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New and Improved! Asian American Showcase Rebrands as CAAMFest

By Frako Loden

As the San Francisco-based organization Center for Asian American Media  (CAAM) enters its 33rd year, it has transformed its flagship event, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Sporting the clipped moniker CAAMFest, the 31-year-old film festival, the largest and one of the oldest of its kind, has staged music and food presentations into greater prominence next to its film fare. While applauding the festival's attempts to broaden its brand and influence by incorporating more Asian-American culture, this film purist focuses on the documentaries, many of which were funded and developed by CAAM and enjoy splashy launches here accompanied by panel discussions and enthusiastic audiences.

The usual inspirational docs drew surprised laughter viewing pursuits not usually associated with Asians, or Asians of a particular age group. Luke Cassady-Dorion and Jason W. Best's The Cheer Ambassadors paid tribute to Thailand's Bangkok University cheerleading team, who learned their moves watching middle-of-the-night ESPN tournaments and following their driven, high-strung and sometimes verbally abusive leader. Getting the chance to compete at their holy grail, the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando (where the 90 percent humidity is "too dry" for these contestants!), is a major challenge for team members whose families don't approve of unmarried men and women touching each other or being publicly flung through the air upside down.


From Luke Cassady-Dorion and Jason W. Best's The Cheer Ambassadors. Courtesy of CAAMFest


Taiwanese director Hua Tien-hao's Go Go Grandriders had its North American premiere at the Great Star Theater, a new venue for CAAMFest but a venerable institution in San Francisco's Chinatown. Founded in 1925, the theater showed Shaw Brothers and Jackie Chan films in the 1970s and '80s before it resumed staging Chinese operas. Its age and Chinese community feel was perfect for screening an inspiring and unabashedly sentimental film about octogenarian motorcyclists daring a 13-day road trip along the perilous roads of Taiwan.

The reliably excellent documentarian Deann Borshay Liem (In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee) and her brother-in-law Pamsay Liem directed Memory of Forgotten War, reminiscences of the Korean War (1950-53) by Korean-Americans whose lives it tore apart. Most wars disrupt families and drive people into unfamiliar places. But the Liems bring a much-needed history and context for appreciating the present-day relationships among the South and North Koreas and the United States, whose government has officially designated this conflict a "forgotten war." Sandwiched as it was between the more widespread and better-documented World War II and Vietnam War, the Korean War needs this kind of oral history, at least. The Liems draw their informants' stories out of the phenomenon known as han, or a deep collective sorrow that cries out for justice.

The CAAM-funded Seeking Haven, by Hein Seok, looks at one of over 20,000 North Koreans who have fled their homeland and live under the radar in China and South Korea, fearing recapture and execution for treason. This tense film follows Kim Young-soon, a young woman defector now studying at a South Korean university, who decides to bring her ailing sister and father out, using brokers and bribes. I didn't have a chance to view the accompanying short film Inheritance, directed by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, which won CAAM's third annual Loni Ding Award in Social Issue Documentary. According to CAAM's announcement, Inheritance "investigates what's lost, gained and carried over in the process of diaspora" from Iran to the US.

Deepa Dhanraj's Invoking Justice details the activities of an audacious female counterpart to the all-male jamaat, or judicial advisory body that applies a distorted interpretation of sharia law to family crimes in Tamil Nadu, India. The women's jamaat is led by Sharifa Khanam, whose panel talks directly to the women involved in domestic abuse, daughter-in-law immolations and wife stranglings. They have ruled in 8,000 cases in nine years, an impressive and hopeful statistic for the future of South Indian justice.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya: Filmmaker on a Voyage traces the life and career of the late Filipina director, who made the narrative films Jose Rizal (1998) and Reef Hunters (1999), produced reform-minded television programs and founded a film school and filmmaking center. Diaz-Abaya's relative and CAAM board member Mona Lisa Yuchengco's stylistically unexceptional portrait still gives us tantalizing glimpses of the filmmaker's 1980s films Brutal and Karnal.

The other Filipino doc in the fest, Benito Bautista's Harana, won the CAAMFest Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature for its lovely, wistful look back at the formal tradition of hiring guitarists and singers to serenade women in old Philippines. The signal of a successful wooing was an invitation to come inside the house. Musician Florante Aguilar travels to remote provinces to hear master haranistas, still in good voice and with nimble fingers, perform their romantic love songs solo and on tour à la Buena Vista Social Club.


