Vonne Patiag: Too Many Ethnics at Flickerfest

December 29, 2022
With his latest short film, the actor/filmmaker is lighting up stage and screen with his personal explorations of intersectionality.

Premiering at Flickerfest, Vonne Patiag’s inventive short Too Many Ethnics is a comedy about three guys from different backgrounds trying to get into a nightclub and how they begin to question their identity whilst waiting in line.

Congratulations on Too Many Ethnics, and also your section ‘Long Shift’ in portmanteau feature Here Out West. Your section was extraordinary and emotionally shattering.

“Thank you. That was, dare I say, the intended effect. Knowing that that chapter was the penultimate emotional beat, you need to hit the audience where it hurts.”

When I searched Too Many Ethnics and movie online, the first thing that came up was, ‘Why are there too many ethnics in movies?” How are you dealing with the racism in the film industry?

“There’s this assumption that I’m young, or at least younger. I’m in my early 30s, but I have been working steadily in film, theatre, or in some sort of storytelling capacity, be it commercials, or creative agency, or the art of telling a story, since I was 19.

“It’s interesting when you come up against these insurmountable walls that feel like institutional barriers… They’re imaginary, right? They don’t really exist. But you can feel that they’re part of the system.

“For so much of my life, I felt like I was outside the system, yelling ‘Let me in, please’. You feel a bit unwelcome, and that you don’t belong. And then, when you do get some sort of entryway, when you force a window open, and you’re crawling through the servant’s quarters, it can sometimes feel like there’s no support.

“It’s been a really interesting journey, full of personal growth. One thing that I really had to check is how much of this is coding, how much of this conversation is internalised as well? How much of it is in my head? How much of it is me holding myself back?

“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do your best in any project, or any process. I think the biggest weapon that racism has, especially in the arts industry, is the internalised messaging that POC have. They don’t belong. Because it’s such a contradiction to what the arts industry is all about, which is about inclusiveness, and everyone’s working together in collaboration.

“It’s just such tricky territory, because you’re like, ‘You don’t belong here. But wait, no one’s actually telling me that. I’m kind of telling myself that’. It’s this weird power play between the casual racism, and also what’s internalised.

“It’s been a really fun shift in my career, when I’ve started turning the lens back on issues that I’ve seen. All my work, I feel, is very personal.

“I have a play coming in March called The Life Cycle of Blanco, which is about racism in the arts industry and how one Asian actor survives the maelstrom of what it is to exist, in doing what you want to do, but hearing all these messages. Too Many Ethnics tackles that as well. They have very similar themes. My close friends are like, ‘Oh my God, you have a really big racism year coming’. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, these are conversations that have to happen in the work, especially’.”

In Too Many Ethnics, you’re dealing with a double layer of prejudice, because your character is queer. As a queer, non-Caucasian person in Australia, it has to have been difficult to negotiate all the different layers of prejudice.

“It’s interesting how social conversations, or social changes influence people’s identity growth. When I heard the term intersectionality back in 2018, that was so empowering because it was like, ‘Oh my God, yes. I have a queer identity, but it’s not exactly what is on TV, or just not what my Caucasian friends go through. It’s a bit different, and it’s informed by all my differences’.

“Talking about intersectionality, my first film that was ever funded by a broadcaster was Tom Girl, which was this queer, Filipino short about a kid who likes to dress up as a girl. That was my film about celebrating intersectionality. I’d always been like, ‘Oh my God, Filipino identity, and queer identity within me, they’re at odds’. But I was like, ‘Wait, what if they synthesize into this beautiful, magical film?’

“It’s been interesting to think about where Too Many Ethnics sits, in terms of what I’m exploring. Too Many Ethnics is the first film that I’m looking at the place of the individual against society. The antagonist is just social norms/casual racism.”

Too Many Ethnics is essentially a proof of concept for a series.

“It’s a proof of concept for a half hour comedy series that just follows three queer, POC best friends, who are all male identifying. It’s interesting to unpack friendships, and boundaries within queer friendships and relationships.

“I always feel like when you’re put into a survival mode, especially, and you form a group of people who get you, who understand you, your being, sometimes those boundaries kind of disappear. Or there’s no boundaries. You actually get enmeshed into these emotional situations with your best friends, because you’re in survival mode, and you need each other. Those lines really become blurry and cross. I’m always all about celebrating the best parts of friendship, but also the most toxic parts too. The good and bad go hand in hand.

“We got funding from Screen Australia for the series through the Hot Shots Plus program, way back in 2017, to help develop the series. As part of that, we got production funding to shoot what was at the time the pilot episode for the web series. That was progressing well, until we started developing the actual series. As these things always change, a lot of people were like, ‘You have so much story, this might be better suited to a half hour, because it can be a lot more powerful for what you want to say with a half hour length’.

“I think at the time, you’d seen different shows like Girls, Master of None and Insecure. All these half hour drama comedies that were explorations of identities in different pockets.

“All this feedback from the market was like, ‘half hour comedy is a really powerful way to explore these intersectional queer POC issues within friendship and masculinity’.

“That resulted in a five-year+ journey to develop the series. And then, at the height of COVID, that’s when we decided to shoot the film. I think once we got the voice down of the show on the page, which took a long time, took a lot of pilots and rewrites and series pilots, just to find what the show was, and how these characters spoke. And also, my own personal growth as a creative, in terms of my own craft. But also, how to infuse personal ideology or experience within your work. I definitely took some time just developing those skills naturally.

“And then, early 2021, it felt the right time to shoot Too Many Ethnics, because I think we had a really good indication of what we wanted the series to be. Even though Too Many Ethnics now operates as its own short film and closed story it has the same three main characters that are in the series. I think it’s a good proof of concept for tone, and colour, and the voice behind the show, and the pace of the show, and the sassy quirkiness.”

What do you hope for the short film beyond its World Premiere at Flickerfest?

“Hopefully we’ll have a bit of a festival run. There are a few other festivals that are considering it right now, and then we’re looking for a platform to partner with.

“One thing about the title, Too Many Ethnics, it’s maybe about the industry racism stuff, but the title itself is obviously a play on that. Too Many Ethnics… It’s a bit on the nose, but the funny thing is, it’s like, you can say, ‘There’s Too Many Ethnics at Flickerfest’, ‘There’s Too Many Ethnics at TIFF’. ‘There’s Too Many Ethnics at the AACTA awards. That was the kind of tongue in cheek joke that I really love about the title, it’s such a statement.

“Especially when there have been times when my producing partner, Maren Smith, will be like, ‘Let’s talk about Too Many Ethnics’. She’ll be like, ‘Oh, every time I say that, you have to make sure people know I’m talking about the title, not an opinion’. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but that’s why the title works so well’.”

Too Many Ethnics is screening at Flickerfest, January 20 – 29, 2023

Learn more about Vonne Patiag and his work at his website.