Aimee Long is not afraid to take on difficult topics. In her first feature-length film, “A Shot through the Wall,” Long confronts systemic racism through the story of an Asian American police officer accidentally killing an unarmed Black man. Inspired by an actual incident that occurred in Brooklyn, New York in 2014, the film is gripping and haunting. Long’s nuanced filmmaking brings into focus the tragic, lived consequences of fear and bias. Additionally, the audience walks away with a clearer understanding of what it means to be in the court of public opinion while also trying to navigate a judicial system that has its own definition of the truth.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Long to talk about her personal story, her film, and the wider issues it represents for our society.
Artistic Fuel: When did you realize you wanted to be a director?
Long: So, I’m Chinese, and while I was growing up, I didn’t think that film or anything related to film was an option. My whole family are hardware engineers. We’re from the Silicon Valley. I could be an engineer, accountant, lawyer -that’s already a stretch- or some sort of doctor. My grandmother’s a doctor, so, so she really, really, really wanted me to be a doctor. I thought I was relatively good at math. So, I went into math. I grew up in a lot of different places and I found that math is somewhat universal in terms of language.
I studied math in college. My concentration was in algorithms. And then I went into finance a little bit. When all of the vanity died off after a few weeks, I realized this was really not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I signed up for a film class at Columbia in New York City.
Artistic Fuel: Were you always interested in film? What made you go to film?
Long: I love cameras. I really loved photography growing up. We’re talking about actual film and developing. My grandpa had a dark room at his house. And there was always something really magical about it when the image suddenly appears, then you get to manipulate the image a little bit. I fell in love with that.
In my class at Columbia, we were given cameras, told to write a story, and then we went to film it. They taught us the basics. I directed this short, pretty simple film. To do it, I had to close down a street at 4:00 in the morning. This just fueled me.
I didn’t know I could feel this way. I never felt that way about anything. In addition, the story I was telling, it felt somewhat therapeutic to tell it. The whole experience just felt so good and made me realize this could be a real option. I went to UCLA for film school. And there, I learned a lot in terms of the film business and how to tell a story.
Artistic Fuel: Can you tell me why you went to film school as opposed to trying to jump into the business?
Long: Well, I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t have a platform. I didn’t know where to start. And then schooling was the only way I knew how to start anything. I think that gave me somewhat of a platform and some connections.
Filmmaking is a very hands-on thing. I learned so much more on set than in the school setting, but I met a lot of really great people. I met my producer there as well as a core group of people who have been really supportive along the way. Forming that community is really important and I benefit immensely from the community that I have.
Artistic Fuel: Can you talk a little more about that?
Long: Being an artist, being a filmmaker, it can be a very lonely profession. The film, the medium is such a collaborative art, but forming an idea from a blank page – I think that’s very isolating. And also, sometimes you lose perspective. That applies to a lot of different art. So, to have people to bounce ideas off of, or to have a community where you have to finish a draft and have someone read it and give you notes, I think that’s really beneficial. Also in post productions, I think you can lose perspective then.
It’s really beneficial to have someone with fresh eyes, someone that would spend the time, watch your stuff and give notes.
Artistic Fuel: Good critique has value.
Long: Sometimes, something comes through and sometimes it doesn’t. We make films for an audience. None of us make films wanting them to sit on a shelf somewhere. It’s important to have feedback and get support.
Also, it can be a lonely business. It’s a long journey. People always tell me you gotta be patient but I didn’t realize that fully. I mean, it took me almost 10 years to get my first feature. The media likes these overnight success stories. But really, it’s a lot of years of hard work and persistence and patience to get there. I’m not there yet.
Artistic Fuel: Is this the advice you would share with a new filmmaker?
Long: Yes. Practice patience. That, and to trust your instincts. There were many times that I was second-guessing myself. I don’t know if that is because I am a female filmmaker or maybe being a minority had something to do with it. But, I would urge young filmmakers to trust themselves and it will work out.
