My guest this month is Dolly Li, a filmmaker whose short documentaries about the Asian diaspora in America have garnered over 10 million views and earned a regional Emmy in California. Dolly specialises in covering immigrant communities in the U.S. and has directed and produced a huge body of work focusing on the Chinese-American experience. She is the director and producer of a pop culture and history show on PBS Origins and the co-founder of Goldthread, a Hong Kong-based video publication incubated by the South China Morning Post. She moved back to the U.S. in 2019 to establish her production company, Plum Studios, and she is now based in Los Angeles.
Nikita Mandhani: Hi Dolly! How did you get into filmmaking?
Dolly Li: I joined Al Jazeera in 2014 as an illustrator for their digital division called AJ+. I was illustrating for the news – interpreting information, news, data, and then finding a way to make that digestible for people. Over time, I had accumulated all these illustrations. Al Jazeera is a video-heavy company so eventually the question was: How do we take these things and turn them into video?
My very first pieces were all illustrated animations for people who didn't want to be on camera, for whatever reason, and that's actually how I learned the mechanism of filmmaking because prior to that I had worked mostly in still images. I went from learning animation and storyboarding to working on documentaries. I pitched stories and combined my visual skills with actually being in the field and making moving images.
Nikita: When and how did you start making films about the Chinese community specifically?
Dolly: I was noticing that the coverage of Asian communities in my very global, international newsroom was short-sighted and sometimes quite orientalist. I think we were perpetuating stereotypes that as a news organization we were also trying to address. So, I leveraged my Chinese language skills and life experience to pitch stories I had access to. To start, I pitched a diaspora series but I was told it was very unsexy as a concept. They asked me to repackage the idea and that's how it evolved into a food series.
When people watch my first video series, my hope is that they will realize that food is just a vehicle to understand the communities featured. Based on my own experience and the stereotypes I was seeing, I wanted to look at urban, suburban and rural environments to show the expansiveness of the Chinese-American immigrant group and also reflect on the differences of their American existence. It took two years of back and forth and rejections to get it green-lit. Editors thought it would appeal to a very limited audience. But I was adamant that people were hungry for these kinds of stories.
Nikita: We all have topics and themes we are passionate about but when you work for an organisation, it’s not always possible to continue working on those subjects, especially when they are a little niche. But the one binding thread in a lot of the work that you've done for AJ+, Goldthread or even PBS Voices is that your stories revolve around Chinese culture and identity. How did you make that happen?
Dolly: After I did the first series for AJ+, that background experience helped me quite a bit. I also supported other people around me who were making stories about their communities – I’d consult with them, help them script their videos, and constantly advocate for their stories. That also helped me become known as a champion of stories about immigrant communities in the US.
I try to find specific angles that bring in a more modern global perspective. That’s why one of our episodes for the Chinese food series focuses more on the impact of globalisation. Our Texas series had an episode that looked at an international student who adopted the identity of a cowboy with a southern accent. I made another video about a Chinese-Texan man named Donald who’s a gun aficionado. I love stories that can bring global perspectives because they’re really about how the world is changing.
Nikita: How are you trying to do things differently from industry practice in the non-fiction video world?
Dolly: In the current times, when you’re making video and visual content, there are so many platforms for it. And I believe that nonfiction can inform fiction. Having a nonfiction storytelling background, for me the next evolution of that is thinking about how these stories can be extended to fiction. I also try not to be too wedded to the idea that this content needs to go on YouTube or this needs to go on Netflix. Sometimes it's really about finding the right platform and catering to the audience of that platform instead of making a thing first and then thinking about the platform. Everyone wants to have a documentary or premium film that lives on an HBO or Netflix, and that means a lot, but the reach of platforms like YouTube Is insane.
I know three- or four-year olds who put their own videos on YouTube roleplaying YouTube influencers. YouTube is something that is so cemented in the next generation’s mind. I think about that when I’m working on stories. Corporations may come and go but I think platforms like YouTube will stay.
