Eye On 'Cuse: Kaitlyn Philavanh

By Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

Filming Cultures and Conflicts

 
 
Kaitlyn Philavanh, or Kai, is a sophomore film student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at SU. Photo by  Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

Kaitlyn Philavanh, or Kai, is a sophomore film student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at SU. Photo by Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

Kaitlyn Philavanh, or Kai, is a sophomore film student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at SU. Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, she has an avid passion for filmmaking and storytelling, looking at the world through a humanitarian lens and exploring narratives around conflicts, relationships, war, identity, race and sexuality.

In her first semester at SU, Philavanh decided to transfer from international relations to the film program in the College of VPA, a decision that became gratifying and beneficial. 

Philavanh snaps some shots of the spring bloom on the quad at syracuse university. Photo by  Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

Philavanh snaps some shots of the spring bloom on the quad at syracuse university. Photo by Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

“I really thrive in this program,” she said. “I feel the most myself, and I feel the most interested in what I’m doing right now.” Philavanh knows that film captivates her minds and it truly shows when she talks about her passion for it. “I don’t think I would be able to be in school if it wasn’t for being in film.”

Even though Philavanh started out with photography, she found her true passion in filmmaking.

“When it comes to filmmaking, it’s a completely different process because you have more elements of storytelling, which I really like,” she said. "There’s a whole entire different side, like a humanitarian aspect to it.” She finds that the act of being on set and creating films energizes and fulfills her creative appetite.

Philavanh’s upbringing and family background have also shaped her interests in film. Her mother was born in South Korea and adopted by a white couple from Iowa when she was only six.

“My mom, because she [was] adopted, she lost a big part of her culture,” she said. “So she’s always trying to learn about her culture ... to help our family learn different things about where she is from.”

Her father comes from a mixed background of Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese. He was a refugee of the Vietnam War, passing undetected across the border with his parents to Thailand. They later came to Iowa where they found a program for Vietnamese refugees. 

As important as Philavanh’s upbringing is to her filmmaking, it is her intrinsic care about and fascination with people that help her be so much more creative. 

Currently, Philavanh has been focusing on narratives about the emotions, complications and intricacies of human relationships and sexuality. 

“I’ve been working on my freshman final film. It’s about a relationship that ended, but the voice going back and looking at the memories I had with this girl.” She explained that capturing and retelling old memories of friends and family is an inspiration for her films and photography. She’s also interested in making a documentary on her dad and his family and bringing life to their narrative. 

With a love for creating and storytelling, Philavanh wants to travel to places like Iceland, South Africa and other Southeastern Asian countries. She aspires to create a film project that focuses on the refugee crisis and poverty rates in the region and also wants to pursue a documentary on South Korea, where her mom is from.

“Korea is very interesting; like as a society, it’s very competitive. It’d be really cool to do a documentary on that,” she said. 

Beyond filmmaking, Philavanh is also considering a degree in law, giving her insight into the international political and legal environment and the ability to protect herself and her rights while working abroad.

“It would be really cool to have a law degree, in case I do international work,” she said, “So I know my rights … and I know how to protect myself in a political, judicial kind of setting.”

She sees herself owning her own international production company, focusing on telling stories about places of conflicts, which she realizes could also require a business degree.

A sophomore film student from Fort Collins, Colorado, Philavahn lounges on a bench in front of H.B. Crouse. Photo by  Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

A sophomore film student from Fort Collins, Colorado, Philavahn lounges on a bench in front of H.B. Crouse. Photo by Marijke Pieters-Kwiers

Moved and fascinated by the untold narratives that lie within conflict zones, she knows it’s a very dangerous job physically and emotionally. “I thought about being a war documentarian, which is a bit nerve-wracking for me because I know that’s like a very dangerous situation,” she said. She knows that training for a persevering mindset and a separation of emotions and reality would be essential to coping with the humanitarian work and filmmaking she wants to pursue.

As the semester comes to an end, Philavanh is confident about her transfer to VPA. She feels that this year at SU has introduced her to a plethora of crucial skills and tools for filmmaking. Even though her year has also consisted of some challenging transitions like leaving home and switching majors, she feels that it has guided her on the path she wants to pursue and the person she wants to become in the future.

“I think I’m becoming a more confident and stronger person in terms of implementing my own ideas,” she said. “I’m really proud of myself because I feel like I’m actually advocating for myself and my art.”


A picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s one of the many reasons photography sophomore Marijke Pieters-Kwiers fell in love with the medium of photography. Each week in Eye on ’Cuse, she will use visual narratives creatively to voice the stories and identities of students on campus.