September 23, 2009

Post-Racial Before It Was Cool: LA Asian Pacific Film Festival and Visual Communications Celebrate Milestones

So, Americans elected its first African-American president. Time to ring in a "post-racial" New World Order? Time for a new chapter in ethnic documentary?

Who better to ask than the man behind one of America's biggest ethnic film festivals?  "We've already been around the block a couple of times with that," says Abraham Ferrer, wryly.

Ferrer is the co-director of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and is just one of many projects run by one of California's oldest and most ambitious media arts centers: Visual Communications (VC;

Despite its impressive history (the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2010) of promoting "intercultural understanding through the creation, presentation, preservation and support of media works by and about Asian Pacific Americans," Visual Communications' offices are crammed into the side of a building in Downtown LA's Little Tokyo neighborhood, sharing its charming old bricks with the East-West Players theater troupe. These scrappy offices have been Ferrer's home for 25 years, and they have the comforting vibe of a true community center.      

The media projects that come out of these unassuming offices, Ferrer maintains, are not "something that we create because we want to get into the film industry."

The appropriately bereted and ponytailed Ferrer goes on to explain just how a media center that survived Hollywood for 40 years never went "Hollywood."

It all started in the 1960s, the golden era of ethnic studies, when students and scholars first knuckled down to unearth what ethnographers like Ferrer refer to as "recovered history," the true, first-person facts behind America's ethnic myths--"the real role of, say, Chinese immigrants in shaping and building the transcontinental railroad," or as Ferrer likes to say, "the real deal."

In those days, students at universities like UCLA who were enrolled in both film school and ethnic studies programs were frustrated. There they were, conducting interviews, finding the facts, reclaiming their histories. But their fresh, new findings were just gathering dust. "Basically, all that recovered scholarship was no good," says Ferrer. "All it did was get people an ‘A' on a term paper and sit on a shelf."

Visual Communications was the spawn of this fertile age of new truths, born to create what Ferrer calls a "community laboratory, as it were, to see to what extent that kind of recovered education or knowledge can do to fundamentally re-represent or alter the community, and the perception of itself, and also to identify real-world problems."

VC staffers and participants rolled up their sleeves and started creating real-world media tools: film strips for public schools, videos for drug abuse prevention programs and community rallies, and eventually photo exhibits that toured fine art galleries across the country--anywhere, as Ferrer puts it, where media "can be used to effect different kinds of positive actions."

Forty years later, VC embraces the same mission statement: arming artists with the necessary skills to produce media necessary to upgrade Asian Pacific-American history. VC still offers the community affordable classes in basic media skills, but after 40 years also maintains a massive archive of videos, photographs and oral histories (over 400,000 entries). 

One of VC's community services includes a place for filmmakers to show their work.  They offer monthly community screenings, as well as their annual film festival, held each May.

Because of VC's roots in ethnic studies, the festival focuses on the world's communities of Asian diasporas in North America, Europe and Latin America--any community where, as Ferrer puts it, "we just don't exist." So for Ferrer (who has seen every VC film festival submission since its inception in 1983), a "post-racial new world order" is, well, kind of old news. For many Asian diasporic communities, the foundation of this discussion has already been laid over the past 25 years. "So in terms of building the figurative house, as it were, people have moved on to other things," says Ferrer. And this fact can be found in the kind of stories that show up in VC's annual submissions--"the kind of stories that we're encountering now as opposed to 25 years ago when we started this whole thing," he adds.

From his 25-year vantage point, Ferrer lays it out like this: Asian documentary in the 1970s and '80s was aimed at old-school ethnic studies "cultural recovery" that could be found in both traditional "scholarly interrogations" and activist cinema. As examples, Ferrer lists writer-director Curtis Choy's The Fall of the I Hotel (1983), depicting a decade-long San Francisco housing battle; Christine Choy's From Spikes to Spindles (1976), about garment industry activists in New York City's Chinatown; and Steven Okazaki's Unfinished Business (1986), about Japanese-American internment.

Then in the 1990s, says Ferrer, a new style emerged as subjects started to man the cameras themselves, exemplified by Bay Area filmmaker Spencer Nakasako's Camcorder Diaries series--what Ferrer calls a counterpoint to the "subjectively mediated documentary format that was exemplified by, say, Hoop Dreams."

Today, says Ferrer, the new chapter is coming from a generation that is circumventing traditional film school altogether via video ethnography courses and community art centers, with projects created by video artists like Martha Chono-Helsley, whose documentary works (Do 2 Halves Really Make a Whole?;1995) grew from a foundation in art and experimental filmmaking, and who is today the executive director of Reach LA, an organization that trains low-income youth of color from metropolitan Los Angeles to develop programs that lead to social change in their own peer community.

"There has been really a progression and a shift in the mode and the participation of documentary filmmaking," sums up Ferrer. "While you still have the Christine Choys and Steven Okazakis of the world continuing to make nonfiction film through the traditional roads of governmental funding--winning Peabody Awards, Academy Awards and what have you--there is this newer generation who are coming to nonfiction film production and empowerment through the community route."

And for the ethnic film festival programmer, this all adds up to good times because every year has something new and exciting to offer. Says Ferrer, long-standing diasporic communities, such as Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans, "are moving light years away from traditional comfort cinema topics like internment, redress and immigration, and are talking about really exciting things--profiles of politicians and public schools and different things that really interest them, but which we wouldn't think of as being either appropriate or germane to what people are accustomed to seeing at festivals."

But newer communities like the indigenous Chamorro community of Guam are still new to the conversation, which is why VC chose to spotlight films from that constituent in the 2009 film festival. While Chamorro films are new to Asian Pacific media, says Ferrer, "It's been building. And that's a really good thing."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica, Calif., whose work includes writing travel and home-improvement webisodes and articles on underground tattoo cultures for Urban Ink Magazine.