Whether gazing the moon and stars at Lac d’Annecy in France, waiting on Argentinian maté to steep in the U.K., sipping on Turkish coffee in Germany, or arriving in Austin for yet another speaking engagement at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Texas, you can count on Roy Wol to be traveling regularly.
A SXSW and CAAMFEST award-winning film producer and director with friends around the world, nomadic Roy Wol gives a glimpse of his Third Culture Kid (TCK) background and how it influences his work.
CULTURS – How did you discover you were a TCK?
WOL – I grew up in a home where I had to use words from three languages within one sentence in order to fully express myself. And even with that, I never felt like I was able to. Thanks to internet algorithms, I think some search engine A.I. bot realized I am a Third Culture Kid (TCK) before I knew I was one through my language patterns or something. It was late at night, at my [New York City] apartment (which I had only spent six months that year), I was going through one of my existential moments and at some point I got deep into a YouTube wormhole, listening or watching content about cross-culturalism.
I vaguely remember that I ended up coming across a video featuring some international person who had lived in several countries and whose family had high mobility. I vaguely remember this person mentioned this idea of TCK – it was a Eureka moment.
Through that, I ended up finding out about Ruth Van Reken’s Ted Talk which referred to the book about Third Culture Kids. I am not kidding, I felt like I found “Waldo” from “Where’s Waldo,” the perfect TCK character, by the way. This find came with an emotional Pandora’s box: a liberation of existential pain.
I grew up in a home where I had to use words from three languages within one sentence in order to fully express myself.
CULTURS – In which countries did you grow up in? Which ones impacted you the most?
WOL – I was born as an inter-sect Jew in Tel Aviv to non-Israeli parents, who happened to meet there as tourists. A first-generation Argentinian, my mother’s parents were from Slavic territories and from Turkey, dad’s parents were from Sephardic/Italian/Spanish descent. I grew up and lived in Turkey, Canada, USA, Argentina and shortly in Israel and Spain. Honestly, I think all those countries impacted me in many ways and to this day I cannot choose one over another.
It is complicated because growing up as a non-practicing Jew, the local communities always asked to keep quiet about our backgrounds. There was a complex culture of repression to the extent of cultural imposter syndrome; some people thought I was Armenian and some said that was better. A bubble of cross-cultural community in Turkey consisting of family/friends had the most influence on me while I went through my spiral vortex of multiple identities … daily.
Bottom line though: All of the countries mentioned above impacted me quite deeply and still to this day I am not able to choose one over another. Culturally, New York City feels the most home to me, because I’ve never been asked where I am from by New Yorkers and NYC is such a global bubble.
CULTURS – How did your identity as a TCK find its way into your work as a filmmaker?
WOL – I dabbled in the arts of acting for some time, playing a chameleon of identities. This gave me a great foundation of character for what was about to set up my writing, directing and producing journey. In my earlier writing experiences, I explored existentialism and the comedy of alienation. Nevertheless, I often found myself in bridging positions. Thus, I dedicated my work to bridging communities.
We often forget the strength that comes out of deliberate intersectionality. As a TCK, I am an intersectionality advocate in my work. Although I am not transgender, Muslim or American, I had the pleasure of making films about these communities. Why? Because I believe we are more alike than not. We are also very different in many ways, but the nuances of experiences we each hold can’t be boiled down to blanket categories.
As a TCK, I carry the burden of privilege of access to many communities because I am from so many. For me, making films is a way of getting to know myself. Additionally, I ran quad-lingual sets where I simultaneously spoke three to four languages. It is fun!
CULTURS – What are some common themes in your work that keep popping up? Why are they recurring themes?
WOL – Hands down the strongest theme that is popping up in my work is this idea of family, and relationships between loved ones or lack thereof. Others include bridging cultures, bridging conflicting communities, immigration, science and technology, one-ness and exploring outliers.
We often forget the strength that comes out of deliberate intersectionality.
First and foremost, everyone could relate to a family story so that’s a great entry point. But when it comes to deeper thematic explorations, the stories that I make or curate in this world are: glocality, generational and technological divides, humor and mindfulness, classism, racial and gender divides, interracial and intercultural relationships, acceptance, the power of otherness, astronomy and existence.
It’s hard to say why they are recurring. I wish they were not!
CULTURS – I understand that some of your recent successes are “Americanish” and “The Garden Left Behind.” What has that been like?
WOL – Life-changing. With “The Garden Left Behind,” we told a family drama about an undocumented Mexican trans woman which won at SXSW at its world premiere. The film not only got named as one of the top 40 best LGBTQ films of all times by Rotten Tomatoes editorial, certified fresh; it also provided jobs to 48 people from the trans community. I made so many friends through this film and the impact was both critical and personal.
