Docs Are Back! The 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
By Lily Ng
It's nice to see a film festival get back to its origins. In recent years, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has grown from a local event showcasing regional/national films to a quasi gala affair, with over 60% of the feature length films coming from abroad. In 1998, the 16th SFIAAFF (March 5-12) returned to a program in which the majority of feature-length films had been made Stateside, evidence that independent film deserves a showcase without being overshadowed by American premieres of foreign productions. This year's festival, however, was not without its touches of grandeur. Popular TV anchorperson Wendy Tokuda, with her usual verbal aplomb, presided over opening night as the mistress of ceremonies; Mayor Willie Brown showed his support on opening night; and Wayne Wang returned to San Francisco to support his fellow independent filmmakers. Also, the programming itself revealed the taste for on-the-edge filmmaking, especially in the nonfiction genre. Documentaries from veteran filmmakers Loni Ding, Renee Tajim-a-Pena, and Spencer Nakasako shared the spotlight with first short works by Christine Lee (Myself, Portrait) and Machiko Saito (Pre-Menstrual Spotting). The new works seemed less slick, more fundamental, and in that rudiment, more sublime.
The 1997 festival had highlighted brave new works from young up-and-coming feature filmmakers Quentin Lee and Justin Lin (Shopping For Fangs, 1997) and Chris Chan Lee (Yellow, 1996), as well as a large contingency of productions from the burgeoning Korean film scene, including Lee Min Yong's A Hot Roof and Jang Sun Woo's A Petal. First feature films, such as Yellow, Shopping For Fangs, Rea Tajiri's Strawberry Fields, and Michael Idemoto and Eric Nakamura's Sunsets, gave voice to a whole generation of young Asian Americans who saw themselves reflected on the big screen , something that hasn't happened before in American features. Teens and twenty-somethings were shouting at the screen during showings of Yellow, proclaiming that their life situations were just like those of Sin and Alex, the film's two protagonists. The young audience had never before seen their lives onscreen , and the result was fiercely poignant and wildly astonishing. The 1997 SFIAAFF showcase took Asian American film one step beyond the mere depictions of Asians on screen (typical in the American film market) to independent works that starred Asian Americans in Anytown, U.S.A ., dealing with the universal themes of filial obligations, ordeal, and self discovery, issues to which anyone could relate.
Yet, as a local documentary filmmaker, I felt left out of the loop during the '97 fest. The major documentaries last year, Girls Like Us (produced by Jane Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio), Stones and Paper (Steve Burns and Bill Smock) and Pins and Noodles (Paul Kwan and Arnold Iger), took a backseat to all the hype about the dramatic features, and I was hard-pressed to find many films by local filmmakers. This year, SFIAAFF directors Linda Blackaby and Kayo Hatta spearheaded documentaries back to the front lines, programming 30 docs throughout the eight-day festival.
Opening with the world premiere of Spencer Nakasako's new documentary, Kelly Loves Tony, the festival showed signs of a changing of the guard: from the you ng and slick programming of 1997, this year's festival concentrated on feature-length docs made in the U.S. and abroad.
