Diversity Spotlight: Q and A with Tsu Shan Chambers

Tsu Shan

Tsu Shan Chambers is from a Malaysian-Chinese heritage, who originally trained at NIDA and has certifications in Stage Combat, Theatrical Firearms and Yoga Teaching.  An AFTRS alumni in producing, Tsu Shan was selected as one of Screen Producers Australia’s prestigious “Ones to Watch” in 2018.  She produced feature film ‘Unsound’ that premiered at the AACTA qualifying Mardi Gras Film Festival and recently won ‘Best Australian Feature Film’ at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.  The online action drama that she wrote and produced, ‘The Wild Orchards’, won 2 out of 7 nominations at the 2018 LA Webfest, including nominations for most Outstanding Drama, and her as most Outstanding Actress.   Tsu Shan also won ‘Best Ensemble of Cast’ at the 2016 World Film Awards for her short film ‘Tragic Enough’ where she played the lead role.

  • Who were your role models on T.V. & film when you were growing up? 

I love musicals so was always a big fan of Julie Andrews.  Sounds corny but I watched ‘The Sound of Music’ countless times growing up.  I also really enjoy reading English classics so love watching their film adaptations, especially anything with Emma Thompson and Colin Firth (I’m a big Mr Darcy fan).  I don’t remember seeing any Asian Australians on mainstream TV or film growing up but got to watch a lot of foreign films with my parents.  I’m a fan of Jackie Chan (his work ethic is inspiring and he’s actually a good singer!), Gong Li and my most favorite to this day is Michelle Yeoh.  So very talented with a diverse career crossing over both Asia and the West.

  • Why did you want to get into the entertainment industry?

I didn’t know much about the industry growing up in Darwin.  But I loved reading and watched a lot of TV.  Drama classes, singing in choirs or playing the flute in orchestras was also where I simply felt the most joy.  I was also passionate about public health and spent a lot of time volunteering in hospitals and the like when I was a teenager.  By the end of high school, I actually got into full-time musical theatre and Medicine.  But, yes…the typical Asian parental thing happened.  I chose the ‘approved’ way but picked Optometry instead. Eyes are much better to look at all day.

I spent a lot of time working in third world countries which is where my interest in women’s health and minority groups developed.  Regardless, I always had a pull towards the creative arts but it wasn’t until I had 3 children and they got a bit older that I decided to give my creative aspirations a go.  Whilst it hasn’t been an easy transition or juggle with “life”, I found I can still make a social impact through the arts.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

  • Who inspires you and why?

Aung San Suu Kyi  – the female Burmese politician and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate (Michelle Yeoh did a wonderful performance in her biopic ‘The Lady’).  Suu Kyi gave up her freedom to bring democracy to then military-ruled Burma. She became an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression (I think this is partly why I like Star Wars so much).

My other heroine is Joan of Arc.  She was a peasant girl who ended up leading the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years’ War.  Incredible.  It was one of the main reasons I travelled to France during university. (Milla Jovovich did a great job in the movie ‘The Messenger’ which was about her).

  • Do you think there’s enough diversity reflected in Australian film and T.V.? 

Frankly, no.  But it’s getting better.  I still feel it can be tokenistic.  i.e. The token black man or Asian appears. Or scenes in commercial television are not realistic to what it’s like in multicultural Australia.  But at least there is a conscious effort.  I get excited when I see genuine ‘blind casting’.

To change it?  It is multi-factorial but key creatives can start by making content that leads the way in that area. All the projects that I write or produce have diverse casts as the leads.  And I’m not just talking about ethnic diversity.  I also mean diversity in ability, sexuality and gender.  From a public health perspective, this is something I’ve been involved in well before I started working in the entertainment industry.

It may not be initially deemed as ‘commercial’ to create such projects in a conservative marketplace and it is much harder work to get up.  But it has been proven that such diverse projects can be an economic success if the right support is given.  It all starts with ourselves and removing the politics.

  • What have you been doing during Covid19 to keep yourself creative?

Prior to Covid-19, I worked very long hours around the family.  So, to actually have a ‘forced’ break was a mixed blessing.  My hours ended up dropping down to a more sustainable normality.  Rather than juggling Optometry/producing/writing/acting, I swapped out Optometry for home-schooling 3 kids.  ‘Getting creative’ took on a whole new meaning.

Even so, I still made time to do a polish of my 1hr TV pilot (loosely based on my experiences volunteering with the blind judo athletes during the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games).  I continued further development work on my producing slate.  There were opportunities to do a lot of self-tests, be part of an online theatre reading, watch industry seminars/masterclasses on Zoom and I finally got through a number of industry podcasts on my ‘to-do’ list.

I also started mentoring an emerging filmmaker through the WIFT MentorHer program as well as being matched with another amazing producer mentor in Melbourne.   It’s such a wonderful initiative.

Chambers Family

  • What made you want to be a filmmaker?

I was cast in a short film 6 years ago that was based on the domestic violence that can occur between Asian mail-order brides and Western men.  Not having produced a film before, I agreed to take on that role, simply because it was an important story to tell and it was aligned to my public health aspirations.  I really enjoyed the process and was surprised to find it similar to running a business which I had a lot of experience in.  It was an astounding light bulb moment of “Why had I not done this before?”

  • What are your favourite films and why?

The Sound of Music– I love musicals, the humor and range of emotions the story takes you to – it’s timeless.  It’s about not giving up.  It’s about following your heart – “Climb Every Mountain”.

Love Story– I discovered during my Producing studies at AFTRS that my thematic is love.  Shouldn’t have been a surprise but there it was. I remember watching this movie over and over again when I was young.  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.  The theme song is divine.  Choose love, not fear.

  • What inspired you want to make Unsound?

When I was in my early teens, a young deaf boy who was very close to my family committed suicide.  I became even more determined to make a positive difference to the lives of minority groups.  UNSOUND was the first long-form project that I started to develop together with writer, Ally Burnham.

It is a coming of age romance drama with themes around deaf culture and gender identity. Auslan sign language is a feature of the film which is also unique to audiences and visually captivating to watch.  Our team believes that “love is love”, regardless of your sexual identity, ethnicity or abilities.   After premiering at the Mardi Gras Film Festival this year, the film recently won Pride Foundation Australia’s ‘Best Australian Feature’ at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.

Both lead actors are from the LGBTI+ community, one being a deaf actress, Yiana Pandelis. Our other co-lead actor, Reece Noi, is also half African Caribbean. Our key supporting actors are also from a diverse background. Christine Anu is Indigenous, Todd McKenney is LGBTI+ and an Auslan ambassador and Paula Duncan dedicates her life to helping those with disabilities.  We also employed deaf actors to play the deaf characters and behind the camera, we had Transgender and Auslan consultants, many crew with disabilities or whom identify with the LGBTI+ community and a close to 50/50 split between females and males in the crew and cast.

We want to use screenings to establish, drive and build a social movement with the film at its core and be a tool for corporates and organisations looking to raise awareness and discussion around issues of disability or sexuality.  Check out the trailer and look out for it  in cinemas later in the year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c85aXHth_uQ

  • What’s the biggest lesson you learned from making that film?

Trust your gut with making sure you are working with the right people and say no a lot earlier.

  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years time and why? 

Working with the United Nations and as an actor, writer and producer on aligned projects around the world.

11) What is your motto that you live by?

Make a positive difference, one life at a time.

Director Producer with key cast UNSOUND

“UNSOUND World Premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival”.


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