Culture, Film, Lifestyle

Former Fullerton College student Jessica Q. Chen talks surfing, navigating the journalism industry, and her first feature film

Jessica Chen is a former Fullerton College student and Los Angeles Times video journalist. Chen has co-directed “Surf Nation” (2022) with Jeremiah M. Bogert, Jr.

Jessica Q. Chen didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. She got her bachelor’s degree in biology at UC Irvine but then didn’t know what to do with her life. So, she came to Fullerton College to take some journalism classes. As a staffer on The Torch (the former name of Inside Fullerton magazine), she wrote an article about documentary films. That was in 2007.

Now, 15 years later, Chen is a video journalist for the Los Angeles Times and has produced films for National Geographic. In 2022, she released her first feature-length film. 

For Chen, film requires a journalistic mindset: “Being a journalist really helps my work as a filmmaker because I’m curious and want to dig into people’s lives.” 

Chen’s documentary, “Surf Nation,” was screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival in October 2022. In the film, children as young as 9 left their families to become paid surfers for the Chinese National Surf team. “Surf Nation” highlights the importance of inspiring others who want to do something different, figure out their own path, and challenge the status quo. Telling these stories inspires Chen to give the audience that human element that connects all of us and continues to strive for that emotion through her work.

Lolo from Surf Nation (2022) did not want a traditional life that set out for a Chinese Woman. Lolo would instead dedicate her time to surfing as a distraction from her home life.

Chen completed her journalism degree at Northwestern University in 2011. During her time studying there, a colleague was shooting on Canon DSLRs. Chen remembers thinking about how cinematic and beautiful the shots were. Immediately, she was inspired and curious about how she can create her own.

The content that the advertising and marketing company Media Storm created was another inspiration that Chen had as she was beginning to explore her options in the film industry. Chen was interested in journalism, but she liked the idea of telling stories visually, using the tools of filmmaking. 

Although the film industry is more diverse now compared to a decade ago, there is still a long way to go. Being not only a woman but a woman of color in the industry, Chen still encounters barriers. Without having many women of color represented in the media world it is easy to second yourself and your work. Chen would often feel like she would need to prove herself in the film industry.

“I’m still learning how to find my voice in this industry,” says Chen.

Surf Nation (2022) features Alex as he surfs through the waves. Alex is a Chinese national surfer and always dreamt of becoming a top surfer despite his rebellious nature.

So much of filmmaking requires collaboration and working with other personalities, and it can be more difficult to develop your voice as a female director. Still today in the film industry, there are a lot fewer female film directors to look up to; therefore “Surf Nation” is more unique.  

Chen says that your best stories will come out of your personal experience. You get more responses and people are a lot more open to you when you have a shared experience. Audiences also appreciate that level of authenticity. It’s really important to know what makes you different, Chen says, and that can be your “superpower” in filmmaking. 

While shooting “Surf Nation,” Chen was able to communicate in Mandarin with the subjects of her film. Having a lot of respect and taking your time with your subjects was essential while shooting in China, she says. Although she relied on her background to help her find and tell the story, she and her team wanted to tell a story through an observational documentary without inserting themselves into it.

Chen’s advice to start a film can be as simple as just setting up interviews, writing down a set of questions, and going through and finding archival videos in your own family videos. Curiosity helped Chen become more open to the film industry: “Most people have a story to tell already, but you just have to start.” Although the film industry can be hard to break into, Chen says there are many people who are very generous and willing to help you get your film started as long as you are being your authentic self.

“Just pick up a camera and start shooting,” says Chen.