Kelly Loves Tony illustrates Nakasako's second camcorder project in five years. His first, aka Don Bonus, self-shot by Cambodian-American student Sokly Ny, has garnered many accolades, from Best Bay Area Documentary at the 1995 San Francisco Film Festival to an Emmy® in 1997. In aka Don Bonus, the footage is sometimes murky, sometimes startling, and always hinting at things and events that occur beyond the frame. Don (Sokly) treats the camera like confidante and friend, allowing it to witness his sobbing, or privileging it to record his anger and frustration toward thieves who've just ransacked his grandmother's apartment in the projects. Kelly, the 17-year-old protagonist of Kelly Loves Tony, does the same thing: she shares with the camera the secrets of her daily frustrations and thoughts on becoming a young mother. As the film opens on her high school graduation, we see a young person on the edge of a bright future. Her yellow sash signifying honor's status, she is poised to go to college. In the next 60 seconds, Kelly describes how all her college and career ideas have begun to unravel. Enter Tony, the film's second protagonist and Kelly's boyfriend. Tony's an ex-con who is slowly trying to get his life together. His prison days behind him, his future is precarious as he finds himself entangled in a legal battle for his right to stay in the U .S. From this point on, the video pulses forward in real-time. Kelly gets pregnant and has a baby boy they name Andrew. With scarcely time to reflect on young motherhood, she moves in with Tony's family and must deal with the threat of Tony's deportation . With determination, Kelly then enrolls in Laney College, saying, "You know, some people think that if you have a baby, everything just stops right there... All you need to do is take care of your baby. That's absolutely not true. You have much more in life than [to] sit home and take care of [a] baby... And if you could do it, if you could go for it, go to college... I mean that's a good way to start a future for your baby. You know, a better future." The video chronicles the next year-and-a-half in their lives. The strain of external pressures take its toll on the young relationship and the two begin to argue about family obligations, taking care of Andrew, even doing the laundry. For Kelly, the everyday becomes a source of struggle, from finding time to do her homework to being a good daughter-in-law to Tony's parents. She doesn't mince words in front of the camera; she waffles between frustration and resignation with her post-high school life, but she keeps telling herself (and us) that "you can't change the past, but you can change the future."
Tony is more guarded on-camera, and it's when he turns the camera on his mentor Dave that we gain more insight into who Tony is. Dave becomes a voice of reason for Tony, someone who can explain his legal situation to him, as well as be a friend who can listen to his relationship troubles. And it is through Dave that we can begin to understand Tony. At 23, Tony has been in jail for more than half of his life. He appears as a misguided, one-time thug, but in actuality, he's someone who is overly eager-to-please. He tries to be the good son his parents need him to be; he tries to be a good father. Those years in jail have made him cautious, yet easy-going. He takes things as they come, at times without examining the bigger picture around him. Dave offers him that larger perspective.
The drama of Tony and Kelly's lives does not unfold or resolve: it's merely a continuum, like the drama in all our lives. Throughout this year-and-a-half slice of life , we see Kelly come to terms with her own situation. She reflects, "Some things don't work out. You know, some things that you plan don't go the way that you want them to. I think it's part of growing up... I had all these plans, you know, like getting married, going to school, and I still want to get them all straightened out, but it's like one step at a time, you know?"
Speaking about the making of Kelly Loves Tony, Nakasako reflected, "People trunk this is so easy," referring to editing a camcorder project. "There's this myth that everything [shot] is gold, and all you have to do is separate the gold from the granite. It's really two things. The first thing is just trying to separate gold from fool's gold, and the second thing is that these docs are no different from any other docs. You're dealing with dramatic story elements and you have to balance them. You 're just trying to tell a story, essentially." Culled from over 120 hours of raw video footage shot by Tony and Kelly, the film was pared down to a mere sixty minutes, with many major storylines not making the cut and repeated changes from Tony's perspective to Kelly's. "People don't understand that even in a normal doc, it's hard to tell a coherent story. Doubly hard when it's not professionally shot. It's not that it's the best storyline or the most dramatic storyline: it's the most cohesive storyline." In the end, the most coherent storyline won out, that of a young determined woman eking out a life for herself and her family.
From veteran filmmaker Loni Ding comes the second segment of her multi-part series, Ancestors in the Americas: Pioneers to the American West. Following her celebrated program, Ancestors in the Americas: Coolies, Sailors, Selllers, Ding's second program recounts the crucial role that Chinese laborers played in the development of the American West. She takes us to the former sites of Chinese mines in Northern Callfornia to find that only a few artifacts reveal that the Chinese were ever there. Group photographs of California miners and workers show only "white faces," though census bureau statistics kept track of the growing number of Chinese in the area at the time. The many laws that lobbied against the Chinese show proof of their existence, as white urban inhabitants and white settlers were determined to curb the number of Chinese in California. Ding weaves archival footage, historical photographs, passport documents, writings, and songs as proof of one group's undisputed participation in American history.
