouraged to reveal ourselves through our films, instead of hiding behind them. It’s not like someone shouts at you, “Be vulnerable!” But they do teach you by example: everyone is open-minded, everyone cares, and everyone speaks from their heart. This is so you feel safe and encouraged to do the same. We yawn when we see others yawning; in the same way we are kind when we see other people be kind; we write with heart when we see other people write with heart; and we try to make a difference when we see other people doing the same.
Creative Advisor Robin Swicord with Edson Oda. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz
Mastering the craft to speak from your heart
Talking about artistic voice, personal connection, and noble causes is indeed very inspiring, and we spent many hours focusing on these matters. But we also got a friendly warning: if you don’t master the craft, you won’t be able to make the most noble idea work.
It’s as if NASA dreamed about going to the moon, but instead of doing the calculations and training the astronauts, they kept dreaming and praising the moon for how great it is.
Being personal is essential for screenwriters, but during the lab we were always reminded that learning the craft – and working hard to master it – is as important.
Just the beginning
When you’re selected for the Screenwriters Lab you think you’re reaching the pinnacle of screenwriting. When you leave the lab you see that there is no pinnacle.
Imagine five days with some of the best writers you’ve ever met who put a magnifying glass on your screenplay and tell you everything that you could improve, everything that you can explore, everything that you should read, and everything that you should watch. Everything.
We tend to believe in final destinations, but at the lab you see, learn, and discover vastly enough to understand that writing is a neverending road. You could write your whole life and still face new challenges, new possibilities, and new discoveries. This realization can be a little scary at first. But if you love writing, is there anything more exciting than that?