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CGA senior wins $1,000 scholarship for documentary about microplastics

Tom Coyne
Asiana Spaw '24 at the Gene Siskel Film Center after picking up her prizes from the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest. (Photo by Shawn Spaw)

Sept. 22, 2023

Culver Girls Academy senior Asiana Spaw won a $1,000 scholarship in the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest for a four-minute documentary she made about pollution in Lake Michigan called: “Microplastics: Not a Small Problem.”

Spaw was awarded the university level prize, which also included a matching gift of $1,000 for Spaw to donate to the charity of her choice. She chose the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Spaw picked up the award on Sunday during a ceremony in downtown Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which is named for the 1963 Culver Military Academy graduate who was one of the 20th century’s most influential film critics. He became famous for arguing about films on a TV show with Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times where they gave their signature thumbs up or down for movies. The event also included a breakfast and a workshop for the young filmmakers hosted by the Chicago Media Project.

Siskel surely would have given a thumbs up for Spaw’s documentary that uses film she shot and paintings by Frank V. Dudley to describe the problem of microplastics in Lake Michigan, which is about 12 miles from her home in Valparaiso, Indiana. Her film can be seen here.


Asiana Spaw '24 with her One Earth Young Filmmakers award in front of a photograph of noted film critics Gene Siskel '63 (left) and Roger Ebert. (Photo by Nares Spaw)


Spaw said she plans to major in film in college, so over the summer she was looking for filmmaking contests and film festivals she could enter. She decided to enter the One Earth contest because it showcases thought-provoking environmental films.

Spaw said she had less than a week in June to make the film, so she decided to create a documentary instead of a narrative film. She said she chose Lake Michigan because it was nearby, and because she remembered taking a photo several years earlier of the beach and zooming in and seeing trash on the ground.

“That stuck out to me, so I started researching it,” she said.

She said that when most people think about the problems of plastic pollution in waterways, they envision floating islands of trash in the ocean. But she said because lakes are more contained, plastics break down into microplastics. She said microplastics also come from cheap fabrics and landfill leaching.

Because she couldn’t film microplastics, she decided to compare the landscapes of the Indiana Dunes painted by Dudley, who died in 1957, with footage of what the often-polluted shoreline looks like today.

“It’s strange to think about the contrast between those landscapes and how pristine they look versus now where there's trash everywhere and so much human impact,” Spaw said.


Asiana Spaw '24 made an award-winning documentary about pollution in Lake Michigan called: "Microplastics: Not a Small Problem.".

She made two other films this summer on her own and also made some films while taking an online course through New York University where she made one film and several collaborative “miniprojects.”

A music video she made for the song “Prom Dress” by mxmtoon was accepted into the All-American High School Film Festival. A narrative film called “Glow Up,” in which Spaw plays a girl trying to improve her physical appearance to meet first Eastern and then Western beauty standards, was accepted into the ConnectHER Film Festival online gallery, an annual showcase of original short films by high school and college students.

Spaw said that growing up mixed race with an American father and a mother from Thailand while living in a predominantly white area left her feeling “separated from people.”

“In the media, I didn’t see anybody with a similar background to me,” she said. “So I’ve always had this goal to try and bring more representation in media, which is definitely improving the past few years, but obviously still needs a lot of work.”

Asiana Spaw '24 on the red carpet at a ceremony for the One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest winners. (Photo by Nares Spaw)

Spaw said she’s made documentaries before for classes at Culver, but usually she makes narrative films.

Spaw did some technical work last year on Culver Theatre’s production of “She Kills Monsters.”  She also was a member of Culver’s state championship speech team last year. This year she is co-chair of CGA’s communications committee, where she has arranged for in-depth training on Adobe Premiere and Vidigami.

Spaw said she’s not sure what path she’ll follow in pursuing a career in films. She said she’s most interested in working in areas where she can use her technical skills.

“I know I love editing. But I know there are so many jobs on a film set that I haven’t had the opportunity to try,” she said.

Spaw said she’s always had a love of the arts growing up, including music, playing instruments and drawing.

“So I grew up watching films and really analyzing them,” she said. “Filmmaking combines everything I love: visual art, music and stories. I like that movies connect people.”


A display at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago honoring the 1963 Culver Military Academy graduate. (Photo by Asiana Spaw)


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