A New Angle: Aaron Christian gives a voice to South Asian culture through his podcast and films

The filmmaker and co-founder of the What is this behaviour? podcast discusses how he uses his experience behind the camera, and his newfound skill behind the mic, to champion “stories that don’t usually get heard”.

23 March 2021

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week we hear from Aaron Christian, a filmmaker and podcaster whose winding career path has seen him use various outlets to platform voices and cultures largely unseen in mainstream media. Here, he shares how he and his brother set out to be the “male versions of Trinny and Susannah”, leading to the foundation of their creative collective, Individualism. Then, for four years Aaron was director of the Mr Porter film department, working at the cutting edge of men’s fashion with world-leading creatives, before he set out on his own with AC Studios. Through his films and new podcast, Aaron aims to “shape the dialogue rather that it being created for us”.

It’s Nice That: What is your mission, and what about the creative industry are you hoping to change?

Aaron Christian: It’s taken me a while to really land on what I would call my mission. However, the pandemic did afford me the extra time to spend reflecting and figuring out what I wanted my impact to be, both in front of and behind the camera. My work across all mediums has always focused on the connection between what’s happening in culture, fashion and the design world, and I’ve always been drawn to work that allows me to uncover and celebrate underrepresented people and places. What I eventually landed on was this: I want to champion people whose stories don’t usually get heard and work towards levelling the playing field.

INT: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to this point.

AC: My parents moved here from Malaysia in the 80s. I was born in Limehouse and was raised in Newham, one of London’s most diverse boroughs, which meant I was constantly exposed to a wide variety of cultures. That still positively shapes the way I navigate the world.

After graduating with a degree in Film and Media and Cultural Studies from Kingston University, I was a little unsure of what I wanted to do, like most students. My second passion was fashion. Not having the confidence to work within film I decided to work with my brother, who was freelance styling at the time. We had a great / terrible idea to brand ourselves as the male versions of Trinny and Susannah and create the UK’s first men’s only style consultancy. We named it Individualism. It was during those earlier years that I began to understand the power of creating a brand and building a story behind it. We quickly pivoted from a style consultancy to a creative collective and that allowed us to build a huge following and community, mainly around POCs like us – those people who loved fashion but couldn’t find their way into the industry. Within four years, we grew the team to 10 members, created a shopping app, put on regular sponsored style parties and collaborated on menswear product. It was truly the most creative and experimental time of my career, all run off passion and £0 budget.

As the site’s popularity grew, I was hired by Mr Porter in its launch year to helm the site’s first film department. I was probably the least experienced person up for the role, but I had a huge amount of passion for digital content and my experience growing Individualism really helped. During my four years there, I helped shape the video content for the brand’s social media, editorial and marketing channels, helping to establish it as one of the world’s leading creators of men’s fashion film. This was pretty much a dream role and allowed me to work with some of the leading creatives within men’s fashion.

It was a gift to be able to connect and build my network during those years; however, as a filmmaker I felt I’d grown as much as possible and I was keen to explore new projects. I left in 2014 to go freelance. This allowed me to work on projects that I felt really connected to. I then directed and produced a few short films that did really well: London Locks, The Life of Pitti Peacocks and The Internship. It was at this time that I also set up The Asian Man, a digital community that celebrates stylish South Asian men. That was born out of my frustration of not seeing enough South Asian men on the catwalks of the shows during my fashion week trips with Mr Porter.

In 2019, I decided to create AC Studios, a London-based moving image content agency focused on fashion, design and culture. I’d taken some time to figure out what motivated me to create film. I wanted to create work that really connected to my personal why, while at the same time exploited the skills I had picked up from my career journey, the ability to code switch and occupy the independent and commercial spaces.

Finally in 2020, during the first UK lockdown, I co-founded a podcast titled What is this behaviour?, which highlights South Asians breaking cultural stereotypes and pursuing non-stereotypical career paths. This was in reaction to seeing the South Asian community slowly having stronger representation within media and wanting to actually shape the dialogue rather that it being created for us.

INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing, and why?

AC: Right now it’s mainly being able to get representation within positions that are just camera facing. As a filmmaker I know how important the roles behind camera are. Often those are the people actually crafting the stories, and we’re not getting seats at those tables quickly enough. I honestly don’t have a specific answer as to why it’s taking so long. It may be a combination of many things, like all complex problems are. The reluctance of those in powerful positions, the fear of the status quo being shifted. Sometimes lack of key people in places to actually show what else is out there. The less diversity of thinking we have in key senior positions the more blind spots we have. It’s why I feel it’s so important that at any stage of your career you should be dropping down the ladder and bringing people through and connecting us all. At the end of the day, for me the biggest driver to level these playing fields is simply because I know we will get better and more varied work and stories. We will all benefit; simply put, creativity benefits.

INT: How are you approaching these challenges?

AC: I try to use the skills I’ve acquired to make the most impact. I feel that’s the best use of my talents, rather than spread myself thin. So I’ve been making films that highlight this. The Internship being one which covers race, class and privilege within the creative industries.

My personality has always been hopeful. I’m always curious about people and their varied experiences, and that is reflected in the topics we cover on the podcast. Rather than focus on what’s wrong, it celebrates what we could achieve. The podcast tries to reimagine what South Asians can be. The aim is to break old tired stereotypes.

Just on a very personal level, I’m always working to connect people with one another. It’s something that has always provided me with joy, it’s a very small habit but it can and has had huge positive ripples. I’d often wake up and randomly do email intros to people who I would think would really benefit from knowing each other, usually younger people to older creatives. I also feel it’s something we can all do with little effort.

INT: How can the creative industry help your mission?

AC: I think it’s heading in the right direction now. But I think a big benefit would be to ask yourself when you’re working on a project: “Am I the best person to be telling this story?” If not, who could you collaborate with who would be in a better position to do so? It’s something I’m trying to think about more and more with my film projects.

And listen to our podcast 🙂 Although it focuses on South Asians I feel it’s probably even more important that non-South Asians listen, because these are the conversations they don’t normally get to hear as it can be difficult for us to speak about. So there’s a huge amount of value in that. You’re getting to hear our stories in a space we feel is safe.

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.

Jenny is currently on maternity leave.

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