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CAAMFest 2014: Asian American Showcase Brings Rich Spectrum of Docs to the Bay Area

By Frako Loden

It's been CAAMFest for two years now, but it's still a pleasant surprise not to have to utter its former mouthful of a name: the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Like its parent organization, the Center for Asian American Media, its name has been cropped, but its documentary subject matter has remained as inclusive as ever. That CAAMFest draws the youngest audiences I've ever seen at a film festival just confirms its inclusiveness—and probable staying power.

Arab-Americans are another community included in CAAMFest's documentary scope. Usama Alshaibi opens his personal film American Arab at the Chicago gravesite of his brother Samer. Samer ended up, according to his grieving mother, a shaheed, meaning witness or martyr, of "the bad poison in America—the wrong freedom, destroying yourself with drugs." From this dark beginning Alshaibi dips into other issues troubling a family whose matriarch was determined to leave Iraq and pursue the American dream, only to face divorce—and war between the two countries.

Alshaibi emphasizes this constant tension between personal and ethnic upheaval as he brings up anti-Arab prejudice, school bullying, hate crimes and media stereotyping in the aftermath of September 11. A series of images defining types of women's head-coverings implies that they pass without controversy in most cultures but stand out as the most visible and vulnerable sign of Muslim belief in an Islamophobic society, as proven in an unprovoked assault in a Chicago supermarket. Alshaibi himself plays up stereotypical Arab images with a punk sensibility, hoping to "give people a space to be complicated."

But the real test of these contested images is in Alshaibi's own life, when he and his white wife move into a "nice" Iowa town and give birth to a daughter. One night he's called a "sand nigger" and beaten and kicked in the face when he tries to enter a house where he thought a party was in progress. If that wasn't traumatic enough, the barrage of negative comments and suspicion about his motives for publicizing the assault starts taking a toll on his mental health.


From Usama Alshaibi's American Arab


Masahiro Sugano's Cambodian Son, winner of the Documentary Award, tells the saga of Kosal Khiev, one of thousands of KEAs, or Khmer Exiled Americans. Born in refugee camps after fleeing the war in Cambodia and arriving in the US as children, KEAs compromised their refugee status by committing felonies, and were wrenched from their American families by deportation "back" to Cambodia—a country they'd never lived in before. While doing life in Folsom Prison before his exile, Kosal started writing poetry and performing spoken word. An unexpected invitation to represent Cambodia in a London gathering of performance artists and poets becomes the exiled Kosal's opportunity to break out of his mental imprisonment.

Cambodian Son asks if a man who was born a refugee, never knew his father and spent 14 years in prison for gang-related crimes is up to the challenge of traveling to an unfamiliar country and performing in four cities while doing workshops and radio broadcasts. Even if he scores acclaim at the London festival, he still has no long-term career plans, and can easily fall into the rut of drugs and criminality among his fellow exiles in Phnom Penh. It's a Facebook connection with a man from his remote past that poses Kosal's ultimate test and redemption. As with other recent documentaries about Cambodian-Americans in Kosal's fix—with deportations hitting higher numbers every year—the viewer is challenged to feel compassion for a subject whose many past mistakes need to be forgiven as he struggles to forgive himself.


From Masahiro Sugano's Cambodian Son


Veteran filmmaker Rea Tajiri's latest, Lordville, is a meditation on community memory in a historically rich but shrinking hamlet on the Delaware River. Tajiri's ownership of land there and its uncertain boundaries are the departure point for an exploration into Lordville's whispered past involving 19th century land grants, intermarriage between white men and Delaware Indian women, the erasure of the Native population, and finally the recurrent flooding that threatens to wipe out all signs of human history. Rumored ghost sightings and some labored reverse-motion footage of what looks like hipsters performing a healing ritual are less interesting than the voiceover narration by local genealogists and historians and the haunting camerawork that evokes the unwritten history of that contested land, more meaningful than just a quaint weekend getaway for weary Manhattanites.

