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Story Publication logo August 23, 2021

Easier Said Than Done — The Obvious Way to Make a Film in Crisis

A masked person holds a sign that reads 'hate is a virus'


To the Plate

Moonlynn Tsai has found a way to keep her business alive while serving her community.

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Multiple Authors

It’s easy for a scarcity mindset to get the best of you, especially during moments of uncertainty. When the pandemic hit, we seemed to be running low on everything. Somehow, many people found a way to make it work.

Before my co-director, Gopika Ajay, and I began filming To the Plate, I had never heard of the phrase “mutual aid.” I was familiar with the concept though. In fact, I’d already seen it in action in my and other communities, even before the boom in initiatives during this unprecedented health and economic crisis. Breakfast programs, soup kitchens, toiletry drives, temporary clinics. The list goes on and on. Need-based organizing is a staple in the legacies of non-white people, women, individuals with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ folks. People call attention to some form of inequity often due to systemic discrimination. Doing the best they can with creative solutions, they pool their resources — no matter how small — to fill the gaps larger entities left behind.

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Moonlynn Tsai and her romantic partner, Yin Chang, demonstrate this with Heart of Dinner. This queer Taiwanese American couple show how to do a lot with a little. In the beginning, it was just them, their friends and some like-minded strangers who came together to help East Asian elders dealing with food insecurity. What started as hot meals in plain paper bags evolved into beautifully decorated care packages with handwritten notes. Ultimately, their resilience led to them attracting and creating a growing network of restaurant partners, local food businesses, caregivers, social workers, volunteers and donors dedicated to filling the pantries of immigrant senior citizens.

Filming a protest in Washington Square Park. Image courtesy of James Mooney. United States, 2020.

Now, working on a short-form documentary isn’t nearly on the same scale or level of importance as what our sources are up to. However, in a smaller way, we had to learn to make the most of our situation too. We needed to employ the same can-do, glass-half-full spirit, and recognize all the possibilities with these new circumstances.

In March, Gopika and I were scrambling to figure out how to move forward in our documentary program. Shelter-in-place mandates and university-enforced filming restrictions would make it impossible for us to proceed with our original film ideas. So, we were starting from scratch. Unlike most of the teams in our cohort, we hadn’t filmed anything before New York City’s shutdown. At least not anything related to our thesis. We found ourselves sourcing again with only two months left in the Spring semester.

Filming in the kitchen space Essex Market donated to our sources. Image by Annick Laurent. United States, 2021.

Fast forward to April: Gopika came across an Instagram post featuring Moonlynn. After a few Zoom calls, we learned more about her, Yin and their service work. We were captivated by their willingness to keep up with their goal of delivering 25,000 meals to AANHPI seniors across all five boroughs despite the risks and challenges ahead, one of which was tremendous financial strain. It was unclear how long they would be able to keep their operations going with such limited resources.

On our end, we were navigating the world of remote directing. This change in our curriculum was a clear indication we were most likely going to end up with a very different film than we imagined. I often felt discouraged and anxious. We still had incredible camera equipment and other resources. We just couldn’t use them in the same way we had before.

Filming our sources putting together care packages for volunteers to pick up and deliver to senior citizens. Image by Annick Laurent. United States, 2020.

Ultimately, that ended up being a blessing in disguise. We would’ve only learned in-person video production techniques under normal circumstances. What were originally limitations ended up being opportunities to adapt. I started to think, “Look at what we do have.” Eventually, we found and made solutions.

Working on To the Plate taught us to be flexible, resourceful, and strategic with our time. If we were going to head outside, it had to be well-planned and for something worthwhile. Most importantly, lockdown led us to a unique group of people we would’ve never met otherwise.


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