Nikita: Who is your audience?
Dolly: I think of my audience as my peers and friends who haven’t necessarily grown up in immigrant communities. They are people who tend to be educated but realise that their understanding of the world is so limited because they weren't necessarily exposed to immigrant communities in the United States. To me that is so deeply inherent to who I am and what my life was like growing up in Brooklyn. All of my friends spoke another language. I didn't even know people would talk to their parents in English until I went to college.
I also think about the people I went to high school with. They're not necessarily learning a lot of information from my stories but they're the ones who really value seeing them come to life. I’ve definitely heard from folks who have used my videos in their universities and schools. If they can be talking points for classrooms or audiences, I feel like they’re already doing so much more than I even set out to do.
Nikita: In the news industry, everyone's talking about reaching young audiences. But you've been doing this for a while. What have you learned over the years from making videos for this demographic?
Dolly: You need to be open minded to the platforms that young people are using. When TikTok first came out, a lot of people in the industry were resistant to it or they didn’t care about it. It was considered a platform where people just uploaded dances and funny things. Personally, I love TikTok and it’s not just about the viral content, it's also about how the user is now learning this new tool. It’s teaching people video editing in a way that nothing else has and that is something to pay attention to. What that means is that younger audiences are going to want to see those video editing skills reflected in the content that news organisations are publishing. They're going to want to see neat transitions and references to viral TikToks because it has become a part of their artistic and visual repertoire.
Following new trends in technology also requires a little bit of reading between the lines. What's going to be encoded into visual language? What typography is trending? Younger people like smaller subtitles and older people like bigger subtitles. Little things like that matter. Also, younger people are more politically engaged than they ever have been. There needs to be some reckoning and humanising of people that we misunderstand and don't take seriously. I think that young people feel that the world and older people don't take them seriously.
Nikita: How does a background in design help you when you're working in visual media, specifically videos?
Dolly: I’m very hands on with the visuals. I storyboard quite a bit and work closely with the designer or an animator to lay out what I want to see. Sometimes I’ll do a first edit. There are so many people who are faster and more talented than I am and they really understand the art of editing more than I do. But I like being able to at least provide a visual guide for my stories. I still script in the two-column audio-visual style knowing what I see on screen is really important. I think it's a part of me that will never go away.
So, I’ve always enjoyed having a hand in the visual and artistic part of filmmaking. That’s also been one of the benefits of transitioning from a newsroom to becoming an independent filmmaker. It gives you a lot more artistic freedom in terms of what you can show and that’s been something that I’ve really loved exploring.
Nikita: You’re also the host in most of your videos. And these aren’t videos where you’re just explaining a topic, you’re also explaining your own life. How does that make you feel?
Dolly: I think I will always see my work as an artist, even if it takes the form of journalism, even if it takes the form of nonfiction. What is art if not interpreting your existence through the work that you create? I love stories of identity because it's valuable for other people to see you as a conduit for themselves. Being on camera is a love-hate thing for me. I would prefer to be in the director's or the producer’s chair. But I understand the value of having an Asian face that's asking the questions. I still think that there's a lot to explore in terms of injecting my own identity into my stories.
I have never reported on my hometown of New York, for example. It's still something that I think about a lot. But it's hard because that takes it so much closer to the heart of my identity, which would force me to really find the darker parts of being an immigrant in New York, or growing up in more low-income environments, and that would force me to taste the truth a bit more. I hope that one day I will be able to gather the courage to explore what it means to be a Brooklyn-Chinese-American woman who grew up in the projects of Coney Island.
Nikita: What's the most challenging thing about telling stories about a community especially when in some way you're a part of the community?
Dolly: Generally, immigrant communities are very hesitant to speak to you and they have a huge mistrust of authority and of the press. So it can be challenging to gain access to stories. Another challenge is that you can discover some unsavoury things about the people who are your neighbours or the people who are your elders or mentors and that can be really hard. No community is perfect. The reality is that immigrants have done a lot of things their own way to make it in America, and some of those things are not things that would necessarily be 100% legal or 100% accepted by most of society. When you come across things like that, it’s hard to decide what to do. Do you expose this and for what purpose?