Tibetan filmmaker Tenzin Tsetan Choklay's debut, Bringing Tibet Home, contends with a different river: the one marking the boundary between China-ruled Tibet and the exile countries of Nepal and India. New York-based artist Tenzing Rigdol hopes to pay tribute to his late stateless father by transporting over 20 tons of Tibetan soil over the borders of Nepal and India, as well as dozens of checkpoints along the way, to retrace where his parent lived as an exile. At his father's final home in Dharamsala, India, site of the Tibetan government in exile, Rigdol stages his installation, titled Our Land, Our People, by spreading the soil for Tibetans to touch, hold, walk on and weep over—eventually carrying away their own handfuls to keep.

Much of the action suffers from Rigdol's inability to do more than sit around fretting in hotel rooms and talking with fixers on his phone, but once he resorts to a risky tactic the film lurches into movement. And what at first felt like a foolhardy contrivance on Rigdol's part—endangering his oldest friend—ends in an emotional finale that makes all the bureaucratic uncertainty and peril feel worthwhile. Bringing Tibet Home likens the act of stepping on one's native soil to the ephemerality of sand painting, in which a painstaking artistic effort is "destroyed" by chanting devotees dancing on it.

Stories from Tôhoku, by American filmmakers Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson, details the passionate response of Japanese-Americans to survivors of the 2011 Tôhoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident, and the relationships that have developed between them. We see what the locals have done with the $40 million that Japanese-Americans donated to them. Japanese-Americans in turn are struck by the survivors' spirit of gaman (endurance) and shikata ga nai (it can't be helped) that they recognize in their own ancestry. Especially in the older victims' resignation to living out the rest of their lives in temporary housing, the Japanese-Americans are reminded of their own grandparents, imprisoned in tarpaper shacks during the World War II internment—hardly a natural disaster, but having similar effects of displacement and feelings of worthlessness. More than anything, this film pleads with audiences to visit with survivors, and never forget.


From Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson's Stories from Tohoku


A sadly forgotten chapter in the history of American labor activism is revived in Marissa Aroy's Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers. Since the 1920s, Filipino men have picked fruits and vegetables on California farms and have organized against grower abuse. Laws that prohibited marrying white women kept them in a permanent bachelor society of gambling, prostitutes and anti-Filipino violence. In Delano, 1,500 older laborers were organized by pugnacious, cigar-chomping cannery veteran Larry Itliong, whose alliance with Cesar Chavez led to the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 and the creation of the United Farm Workers. This documentary makes a strong case for the charismatic Itliong's own cinematization alongside the recent Chavez biopic. At CAAMFest's new venue, the New Parkway Theater in Oakland's burgeoning Uptown district, this film inspired an impassioned Q&A.

CAAMFest's Special Presentations included a spotlight on documentarian Grace Lee, whose earlier films still warrant repeated viewings with their subtle and multi-layered pokes at the ethnic-identity film. Her 2007 mockumentary American Zombie (screening here) parodied the way we talk about marginalized groups with combined New Age admiration and condescension. It was also a brilliant satire of popular genres from reality TV to the zombie thriller (before they became mainstream), as Lee kept both humming to a climax that's horrifying, yet blackly funny.

An on-stage talk with Lee came a few hours before a packed Castro Theatre screening of her latest film, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which also won the festival's Best Documentary Audience Award. The film kept the audience riveted to the life and times of a 98-year-old Chinese-American former Black Power firebrand who now counsels the young to reflect before they applaud. It does this with a minimum of lecturing and a great deal of respect and humor for a complicated role model. Proudly Detroit-based, Grace Lee Boggs has led a life that redefines revolution as evolution.

Although Boggs looked frailer than she does in the film and was wheeled to the stage for the Q&A, her voice and words were strong and authoritative. She demonstrated the confidence that frustrates Grace Lee the filmmaker, who tells Boggs on-screen that she can't believe Boggs doesn't doubt herself, doesn't struggle internally. There are scenes in which Boggs forcibly urges someone to rethink what they are saying, whether it's a friend's flippant remark or Danny Glover on a political point. Glover assures her, "You have me thinking!" and she piles books on him for homework. Boggs' revolutionary actions now take the form of transforming others. During the Q&A she kept referring to the changing of epochs, portraying herself as an ancient sage who can see far back into the past as well as deep into the future of the human race. She personifies the inclusive documentary impulse at CAAMFest.


From Grace Lee's American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She also reports on film festivals for Fandor.