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All About the Future: San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival at 28

By Frako Loden

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM, formerly NAATA), San Francisco's prized media arts organization, celebrates its 30th birthday this year as its annual spring ritual turned 28: the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). The filmfest and its parent organization have become venerable institutions in an era of mushrooming new media and film festival ferment--yet their engagement with these changes keeps them youthful and relevant.

Political controversy made at least one film a hot ticket. SFIAAFF is the only venue so far where Americans had a chance to see Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, a flawed but powerful dramatic account of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre that won the best director award at the Asian Film Awards and incited plenty of controversy. Screenings of the film were cancelled at January's Palm Springs Film Festival by the Chinese government in retaliation against programmers who refused to remove from their lineup Ritu Sarin and Tenzig Sonam's pro-Dalai Lama documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle for Freedom.The spring release of City of Life and Death was aborted indefinitely by its North American distributor, National Geographic Entertainment.

Despite improved visibility and influence by Asian Americans in mainstream fiction and nonfiction media since CAAM's founding in 1980, executive director Stephen Gong says, "Many of the challenges we face as a marginalized community still persist. We remain underrepresented in commercial film and television, and the participation we are granted is largely conditional and proscribed." CAAM's mission remains as critical as it was at its birth.

This year SFIAAFF bid a farewell to its popular director of 12 years, Chi-hui Yang. Under Yang's stewardship Asian American cinema underwent considerable changes, improving the quality and complexity of the film festival's selections, while the threatened survival of the festival's infrastructure itself posed enormous challenges. Ten years ago Yang launched an annual meeting of Asian American filmfest organizers to share information and best practices and form a network, an informal distribution channel, for Asian-American cinema. This network now comprises almost 20 "very tightly connected" festivals. Yang says, "There is a culture and camaraderie in the Asian American film world that supports all the players and propels it forward, and I'm proud to have been part of the making of this."

Another of Yang's legacies is the reliably high quality of the programming. Asian American-themed documentaries are SFIAAFF's specialty, and every year CAAM's Media Fund showcases many of the six-to-ten projects it helped bring to the screen. One prevalent theme is transnational adoption, the result of (in Yang's words) "primarily Korean- and Vietnamese-American filmmakers who are now in their 30s and 50s examining their personal stories." And since 1992, when China opened its doors to international adoption, American families have adopted over 70,000 Chinese children, promising a wealth of future treatments on this theme as the children mature and make films of their own.

The power of these cathartic documentaries comes from questioning the received wisdom surrounding Westerners' adopting Asian children: that these kids have caught a lucky break and will live rich, fulfilling lives that those left behind can only dream about.

Unlike most adoption-themed docs, which delve retrospectively into the adoptee's childhood past from the grown adoptee's point of view, Stephanie Wang-Breal's Wo Ai Ni Mommy, which won the Best Documentary Feature award at SFIAAFF, starts at the beginning. Plucked from her loving foster family in Guangzhou, 8-year-old Fang Sui Yong faces the rest of her life with the equally loving Sadowskys of Long Island, New York. Right from the start, Sui Yong rebels against learning English, has "sharing issues" with siblings, and piteously cries to the bilingual filmmaker that she wants to return to China. But after only 18 months in New York, she can no longer Skype with her foster family without an interpreter, and she is profoundly, even shockingly, different from the diffident little girl we met at the orphanage. Wo Ai Ni Mommy subjects cross-cultural parenting methods and transnational adoption to heart-breaking, disquieting scrutiny.


From Stephanie Wang-Breal's Wo Ai Ni Mommy.



An even more powerful adoption-themed doc is In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, which tied for Comcast Audience Award Documentary at SFIAAFF. Its director, former CAAM executive director Deann Borshay Liem, made the superb 1999 documentary First Person Plural, which investigated the circumstances of her adoption by an American family from a Korean orphanage when she was a baby. If that film wasn't disturbing enough with its discoveries-it turns out she wasn't an orphan and that her identity had been switched with that of another child-this sequel uncovers even a third child whose identity was hopelessly entangled with her own. Cha Jung Hee concludes with an epiphany that, like Wo Ai Ni Mommy, severely questions our fondest assumptions about the American dream. Both docs are scheduled to air on PBS' POV series later this summer.