The journalist in me always says: “Yes, we should know everything, expose all of the stories.” But the human side of me isn’t sure. There are so many hurdles to help a mainstream society understand another culture and even then, they can still judge an entire community based on what they see in one story.
Nikita: I faced similar challenges when I was reporting on immigrant communities in the U.S. a few years ago. Do you have any advice for on-camera presenters for digital videos – think YouTube, TikTok, Instagram? What helps you be more natural when you’re hosting your videos?
Dolly: It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable being on camera. It's definitely unnatural so people shouldn't feel weird or bad about it being a difficult experience. Having a great producer cheering you on is really helpful. It also helps to start off with a little music – especially if you play a track that you really like right before you start filming. If you try and smile before each take – you don't have to be smiling on camera – but if you smile to just pepper yourself up and then go into your take, you'll feel a little bit better.
I give the same advice to people when I’m coaching them through voiceover. I’ll ask them to smile while they're doing it. No one can see you and it feels silly but you'll feel better and then it sounds better. I also suggest people to not read through a teleprompter – try saying things without one in your own style and using words you’re comfortable with.
At the end of the day, on-camera hosting is like drawing or writing. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Practice it at home, make your own YouTube videos, self-record yourself on your phone, talk to the mirror. Just practice.
Nikita: How do you measure success for your videos and which video has been the most successful?
Dolly: Success can be measured in so many different ways. The viewership is very important in terms of helping you understand the video’s reach but I don't necessarily think that is success. I credit the Mississippi delta video quite a bit for helping me amplify the story of an under-covered community. And though that is one of my more viral videos, I don't want to accredit the viewership for its success. To me, the success is in the engagement and the conversation it generated. People were openly talking about their own racism in most of the comments on YouTube and even on Reddit, where it went viral. To me, that is the type of engagement that I hope my work has. I want it to have that impact where people can question themselves after watching my videos.
The video about Donald is similar in terms of the engagement that it brought. It is an interesting prism to offer within this conversation around gun rights – the perspective of coming from a country that has zero guns for civilians to a country that allows as many as you want.
Nikita: What are you up to right now and what kind of filmmaking excites you the most?
Dolly: We've started publishing the first season of Historian's Take, a history and pop culture show, on PBS Origins! We cover topics such as the history of Blaccent, the rise of pansexual characters on film & TV, and the phenomenon of the Asian Himbo. This series includes all communities of colour. I’ve also been working on my scripted work and it's something that I’ve been trying to dabble in. I’ve had to cut short a lot of the non-fiction videos I’ve spent so much time researching and creating because of the nature of the platform or the organisation it’s for. I'd love to see these stories have a longer life. So, in the realm of innovation, I would like to play in both spaces. Someone I really admire is Ava Duvernay, who started as a journalist and did a feature film inspired by a historical figure. She has a way of telling historical stories, which also really matters to me.
Nikita: What’s a non-fiction video you think everyone reading this interview should watch?
I love Sophia Nahli Allison's beautiful documentary, Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, on HBO. I love the interview setups, the creative use of archival material, and its poetic performance sequences.
Nikita: And lastly, what do you think is the future of nonfiction storytelling?
Dolly: I really think the future of nonfiction storytelling is in the hands of people of colour and women and non-binary filmmakers. The executives are still very white and very male but I think they're finally understanding the value of the stories we come with and that people want these stories. We’re going to see so much more diversity and fascinating things along the way, or even like Indian matchmaking type stories that blend nonfiction with reality TV and really take people into different cultures. It’s an exciting time to be a woman and a person of colour in filmmaking.
Here’s our In Sync Spotify playlist, now including Dolly’s suggestions (and more from Nikita and Jesse)!