From Benito Bautista's Harana. Courtesy of CAAMFest


Guitar—Hawaiian slack-key guitar, that is—was also the theme of one of this year's Pacific Islanders in Communication Showcase docs. Nâ'âlehu Anthony's Let's Play Music! Slack Key with Cyril Pahinui and Friends is a loving tribute to Cyril's legendary father, Gabby Pahinui (last heard in the film The Descendants), and a chance to hear laid-back musicians jam and "talk story" (a Hawaiian phrase, used as a noun or verb, for "informal chat") in the backyard. Christen Hepuakoa Marquez's E Haku Inoa: To Weave a Name is a more intense affair, with a young multiracial woman returning to Hawaii to be reunited with her estranged Hawaiian mother after a long separation. Through traditional Hawaiian dance and talk story, the two reclaim the meaning of the daughter's Hawaiian name and their new bond.

The latest doc from the married filmmaking team of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam is When Hari Got Married, a warm and immersive account of a Himalayan taxi driver's courtship and marriage with a girl he's talked with only by cell phone during their two-year engagement. Hari's gregariousness makes him an engaging energy center in a film that provides a fascinating look at marriage rituals (including self-flagellation, spells of possession that everyone takes entirely in stride, and the bride's distressing sobs) in northern India.

The best docs in this year's CAAMFest were those about China and how its economic prosperity doesn't float all boats. Despite my complaints of longeurs and inactivity in female documentarist Ji Dan's When the Bough Breaks, even now I'm having trouble shaking off moments from this story of a resentful young woman's determination to continue financing her siblings' education without help from her deadbeat parents, who live in a shanty within view of Beijing luxury highrises. Marlo Poras' CAAM-funded The Mosuo Sisters features another put-upon elder sister, the member of a remote Himalayan ethnic group, who works in a tacky "ethnic" Beijing nightclub until it closes down. Returning to her spectacularly beautiful village, she worries about the fate of her also jobless younger sister, who longs to return to the city. The Mosuo minority practices "walking marriage," a matriarchal custom that outsiders associate with sexual looseness.


From Ji Dan's When the Bough Breaks. Courtesy of CAAMFest


Another CAAM-funded production, Stephen Maing's High Tech Low Life, is a profile of two of China's citizen journalists, traveling the country in search of stories of injustice to document and blog about like high-tech superheroes. Alicia Dwyer and Tom Xia's CAAM-funded Xmas Without China is a sobering yet amusing look at the China-US economic relationship from the perspective of families who consume goods manufactured there. Accepting Xia's challenge to  throw out all products and go one Christmas season without buying anything made in China, a suburban California family of four learns more about homemade Christmas lights and Dad's longing for Xbox than they ever cared to.

CAAMFest's opening night film was the no-brainer crowd-pleaser Linsanity, about Taiwanese-American NBA point guard Jeremy Lin's career before and after his extraordinary performance for the New York Knicks in February 2012. Director Evan Jackson Leong, who was shooting this film before those amazing weeks, was there to document the rare Asian-American basketballer's rise to national fame—including all the racist remarks inflicted on him by other sports personnel and media types. At the film's Q&A, Leong gave away a Lion King blanket identical to the one treasured by the 24-year-old Lin.

Perhaps the most controversial and thought-provoking documentary this year was Debbie Lum's CAAM-funded Seeking Asian Female, occasioning its own panel discussion on "yellow fever." The film's subject is Steven, a 60-year-old white parking-garage attendant who freely admits to preferring Asian women, filling scrapbooks and e-mail folders with their correspondence and photos. As Lum zeroes in on him as the ideal clueless target of condemnation—she also doesn't care for the way he looks at her—Steven brings from China his prospective bride, 30-year-old Sandy. Since neither can speak the other's language, Lum reluctantly agrees to mediate for them—first to get Sandy acclimated to the US and then to referee their increasingly desperate quarrels. This film deserved to, and did, win the festival's Documentary Competition.



From Debbie Lum's Seeking Asian Female. Courtesy of CAAMFest


Finally, a remarkable presentation by San Francisco-based filmmaker Mark Decena on closing night was a call to all Asian Americans to create their own docs. In the live program Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies, Decena narrated over clips from home movies of his family's conflicted Filipino-Japanese heritage. The subtext of these images, and the emotion with which he narrated them, demonstrated that home movies are a rarely acknowledged but rich source of the hundred years of Asian-American history. In partnership with Rick Prelinger's Internet Archive, CAAM has launched a participatory storytelling project, asking Asian Americans to provide Super-8, 8mm and 16mm film for digitizing, archiving and sharing with the community of documentary filmmakers and audiences. What a storehouse of ingredients this would make for home-cooked docs on the Asian-American experience.

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.