Sylvia Wong Lewis had always been a story teller, but her first foray into filmmaking was several years ago, when she received a phone call from a stranger asking her a simple question: “Who am I?”
“This young lady contacted me and said, ‘Hello, I’m your niece,’” Lewis recalls. “So I said, ‘Where have you been all these years?’ And she says, “I’ve been in foster care. Can you tell me who I am?’”
The answer came out in a 5-minute short film Lewis titled “From Shanghai to Harlem” — I could recount it here, but instead, take the five minutes to watch the film; it’s incredible. Her niece’s call also got her thinking about connection, and aunts, and women, and visual media — after a long career in journalism and communications (she’s 69 but you can’t tell by looking at her).
As an outlet for all those ideas, she first created Auntyland — a digital platform to celebrate women and girls and all the work they do to hold families together. And during the pandemic, the Auntyland Film Festival was born.
“I’m totally interested in stories that come at the intersection of identity and gender and age,” Lewis said. Her first thought was to start a magazine for women over 50, but then she realized that so many of these stories are intergenerational. “Fast forward now and we are in quarantine and I had this platform that’s all about aunts. I’ve always been a film buff, so it’s like one of those things that you always wanted to do, but you just never got a chance. Now I am doing it.”
So to back up a little: Lewis worked as journalist for 30 years — contributing to the Boston Globe, the Oakland Tribune, BBC Radio — and in the ’90s, pre-internet, she started a paper called the Caribbean American here in the city. (While running that, she met her husband, Byron Lewis, and moved to Tribeca.) She would go on to be the corporate communications director for the MTA for 14 years, retiring in 2010 — somewhat.
“When you’re a journalist you never really retire,” she says. “We are just addicted to the story — stories just kind of drive us and inspire us.”
She sees being a filmmaker as kind of an extension of being a journalist. Add that to her passion, genealogy, and the result is her original film for her niece and now the film festival. “Films are the most viable because we live in this digital era. It’s a wonderful way to share more stories.”
The film festival launched last week, and submissions will be accepted until Jan. 30, 2022. The festival itself will be online in March, tagged to Women’s History Month next March and International Women’s Day on March 8. They are seeking short films about any topic, not just aunties but also family, politics, sports, food, cooking, gardens, home, pets/animals, climate change, sustainability, LGBTQ themes, ‘Only in New York’ — anything that celebrates the “bold realness” that aunties bring. See more information here.
“The pandemic kept us locked up in our homes but also made us wake up to what’s going on around us,” Lewis said. “Stories bring people together, make us more connected to each other and and understand each other. It’s kind of a pie in the sky view, but that’s where I am going with this.”