Irene Cho was a fixture of the independent film scene for almost three decades, either promoting films, or filmmakers, from Asian American artists to indie filmmakers who had their first films in major film festivals and markets, to co-organizing the annual Sundance Asian American Filmmakers Experience, producing a forum to have insightful dialogue for Asian Americans to have a seat at the table.
She was always there, through thick and thin — She made her projects happen no matter what. From her work as co-founder of the non-profit Asian Professional Exchange (APEX), to working in PR for Dreamworks, to running the Sundance Film Festival press office, to her great podcast The Daily Buzz reporting from the ground at major festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, Toronto, LAFF, Busan, AFI, you name it. I had the great opportunity to assist her in interviewing filmmakers and industry insiders for the podcast a couple of years ago. It was recorded at a fast clip, usually the day after a filmmaker’s big premiere and also including roundtable discussions of the “daily buzz” about audience reactions and business dealings at these major film festivals.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Irene Cho could be a pain in the ass. I never met anyone who hustled so much, who made things happen with no money and by sheer will. She’d curry favors, knock on doors, cold call people to make things happen. She’d ask her friends to volunteer for her various projects and causes, and like me, I begrudgingly agreed to help her out with her podcast. I mean, I already had my own shit to do! But, when I did help, it was so fun, I learned so much and made human connections with filmmakers who are just trying to connect with other humans through their stories.
It was Irene that gave me the opportunity to meet the kids from a Paraguayan slum who played in the Landfill Harmonic, a children’s orchestra that played instruments constructed from garbage. They performed J. Pachabel’s ubiquitous “Canon in D” and my demeanor completely changed. It was an honor to spend time with these truly amazing kids (and their film with the same title had won the SXSW Audience Award that year).
I felt like a total jackass. My bad ‘tude washed away with Irene’s enthusiasm and gung-ho demeanor. She made shit happen by putting together a massive puzzle of interview segments and getting people to the show to be interviewed, navigating labyrinthine filmmaker schedules. She was whip smart, a great producer and always chipper even at the crack of dawn. She was doing this for the sole support of independent filmmakers, especially Asian American and other minority storytellers who were not getting the time of day from mainstream outlets. For her, it was a labor of love because her advocacy and universal support for indie filmmakers was unparalleled.
It was Irene’s chutzpah and empathy that was so impressive. I sometimes was weary of it, but it was infectious and she hustled, and hustled hard. I met so many amazing artists and industry insiders through her that she was a walking rolodex, knowing everyone in the business, AND I MEAN EVERYONE, and she greeted everyone with a big bear hug.
She was also a mother to young Ethan, who was born out of extraordinary circumstances, when doctors said she was unable to bear children after miraculously surviving a near-fatal brain disease. This new lease in life perhaps gave her the personality and light that immediately made her connect with anyone she met. She carved out a life of arts advocacy and usually at her own expense.
Maybe she was too addicted to the film festival adrenaline, trying to discover the next big talent. I am sure FOMO was a factor, but her pro bono advocacy to promote these emerging voices is incomparable. Perhaps it was this “second chance” that made her do all the things she wanted to do and it was to support other people.
Sadly, we lost Irene today, as she succumbed from a massive stroke. Her family made the hard decision to take her off life support. We lost a great friend, a producer, an arts champion, a film lover, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife. She was too young to leave our plane of existence.
I will miss you, dear Irene. I will miss your raspy voice, your hearty laugh and your twinkling eyes whenever you met someone who was totally badass in what they do. I will miss your amazing ability to easily connect with people within one minute of meeting them for the first time. She was the ultimate fangirl but she turned that fandom into tangible work in promoting indie film artists. It was something that she truly loved and it showed.
Rest in Paradise, Irene. Whenever “Canon in D” plays, I’ll think of you.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise funds for Irene’s funeral and burial services.
For Los Angeles based friends of Irene, Visual Communications will organize ‘A Celebration of Irene Cho’s Life’ on Saturday, August 26 from 2-4pm. If you were a friend of Irene, come join us for a down home “potluck,”Asian style, and share stories about this truly amazing woman.