Taking up where Ding left off, Renee Tajima-Pena offers us a journey through Asian America in My America (Or Honk If You Love Buddha). With an imaginative use of archival footage and music, she injects humor into this road picture through history. Aided by "road guru" Victor Wong, Tajima-Pena takes us through San Francisco's Chinatown , and goes East through Middle America, stopping at Chicago and Mississippi along the way. Her search for the connection between Asian America and the politics of race is emblematic of our own search for an anchor, a tie to the rubric of "American" history. If we believe that "we are all a force of nature," then Tajima-Pena's film chronicles a few individuals who live as forces of nature, placing themselves in the moving dialogue of history, because they are compelled to do so. Wong himself is the 70-year old enlightened tour guide through the Beat Generation and the Vietnam War era, where Tajima-Pena injects her own story of wanting to be a part of the yellow power movement. Two inspirational characters she meets on her travels are Bill and Yuri "Mary" Kochiyama, a Nisei couple who met "right in the middle of World War II." Bill explains that as a GI, he was "given a pass to spend the weekend at a camp called Jerome, Arkansas." There, he met Yuri. During the 1960s, the two became political activists for the civil rights movement and were friends with Malcom X. As Tajima-Pena offers us a ride through the backroads of American social history, she is also taking us on an inward journey to find where we as Asian Americans now belong in the public arena of history, and how we see ourselves with in the whole story, as willing participants, as forces of nature. My America doesn't give us the answers to finding Asian America, but it asks the right questions to galvanize our own journey.
Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg's film, Miss India Georgia, examines further the dichotomy of being part of two cultures and the difficulty of negotiating through both—the two cultures in this case being South Asian and American. The film traces the preparations of four Indian American teens as they compete in the upcoming Miss India Georgia pageant. They shop with friends, quarrel with parents, find boyfriends outside the Indian community, consider arranged marriages and in candid interviews, they reveal the difficulties of wanting to be part of a fast-moving, exciting American culture, while at the same time, retaining Indian values and traditions. America is right there, and as Mini, one of the contestants, puts it, "I just want to be part of it." The film also questions whether the pageant is a genuine display of Indian culture, or if it's a tawdry example of an American pastime. The pageant's contestants feel that it's another extension of being Indian, another chance to validate Indian culture by performing a traditional Indian dance, or by donming a sari or salwar kameez. Misty, another contestant, sees it as a chance to shine, because she was "too afraid to race against white girls" in a regular pageant. Miss India Georgia gets to the root of what most first-generation Asian Americans cope with: how do you successfully negotiate between two conflicting worlds? The film suggests that the pageant is just one small demonstration of this ongoing balancing act.
Other notable documentaries included in this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival were Jayasri Hart's compelling Roots in the Sand, the story of Punjabi men who immigrated to Southern California as irrigation farmers , married Mexican women, but were denied U.S. citizen rights; Hirokazu Koreeda's Without Memory, an intimate portrait of a man with Wernicke's Encephalopathy, a brain disorder resulting in short term memory loss. Also, Out of Phoenix Bridge and No. 16, Barkhor South Street, shown as part of the Pacific Film Archive's Unofficial China: The New Documentary Movement. Both were shot cinéma vérité style, with subjects almost totally unaware of the camera. These two works illustrate daily realities in China today, where politics and the personal meet in fundamental often adversarial-ways .
Like its programming, the 1998 SFIAAFF has returned to showing cutting-edge local and national films that reflect what's going on in Asian America today.
LTLLY NG is a documentary filmmaker living in San Francisco. Like most documentarians, she is seeking funding for her latest project: since the topic is "dating ," inquiries should be sent to her personally.