It’s hard to launch a career, any career, in the arts these days. It’s especially difficult if you come from a background that has traditionally offered few opportunities for you to tell your story. That’s why the new “LAUNCHPAD” series, which is now available to stream on Disney+ is so critically important.
What is LAUNCHPAD? The folks at Disney had the idea to create a collection of live-action short films made by a diverse group of young filmmakers for whom start-up options were often limited. Launchpad is the result of that idea.
The enthusiasm for this type of project became apparent when Disney put out the call for young directors.
“For Season One, we had over 1,100 applications,” says Mahin Ibrahim, who is Disney’s Diversity and Inclusion Director. “We worked with over 50 people to get us down to our final six. That ended with interviews both over the phone and in person. Our creative executive mentors were part of the selection process as well providing valuable feedback. Also, participating in interviews as well as their managers, the studio heads weighed in. [It was] really a 360 approach from top to bottom and gave us, again, these amazing six filmmakers to work with.”
Once selected, the young filmmakers had their work cut out for them. Not only did they face the normal challenges of creating a film, they had another, unexpected hurdle to surmount — the COVID pandemic. As Phillip Domfeh, Launchpad’s Senior Manager, notes, they were lucky to have a great deal of “institutional support” from Disney at every level, from production executives on down.
“What they [the filmmakers] accomplished during COVID really just positions them as true storytellers, leaders, captains of teams,” he adds. “It’s hard enough to just tell a really beautiful story. To do that facing a once-in-a-hundred-year thing… I think it just shows that these guys are the real deal. They’ve really got it and we’re really proud of them.”
The fruits of their labor are now ready to be displayed for all to see. The stories they tell are largely autobiographical, dipping into the multicultural experiences of people who are often conflicted and at odds with the diverse worlds they must live in. All of these stories share the common theme of “Discover,” as in each short the characters come to some interesting, and at times difficult, realizations about themselves and those around them.
Here are the six short films that make up Launchpad’s first season:
Written and Directed by Aqsa Altaf
Ameena, a Muslim Pakistani immigrant, wakes up one day excited to celebrate the important holiday Eid, only to find out that in America the day is not widely observed and she has to go to school. She starts a petition to make Eid a public-school holiday, and in the process helps her older sister come to terms with their new life, while their new home embraces them.
The idea of being able to present people like herself is what most appeals to director Aqsa Altaf, who notes that she seldom, if ever, saw stories that were like her own when she watched movies as a child.
“I looked at that and started internalizing that as something like me thinking that we’re not just important enough or valuable enough or ‘cool enough’ to be on the big screen,” she says. “That is just such a toxic thing to think as a child and that’s the inherent result of lack of representation — whether you like it or not, kids internalize that… If we don’t start cracking that ceiling that was created for us one story at a time who will? It’s not going to be one story that’s going to be enough to crack that ceiling, but it’s a crack, and one crack will build another crack, will build another crack, and eventually, will just have more of a nuanced dimensional, proper representation of my religion and culture on screen, hopefully.”
Dinner is Served
Directed by Hao Zheng, Written by G. Wilson & Hao Zheng
A Chinese student at an elite U.S. boarding school realizes excellence is not enough when he tries out for a leadership position that no international student has ever applied for.
“It’s pretty much based on my own experience when I first came to the States,” notes director Hao Zheng. “I was 15 back then. I went to a high school in New York, and I just felt like nobody knew me when I first landed. I really wanted to have people see me… that’s the story that I wanted to also share with ‘Dinner Is Served.’ How we embrace our own voice, even though it may be awkward, even though maybe nobody will understand.”
Written and Directed by Ann Marie Pace
Val Garcia, a Mexican-American teen who is half human/half vampire, has had to keep her identity a secret from both worlds. But when her human best friend shows up at her monster-infested school, she has to confront her truth, her identity, and herself.
The experience of being torn between two different worlds is not an alien one to the film’s director Ann Marie Pace, who acknowledges that in many ways her film is her own story.
“It’s something I grew up with, being Mexican-American and bisexual, and coming from these different identities and having my foot in either world, trying to figure out what that meant and what my identity was amongst that,” she says. “I think something I had to learn later in life was that being a part of multiple identities doesn’t make you any less of that identity, but it all compounds and makes you fully who you are. In the story, that’s what I wanted to discover.”
The Last of the Chupacabras
Written and Directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros
In a world where culture has nearly ceased to exist, one lone Mexican-American struggling to carry on her traditions unknowingly summons a dark and ancient creature to protect her.
For the director, the struggle to retain her culture is ongoing, and one that she hopes her work helps define.
“I think at a certain point, you just realize as a filmmaker that you have to get so incredibly specific about who you are,” she notes. “I think that’s the biggest gift that we can give through our storytelling… and for me, it gets to be this layered really political statement of where my style and influences come from matching with my heritage that I’ve never seen represented in those styles. It gets to be this really fun, lively challenge to the world.”
Let’s Be Tigers
Written and Directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz
Avalon’s not ready to process the loss of her mother, but when she’s put in charge of a 4-year-old for one night, she finds more comfort than she ever could have expected.
Director Horowitz’s 4-year-old nephew and other life events inspired her to create this film, which she calls “a big learning process… I’m so grateful to it.”
“I am the child of a therapist, and I’m very good at listening, but I’m a lot less good at sharing,” she admits. “I think that’s really what the film is about. It’s like a reminder to me and anyone else, that very brave act of sharing your sadness, or your pain, or your feelings of being unwanted or unloved or unheard, that is really something that creates community, that creates togetherness, that can remind you that you’re not alone in those difficult moments.”
The Little Prince(ss)
Written and Directed by Moxie Peng
When Gabriel, a 7-year-old Chinese kid who loves ballet, becomes friends with Rob, another Chinese kid from school, Rob’s dad gets suspicious about Gabriel’s feminine behavior and decides to intervene.
“The Little Princess is very dear to my heart,” says Moxie Peng, the director, “because it was based on my life experience growing up in China as a child. I was 5. I was like Gabriel. I was very into feminine stuff and into pink and princesses.”
In real life, as in the short film, a friend’s father is upset by the title character’s “feminine” behavior and tries to tell the family there is something wrong. And also in real life as in the film, the young boy’s father defends him and says he loves his son the way he is.
“I think that event really resonated with me,” Moxie Peng explains, “because it was the first time I really discovered that the world can be unfriendly. I also discovered that there will be people who will accept you for who you are. I think I carry that message with me and I felt like when I saw Launchpad, I really wanted to bring that to the story and to showcase that queer and trans kids are not alone. We always care. We are always having each other’s back.”
Each of the young directors who had the opportunity to participate in the first season of Launchpad remark how transformative the experience was and note that the short film format lends itself to telling these types of poignant, diverse stories.
“I think the short form format allows diverse filmmakers that haven’t gotten a chance to tell their stories to really express it in a shorter format,” Ann Marie Pace affirms. “I fully believe if you can tell a story in a short format you can tell a story in any format, because it’s about the connection of characters, it’s about the connection to the story. Giving that entry point to all filmmakers, not just the six of us, but everyone that’s going to come after us is really, really important.”
Speaking of those directors coming after these first six — submissions for Season Two of Disney’s “LAUNCHPAD,” based on the theme of “Connection,” will be accepted through June 11, 2021. The new season will not just be looking for directors or writer/directors, but also for those who are just writers trying to share their diverse stories. For more information, visit https://launchpad.disney.com/
All six of the Launchpad short films will begin streaming on Disney+ on May 28. Learn more about Disney’s Launchpad and the Season One filmmakers in this featurette:
Twitter: @LaunchpadShorts / @DisneyPlus
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