Jess dela Merced’s love of films came from her father.
“We watched [movies] all the time together,” she told NBC News. “I was really affected by one James Dean movie called ‘East of Eden,’ directed by Elia Kazan. I just really fell in love with that.”
Dela Merced, 30, grew up in South San Francisco in a Filipino household. Her dad was the film buff in the family and shared that passion with his youngest daughter.
It was the impetus to the path she’s on now as a filmmaker. But when she decided back then that she wanted to pursue filmmaking, her father didn’t approve.
“I remember him pointing out the lack of Asians behind and in front of the camera,” dela Merced said. “It's something that I couldn't argue with.”
With one sister a doctor and the other a lawyer, pursuing filmmaking was already a rebellious act. Add to that the fact that 93 percent of 2015’s top-grossing directors were men, according to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication.
But it didn’t stop dela Merced from pursuing filmmaking. In fact, the lack of diversity motivates her. And it’s paying off.
Last year, she was named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine. The graduate of New York University’s Tisch School graduate program received the 2012 Spike Lee Fellowship and the Lorraine Hansberry Arts, Performance, and Media Award.
Her short film “Hypebeasts,” made under the guidance of Spike Lee, was picked up by PBS last year and released online in December as part of KQED’s “Film School Shorts” series.
But she’s aware of how high the obstacles are for her in this field. It’s a lesson she had to learn over time.
“If I think about it hard enough, I've been pretty naive,” she said. “In college and in film school, I've always been supported for my voice and I've never felt that I was being discriminated against. But it's different now.”
She’s working on her first feature-length film called “Chickenshit,” the screenplay of which landed on NYU’s Purple List. It’s a youth adventure film about a girl and her quest to save the city of Detroit. It’s a film four years in the making, a frustrating length of time for her, that’s made her question whether things would have been easier if she wasn’t such an outsider.
“Now I just realize I have to work that much harder, but that in no way influences the stories that I want to tell or how I want to tell them,” she said.
“Chickenshit” is dela Merced’s first foray outside of Asian-American storytelling. Her other short films dealt directly with experiences she’s had as a young Filipino woman. In “Bleached,” she tells the story of a young girl who loses her identity after trying to lighten her skin. In “Hypebeasts,” she tells a story about sneakerheads and the racism Asians face from other people of color.
“I think the demand for Asian-American content is rising,” dela Merced said. “I think this is the greatest time to be making content so I'm going to ride that wave as long as I can.”
In fact, she’s working on a buddy comedy with comedian Sherry Cola featuring two Asian female leads that she plans on finishing after “Chickenshit” next year.
As an Asian woman in Hollywood telling stories from underrepresented communities — she knows it’s an uphill battle. But in the current political climate, dela Merced feels a sense of urgency to tell these stories.
“Right after the election, I felt really dejected and I’m sure a lot of artists felt that way,” she said. “But after that, I felt more galvanized. I should be telling my own stories because who else will? Now more than ever, people of color should be telling their stories because it’s an act of resistance and defiance in today’s world.”
Whether or not her stories have blatant themes of social justice running through them, she recognizes the importance of just continuing the work as an Asian female filmmaker.
“If it continues this way [with the lack of Asians in Hollywood], someone else just like me will have their dad say the same exact things that my dad said to me that could completely deter that person from pursuing their dreams,” she said. “It’s important that I strive to change that in the small way I can.”