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Filmmaker questions commercialization of Pride month in film at San Diego Asian Film Festival

The idea for Sophie Zeng’s short film exploring the commercialization of Pride month came to her one day as she looked down at her new sneakers.

“I was wearing my new rainbow Converse, and as I looked down at my feet, the idea of rainbow capitalism suddenly hit me because it’s something that I realized is not really talked about as much as Pride as a whole, in general,” she says. “It’s out there, but you’ve got to look for it.”

That idea led to the creation of her eight-minute film “Priceless Pride,” which asks whether the rainbow merchandise and marketing from large corporations during Pride month in June generates increased support for the LGBTQ community, or detracts from it.

Her film is being screened at noon today at the UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley and is part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which continues through Saturday and showcases more than 100 Asian American and international films (tickets to Zeng’s screening are free). The festival is organized each year by Pacific Arts Movement, a local nonprofit focused on highlighting Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander films. Among the organization’s film-centered programs is Reel Voices, an eight-week summer documentary program that trains local high school students in filmmaking. Zeng was part of the program this past summer.

Zeng, 14, is a freshman at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, where she’s been involved in the technical side of theater and, more recently, film. She took some time to talk about her documentary, what she learned from the Reel Voices program, and what she hopes her film says to those who watch it. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )

Sophie Zeng, wearing a yellow sweater and standing outdoors

Sophie Zeng, 14, is a student at The Bishop’s School and the creator of “Priceless Pride,” a short documentary film on the commercialization of Pride month, being screened at the 2022 San Diego Asian Film Festival as part of Pacific Arts Movement’s Reel Voices program, which trains high school students in documentary filmmaking.

(Photo by Sophie Zeng)

Q: You were part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Reel Voices program. What did you learn about yourself and filmmaking during that eight weeks?

A: I went into Reel Voices with no experience, aside from iMovie school projects. Through Reel Voices, I learned the basics of filming, camera techniques and editing with Adobe Premier Pro. We also learned stuff about documentary tone, your idea and how you want the audience to see your idea. I think one of the most important things that I’ve grown to see myself, is how powerful that filming documentaries can be. I think film can just be so powerful because it starts with writing, but then you add even more dimension to it, so the ability to change someone’s mind is something that I think can be so influential, especially in today’s world. I’ve definitely learned a lot from Reel Voices that I hope to continue to use in my life, and I hope that my documentary will be able to reach people and, hopefully, it will lead them to think more about their actions and consequences.

Q: Where did the idea to explore the topic of the commercialization of Pride come from? What motivated you in the creation of this film?

A: Reel Voices started in June, which is Pride month, and right before, I started seeing a lot of stuff about Pride and advertisements for rainbow products, rainbow shirts, shoes, bracelets. I ended up buying a pair of the 2022 Pride collection Converse shoes. As we began to explore documentary ideas, I started thinking about social issues and prominent events in my life. I went through a lot of ideas, like Lunar New Year because my family’s Chinese; the Del Mar fair, which is native to San Diego, but none of them really stuck. In one Reel Voices session, I was wearing my new rainbow Converse and as I looked down at my feet, the idea of rainbow capitalism suddenly hit me because it’s something that I realized is not really talked about as much as Pride as a whole, in general. It’s out there, but you’ve got to look for it. A lot of my friends are also part of the LGBTQ community, so I’ve grown to become more involved as well.

Q: What was your goal with “Priceless Pride”? What did you want to say with this film?

A: When I came up with the idea of studying the commercialization of Pride month, I started thinking about the decisions that we make when we shop. Most of the time, when we buy things, it’s based on what’s pretty, what’s cute, trendy and cool, but there’s not really much thought put into any consequences that will follow. Originally, the path of my documentary was to interview large corporations and explore how their donations and contributions compared to their profits, but later I decided to take a more consumer-focused perspective. As I started to contact these large corporations, I realized that they didn’t really have an interest in talking to me. A lot of companies just didn’t respond, and then there were the ones that did that didn’t really give anything else aside from the generic statements that you can find on their website. I just started realizing that detailed information about their profits and their actual contributions and where all of their money actually goes is not really accessible to the public, so I decided to take a consumer route.

My documentary aims to provoke the thought of questioning whether the actions of these large corporations commercializing Pride makes up for their profit-driven intentions. My documentary doesn’t provide a solid answer because I don’t think there is one; the point is just to be aware and think more about who you’re supporting and why, and whether the money that you spend when you actually buy Pride merchandise is actually going to the people that you want to support.

Q: What is your personal perspective on this commercialization of what began as a radical and political act of resistance against oppression and antagonism against the LGBTQ community?

A: I’m not super cultured about the history of LGBTQ Pride, so I don’t really want to say anything about that without actually knowing, but I think if there’s one message that I want to convey through my documentary, it’s not a solid “yes” or “no” answer, but it’s that if someone is going to be a consumer of Pride merch, I think they should make sure to do so intentionally and thoughtfully with awareness as to who they’re helping when they buy this Pride merch and whether that money is really, truly going to the community that they want to support.

Q: How did you get started making films?

A: Even as a kid, I’ve always loved watching films. One of my favorite feature films is the mystery movie “Knives Out.” The way in which the suspense and the mystery in the movie was portrayed is something that I consistently wonder about and it’s such an amazing movie. It’s still amazing every single time I decide to watch it.

Right before I enrolled with Reel Voices, I started getting more involved with documentary films, as well. Documentaries have been on the rise, on Netflix, especially. I watched “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix and “White Hot,” which is about the history of Abercrombie. I thought they were both super interesting and insightful. They definitely changed my view on some things that are in my daily life. One of the other impactful documentaries that I watched was at the spring showcase for the San Diego Asian Film Festival, called “Free Chol Soo Lee.” It was about a Korean immigrant’s life, and I thought it was a very insightful window into the past. His story was about him being falsely convicted for a murder and the fight for justice against discrimination. When he finally got free, he fell back into the trap of drugs and gangs, and struggled to pick himself back up, but after his experience with the darker parts of life, he genuinely tried to be a better person and help people, and he succeeded. So, I thought the story of his redemption was really inspiring.

Q: What is it about making films that you enjoy?

A: It’s 2022 and there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world and I find that there are a lot of things that I’m really passionate about. I end to have a strong opinion, and I want people to hear my opinion, I want people to be able to see my perspective and see other people’s perspectives as well. There’s a side of exercising creativity, and I’ve always considered myself a pretty artsy person. Filming and editing is always kind of fun, playing around with the software, but I also think what really brings me joy is knowing that what I say and what I depict will have the ability to influence someone else’s life.

Q: I don’t know if you’ve participated in Pride, or if you feel like disclosing whether or not you’re part of the LGBTQ community, but one of my questions was going to be to ask you how you would describe your own Pride experience.

A: I, like my friends, am part of the LGBTQ community. Personally, I think I’m privileged in my life to have not been seriously targeted for things like that. I’m pretty new to the community, I guess I would say. I’m not super involved, I’ve only recently become more involved and interested in the things that affect the community, but one of the things that I found was super fun for my documentary was the Pride parade. I went to the San Diego Pride parade in July to get some film for my documentary, and I thought it was actually super fun. The lines were insanely long for everything, but it was kind of amazing to see such a huge turnout in San Diego. I never would have imagined that there was this large of an LGBTQ community locally. It was eye-opening to see everyone so open and comfortable in their identity. I didn’t get a lot of footage for my documentary from the parade and the festival, and although it’s not the main point of my documentary, I think it supported the message of my documentary. I’m just glad that I got to see the LGBTQ community together and open and so accepting of each other’s identities.