Artistic Fuel: You choose difficult topics. The stories are complex and challenging.
Long: I picked subjects that felt worth my time because you have to really fight for your projects. You have to stand behind it for a number of years. And I like topics that are harder for people to address or deal with. That (difficult topics) would impact the nature of the audience, the size of it, where it’s going to go for distribution. All of those things go into film outcomes.
After starts and stops with some other projects, Long learned of a news story in Brooklyn. An Asian-American police officer accidentally shot a Black man. The situation sparked multiple protests that also included the Asian-American community. Many believed this officer was now being scapegoated. Long witnessed a heated debate at her own family dinner table and decided this was a story she wanted to tell.
Long: I thought the fact that so many Asian-Americans came out to protest was really interesting. We have traditionally been taught to keep our voices down, to not go out and voice opinions. I never went to a protest when I was little.
However, this is systemic racism, and it’s such a huge, complex problem. As a filmmaker, I do not have the answer to how to solve that. But I wanted to start a conversation, and I did not want to oversimplify it. I wanted to show its complexity. So I wrote a fictional story where I could address all of these different aspects.
Artistic Fuel: What do you hope the response will be to the film?
Long: I hope that people come out of my film and want to start a conversation. When this incident occurred in 2014, the Black Lives Matter Movement was getting started but had not fully taken off. When I began writing the film, it had started to die down and people told me that by the time the movie came out, it would not be relevant anymore.
Artistic Fuel: The opposite has happened. We saw the most forceful BLM protests in 2020 and now there is a rise in Asian hate crimes as well.
Long: I know, right. But that’s, that’s terrible too. I really wanted this situation to not be relevant anymore. I wished it was yesterday’s problem. And there was something we look back on. It’s something we have to look at ourselves now and face, ‘Oh my God, this just keeps happening.’
During the pandemic I moved home for a little bit to the Bay area. Right now, a lot of my friends in New York, they are genuinely afraid to go on subways because there are so many people my age getting pushed into the subway tracks.
Artistic Fuel: What do you think about the relationship between these subway incidences and the racism experienced by the Black community?
While I was doing the research for “A Shot Through the Wall,” several of my Black friends described how scared they are during a traffic stop. I have never experienced being afraid for my life during a traffic stop. We all have a different set of experiences. This recent rise in Asian hate crimes has been a small glimpse of what they have endured. I just felt horrible about it. I have my own experiences of racism, but it was different.
Artistic Fuel: With “A Shot Through the Wall,” did you find that viewers embraced the complexity of the film or did you run into people who felt like there is a clear-cut side to this that you missed or ignored?
Long: I have had both responses. The most frustrating part for me is when the comments are coming from people who have not seen the film. They have watched the trailer online and draw conclusions from the trailer. I understand where they are coming from, but I would urge them to watch the film. I am very much on the side of Black Lives Matter and believe there is a systemic problem. Police are using excessive force and it’s outrageous. But I do not want to oversimplify it. I do not want to claim an answer. I want to start the conversation and really understand the problem.
Artistic Fuel: It is an uncomfortable conversation for many people, but we cannot move forward if we do not acknowledge reality.
Long: Yes, it definitely makes people feel uncomfortable. They are not just uncomfortable about race but also about privilege. I have a set of privileges over other people and that has to be talked about too.
Artistic Fuel: Do you ever wish you took on some less difficult subjects?
Long: I think we have to have passion for the project. As filmmakers, we believe in these projects. The passion seeps through with our presentations or with the way we talk about these films. We devote our time to it, and the project gives us meaning for that time. That’s the way I look at it. There are responsibilities to be met for the film business that can conflict, but mostly, I want to make sure that the project is authentic.
Artistic Fuel: What is your biggest hope for “A Shot through the Wall”?
Long: I would love for people to watch my film and and judge the film as it is. I really welcome those conversations. I miss the in-person festivals so that I can really sit and have discussions with people about what they thought.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.