THE PANTHEON PROJECT, written by Jo Chiang
This week’s highlight is The Pantheon Project, a YouTube miniseries written by Jo Chiang, a Taiwanese-American writer, actor, and filmmaker working out of New York. The Pantheon Project is a six-episode miniseries about a girl who moves to the big city and discovers that her two roommates are actually Pele and Guan Yin, Pacific Islander and East Asian deities. Naturally, hijinks ensue. Jo is a co-founder of Puddle Jumping Productions. You can follow Jo at her professional tumblr, jochiang, or her personal, thatcupofjo.
What inspired you to do the Pantheon Project?
I was looking for a way to combine three of my preoccupations: representation, the manipulation of narrative conventions, and urban fantasy. I’ve been fascinated by the storytelling capabilities of the vlog form for a long time, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries proved that it could be done and done well. I wanted to play with that format, but at the same time, I wanted to commit to highlighting identities and histories that often get shunted to the side or ignored altogether. I’m also deeply fascinated by urban fantasy and the way our lives can be intertwined with the fantastical, so the Pantheon Project is the result of my first attempt at wrapping all three of those things together.
Your main divinities, Pele and Guan Yin, are from pantheons not commonly known to American viewers. Why did you choose those goddesses instead of more mainstream ones?
For one, I wanted to make sure that there was no excuse not to cast People of Color in this web series. In addition, by specifically choosing to highlight Pacific Islander and East Asian goddesses in the first few episodes, I hoped to challenge what pantheons we automatically think about when we talk about gods. Also, Guan Yin means a lot to me, personally. As a Buddhist figure, she’s an important tie that keeps me connected to my cultural heritage, and I wanted to introduce her to the world.
How much research did you do for the Pantheon Project to make sure the portrayals of the other cultures was accurate?
For Guan Yin, I drew from my own personal knowledge of her divinity. She was closest to me, and so I was most generous with her characterization. I did a lot of research on Shopona. I was lucky that I actually took a class that spent a week on Yoruba theatre traditions, but I didn’t think that I could be too careful handling a culture that was not mine to toy with. At the end of the day, none of these characters were representations of the culture they belong to. I didn’t bring traditional wear or rituals into the work, mostly because I did not have access to enough information to do it justice. So, it was the characterization that I focused on. I would argue though, even though it wasn’t the focus of the story, that the Western aesthetic of all the gods was a comment on the effects of colonialization, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Why is representation important to you?
The easiest way to dehumanize someone is to render them invisible. When you can not see yourself reflected in the narratives told around you, it’s difficult to imagine yourself as a driving force in a world that relegates you to a supporting character. You see, I grew up seeing a very specific image of women, of Asian-American women, of queer women, and of queer women of color on stage and on screen. These images were either demeaning, unattainable, or just plain meaningless. Imagine the affect that can have on a little girl whose sense of self is inextricably linked with the way the world sees her. The stories well tell shape the way we see ourselves. That power can’t be underestimated.
What advice do you have for people wanting to make a similar Youtube miniseries?
Start by building a community of trust. A film project requires the talents and commitment of so many individuals. Working with people you care about, who share your vision and your mission, will not only leave you with a final product that is meaningful to you, but also with a fulfilling and worthwhile experience that can not be manufactured in any industry. For that, you have to care about the people you work with and they have to care about you. Build that community, reach out to people whose talents you admire, connect with those who have stories to tell, and so many things will fall into place.
How did social media help you to market your project?
I knew that there was an audience out there for the stories that I want to tell. I know there are people hungry for it, because I am hungry for it. Social media allowed me to reach those people. That direct line of communication is invaluable to content creators.
Do you think less common types of media (like a youtube miniseries) provide more of an opportunity for POC creators?
Video sharing websites like Youtube and Vimeo have helped to close the gap between content creators and audiences. It has made exposure more accessible than ever. There are no networks and no sponsors holding your strings, allowing for greater freedom and integrity on the part of the artist. At the same time, that’s not to forget that filmmaking in and of itself is still very inaccessible in certain ways. Equipment is expensive. Time is hard to come by. Certain bodies and identities are still privileged over others. The playing field is changing, but it’s not level yet.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects in your future?
I’m currently working on a post-apocalyptic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. The core cast will mostly feature self-identified Women of Color, and the narrative itself will highlight deeply bound friendships as well as deal with issues of Othering. It’s part superhero origin story, part coming of age flick. I’ll be setting up an Indiegogo campaign for it in the next few months, and I really hope I can dredge up the funds to do it justice. It’s going to be a very resonant and engaging short, and if all goes well, I’ll take it to the festival circuit.
I just cruised through the first six episodes of this series. Tons of Fun.