With “Americanish,” we told the first American-Muslim romcom by diverse American-Muslim women. The film somehow reached several communities in the USA from the entire Asian-American audience circuit to African-American audiences. The film also created impact both behind and in front of the camera.
Hands down the strongest theme that is popping up in my work is this idea of family, and relationships between loved ones or lack thereof.
As a TCK, I am proud to say both of these feature fiction films were the first of their kinds and made history. With our production company Studio Autonomous, which has a global cross-cultural think tank, the first film gave us a good foundation on how to create award-worthy and impactful film. The second film allowed us to take everything we learned from the first and make it more accessible to larger audiences.
CULTURS – How did you start as a filmmaker? What made you want get into filmmaking?
WOL – I loved performance, so in my teenhood, writing/directing/acting in plays was the start. At the age of 16, I had the opportunity to intern at a 2D cartoon (cell) animation studio. That experience opened doors to the art of motion pictures. Then I interned in several feature film productions cleaning bathrooms and being yelled at. After studying in Canada, focusing on Dramatic Arts and Film Studies, I found myself interning in Lionsgate films in post-production. From then on, I quickly realized I wanted to start making films and began making short films.
I wanted to get into storytelling because stories influence people so deeply that without realizing, in the midst of entertainment, our worldviews change. And personally, I never saw someone like me (a TCK) on screen so I decided to become a storyteller to explore myself and others that might also feel unseen or unheard.
CULTURS – Looking back at some of the toughest times as a filmmaker, can you tell us about how you got through it?
WOL – Community of filmmakers, long time artistic partners, family, and friends. Those are the only people that can get you through this field. This is a profession of communication and reciprocity. So the best thing you can do is to find your community … soon. The challenge with us, the TCKs: Some of us don’t even know we are TCKs till mid-life (or worse, never). So you might have to ping-pong between many communities for a while till you maybe find your tribe … or tribes!
I wanted to get into storytelling because stories influence people so deeply that without realizing, in the midst of entertainment, our worldviews change.
One of the toughest times I had in my filmmaking was that I was working on this one film for about six to seven years. We finished the film and submitted it to the festivals to rejections. I was ready to throw in the towel in the entire industry.
Since I felt that this was maybe the end of the road for me, I said to my team that I’d be willing to trash 40% of what we shot/edited, re-write scenes and re-edit the film to make a better one. This was a crazy idea but we did it. The result was not only flipping the rejection by a festival to acceptance, but that we actually won there.
I got through this because of my support system – a strong team. I had others that believed in me so blindly as much as I believed in them. Don’t underestimate the power of belief; surround yourself with smart people that uplift you.
CULTURS – What have you learned as a filmmaker than you’d like to share with other filmmakers who find themselves working in cross-cultural spaces?
WOL – That cross-cultural stories, I believe, are the hardest stories that masses can relate to … for now. For instance, how many biracial stories can you name? Or how many TCK stories? The best example of cross-culturalism I see is in science fiction or fantasy fiction stories.
For nearly 100 years, the film industry has been a top-down experience. We were told what to watch, but as the media business expands beyond the art of film, the audiences have now become the artists. If the idea is to share art and explore themes, forms like film are simply a container to be expanded.
Cross-cultural story treatment, in my opinion, requires an inside-out and outside-in approach. Consider if cross-cultural stories require to be told in a certain format or not. Chances are, cross-culturally hungry audiences will seek out these stories beyond the form of film so I believe the best formats that could explore cross-culturalism is XR, VR and immersive storytelling formats. Instead of competing for story slots in pre-existing media, I suggest expanding the story market by creating stories in new media.
CULTURS – How do we follow your work? What upcoming projects or work do you have on the horizon?
WOL – Most of my films are available on streamers or on cable TV – some now traveling festivals. The best is to follow me and our company on socials. And for those TCKs that might want to reach out to me personally and get involved, please write to me. I want to help bring more TCK stories to life.
“Americanish” (2021), which Wol worked on as a producer, won Best U.S. Narrative Award at the Phoenix Film Festival (2022), and Best Narrative at the Beloit International Film Festival (2022) and DC Independent Film Festival (2022), among about 20 awards for the film.
“Garden Left Behind” (2019) won the SXSW Audience Award (2019) and Best Screenplay and Best Feature Film at the Sunscreen Film Festival (2019), among around 28 awards.
Follow Wol on his website www.roywol.com, Studio Autonomous at www.studioautonomous.com and on Instagram and Twitter at the following handles:
Twitter: @rgwol, @autonomouspix