Associate Professor of Visual Anthropology Lends Cultural Expertise to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’
April 14, 2021

Steve Arounsack always has understood the power of visual storytelling, whether as a high school student carrying around an early-model VHS recorder, as a scholar founding Stanislaus State’s Keck Visual Anthropology Lab to teach his students to preserve the memories and cultures of the Central Valley’s immigrants, or as a filmmaker creating his own acclaimed PBS-screened documentaries, “Next Gen Asian American Art” or “Getting Lao’d: The Rise of Modern Lao Music and Films.”

Arounsack has expanded that valentine to his homeland on an international level, serving as a visual anthropologist for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ newest feature-length animated film, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Set in the fictional land of Kumandra, it’s their first film inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, and Raya is the first heroine from that region.

“My daughter and the kids from the region now have a hero that looks like them,” Arounsack said. “That's incredibly powerful.

“I’m getting messages from all over the world, especially from young people. Those messages really resonate with me, because we can’t let the past swallow the future. We can create worlds like Kumandra, and show them they are seen and that they are validated.”

Southeast Asia, and Laos in particular, Arounsack learned, is about more than the war that ravaged that region in the 1960s and ’70s. His family fled Laos when he was 4, lived on Maui where they had a sponsor family, then settled in the Central Valley in 1986.

A family visit to Laos when he was 17 changed Arounsack’s life. He understood how fortunate he was that his family escaped, but the trip gave him an appreciation of his ancestral roots.

He’s shared those insights with students, taught them to explore their own cultural identities through video productions, and now, has used his passion to help create a new heroine, one whose adventures are universal but could have special meaning to children of Southeast Asian descent.

“It teaches us that it’s not about being perfect,” Arounsack said. “It’s allowing yourself to experience the full complex arc of what a hero is. You can be angry, you can be upset, but you can also be hopeful, you can also be brave and the message here is you don’t need to be ready to do anything. You just need to be brave enough to do it, and I hope that the film imparts that knowledge to the beautiful children of Southeast Asia.”

Arounsack’s work on the film, which he did while continuing to inspire and teach Stan State students in his visual cultural anthropology courses and others, took about two years.

He joined the directors and the visual development leadership team on a trip to Laos, and he points to a journey down the Mekong River as a turning point. It was there, he said, the sense of team developed.

“We really began to solidify our relationship and start to build on this idea of trust during that trip,” he said.

The group, which compromised members that would become the Southeast Asia Story Trust, spent time during that trip working with experts: an archaeologist from Cambodia, a linguist from Indonesia, dancers and musicians from Bali.

“They are scholars and community leaders who not only study this for a living, they live it,” Arounsack said. “That’s what made it, I think, a much more vibrant experience, because we got to speak from a place you could never access just from reading it from a book.

“Going forward, I hope the world really begins to see the type of small details that we live with, on a day-to-day basis that would maybe take an outside advisor a much longer time to capture or encapsulate. The idea of representation from the ground level is something that I find extremely valuable.”

It’s a tool he uses in his classroom, where he starts by creating a safe space for students to share their stories. Only when they are comfortable doing that, understanding their own starting point, he said, can they venture out into their broader families and communities to fully understand their culture.

“Once we create that culture of trust and that it's OK to be vulnerable, then we can elicit the same type of honest responses from the community,” Arounsack said. “We have to offer them trust before we expect them to offer up their wonderful, traditional knowledge. When we genuinely connect with other cultures, we create a stronger overall community.”