Both adoption-themed films received CAAM Media Fund support, as did two others that champion grassroots political power among Asian American communities often overshadowed by the circumstances of their African-American neighbors. Valerie Soe's short doc The Oak Park Story follows families, among them Cambodians, who filed a lawsuit against their slumlord in East Oakland. S. Leo Chiang's feature doc A Village Called Versailles, which tied with Liem's film for Comcast Audience Award Documentary, tells the story of a Vietnamese immigrant enclave in New Orleans East that found its political voice only when it was threatened by a proposal to dump refuse from Hurricane Katrina's cleanup operations into its backyard. Documentaries such as these provide "breaking" news coverage from underserved communities, reversing the image of Southeast Asian Americans as passive and showing how they too organize politically to keep their neighborhoods safe and economically viable.


From S. Leo Chiang's award-winning A Village Called Versailles.



Docs of great local Bay Area interest included Oscar-winning Ruby Yang's A Moment in Time, a lovingly impressionistic history of San Francisco's defunct Chinatown movie theaters. A youthful audience sold out new festival venue VIZ Cinema's screening of Ben Wang and Mike Cheng's debut, Aoki, which relates the colorful life of late Japanese-American Richard Aoki, child prisoner of a World War II internment camp, field marshal/supplier of weapons for the Black Panther Party, and a pioneer in the Third World College and Ethnic Studies movements. As Aoki himself did while alive, the tribute to his life drew people young and old from all corners of Bay Area activism.


Richard Aoki, subject of Ben Wang and Mike Cheng's Aoki.



This year's festival spotlight was on Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock, who for the past 20 years has specialized in portraits of artists with a conscience (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision; Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner). This year she brought two of her latest works to SFIAAFF. Sing China!, a feature-length sequel to her 2001 Oscar-nominated short film Sing!, revisits the members of Los Angeles Children's Choir as they go on a performing and cultural-exchange tour of a China preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. One American girl is a Chinese adoptee returning to her birth country for the first time. Lt. Watada, Mock's profile of the court-martialed Japanese-American Iraq War resister Ehren Watada, evokes the stoic soldier-scholar of conscience fighting against a dishonest presidential administration.


Ehren Watada, subject of Freida Lee Mock's Lt. Watada.



Filmfest information and scheduling applications for smartphones, which SFIAAFF provided, are no longer new. But CAAM unveiled its Filipino or Not? iPhone app, which focuses on ethnic/cultural identity in the media. A genuinely surprising series of quizzes makes the user guess how many people with Filipino blood are players in the American entertainment industry. Answer: Hella many! The app kept people distracted in rush lines (for, say, a film by neglected Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka) and provoked lively conversations among strangers.

Of all the major San Francisco Bay Area film festivals I attend, SFIAAFF consistently attracts the youngest crowd. But this year even festival organizers were overwhelmed by the youthful response to one of the panels. "It was insane!" says assistant festival director Vicci Ho of "Changing Da Game: YouTube Legends and the Future of Online Media." "It turned out to be our biggest panel. The rush line was double the capacity of the theater. Fifteen-year-old girls were hiding in the bathroom trying to sneak in. A five-year-old girl was in tears because she couldn't get a seat, and people had come all the way from Santa Barbara" to see YouTube short-film idols like KevJumba, Nigahiga and Timothy DeLa Ghetto, whose channels attract millions of hits. "It made me realize that here's this whole generation of people we're not tapping yet."

Without naming specifics, Ho implied that there were big changes afoot for the festival in 2011; perhaps they will include this undeveloped audience. CAAM honcho Gong says, "The biggest change to the media landscape is the transformation from a one-to-many, mass-media model to a many-to-many, networked digital model that holds great opportunity to all of us in the independent and public media field. Authentic and personal stories that engage individuals are our defining advantage." New models such as YouTube may be a perfect fit for a previously marginalized segment of the media community such as Asian Americans--and a younger, active, media-savvy generation of festival-goers. After all, a young film festival, even quarter-century young, is all about the future.


Frako Loden teaches film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and writes about films for SF Weekly and the Evening Class blog.