Film festivals can have an impact. If there was any doubt about this, check out a post on Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man website by New Zealander director Roseanne Liang. In that post, Liang recalls a question from a CAAMFest audience member during a screening of her web series Flat3 which follows the hilarious and touching exploits of three Asian Kiwis in Auckland, New Zealand.
“. . . An audience member stood up and politely asked why all our male love interests were white. The reason was that we had very little money, we just used our male actor mates who happened to be white… and embarrassingly, we simply hadn’t thought about it.”
I was in attendance at this screening and heard that question asked and witnessed Liang’s initial response. It obviously had an effect on Liang because she goes on to write “From then on, we worked harder on casting diverse.” And this working harder didn’t stop with casting Asian Kiwi males. When casting for a wheelchair user character in her latest web series project Friday Night Bites, Liang’s CAAMFest Q&A experience ended up having a residual impact.
“We argued for ages about whether to cast a brown guy pretending to be a wheelchair user, or a white guy who was an actual wheelchair user. We got into the dangerous game of which ‘diverse’ trumps another kind of ‘diverse’-skin colour, or disability? In the end, we cast the actual wheelchair user, who told us point blank that he wasn’t an actor. We cast him anyway.”
CAAMFest and that gutsy question from an audience member motivated Liang to make even more changes in the entertainment industry. I have been a fan of CAAMFest since it was the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAF) because of the films it enabled me to see, because I too wanted greater diversity in my media, and because of the engaging discussions that happened as folks flowed out of the theaters. To read of such a clear direct impact from an audience member’s question to improve representation from neglected communities was to see that little bit of validation that keeps one motivated to support institutions like CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) and the wonderful festival they’ve been putting on for 35 years.
Now here’s what I’m most excited about seeing at CAAMFest 35.
“Cleveland! This is for you!!!”
I am originally from the Cleveland exurb of Berea, Ohio. So you can imagine how delighted I was to see two documentaries featuring folks from Cleveland on the schedule. And when CAAMFest Executive Director Stephen Gong told me there was one more appearance of Cleveland at the festival, bringing the told to three, I was overjoyed. In conversation w/ Gong, he talked about how films like these are part of CAAM’s mission to expand the histories of Asian America beyond the dominating narratives of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City to include the experiences of those who grew up in the Midwest and other regions.
Who Is Arthur Chu? (Scott Drucker & Yu Gu, USA, 2017) – This documentary explores the many minutes of fame that Arthur Chu (who lives in a suburb of Cleveland) activated after his 15 minutes as an 11-time champion on the game show Jeopardy! by expertly confronting the trolls that couldn’t stand his brash, confident, unapologetic style.
Good Luck Soup (Matthew Hashiguchi, USA, 2016) – Hashiguchi explores his family history, from his grandmother’s relocating to a suburb of Cleveland after being released from the internment camps to the Japanese Polish American family tree that formed later.
Memories to Light (Multiple home movies, USA, 2017) – This is the fifth installment of a project initiated by CAAM to digitize home movies so the history of the Asian American experience will not be lost thanks to deteriorating materials. This year it will be accompanied by acclaimed jazz musicians Mark Izu, Brenda Wong Aoki, Masaru Koga, George Yamasaki, and Moy Eng. Upon learning I’m from Cleveland, Gong let me know that this year’s iteration includes video from a Filipino American family’s trip to the second most travelled to amusement park in America, the roller-coaster mecca that is Cedar Point, a regular summertime excursion for every Clevelander growing up.
Yellow (Chris Chan Lee, USA 1998) – Although I was introduced to actor John Cho by his role in Shopping for Fangs (Quentin Lee, USA, 1997), Yellow also features Cho in a story about eight Korean American high schoolers in Los Angeles and how their graduation night drastically changes their lives. Consider this required viewing from the Cho canon before the eventual release of Kogonada’s feature debut Columbus (USA, 2017), which stars Cho as its romantic lead.
Random Acts of Legacy (Ali Kazimi, Canada, 2017) – I love looking at a program and discovering that a filmmaker I admire has a new film out about which I was unaware. I was introduced to Canadian Ali Kazimi’s work via a retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and was taken by his documentary Continuous Journey (Canada, 2004) about an incident in 1914 where the Canadian government refused to let the mostly Sikh passengers on the Komagata Maru disembark on Canadian shores. (The Canadian government finally apologized for this incident in 2016.) Kazimi’s new documentary looks at Chinese American history in Chicago from 1930-1950.
Blasian Narratives (Jivan Atman, USA, 2017) The Black and Asian mixed race experience has not received much attention in film, so I was intrigued to find this exploration of “tensions and solidarity” between the wider communities through the personal testimonies of children of Black and Asian parents. A collaboration between Blasian students at the historically Black colleges of Morehouse and Spelman, the screening will include a spoken word performance afterwards at the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art.
Poi E: The Story of Our Song (Tearepa Kahi, New Zealand, 2016) When I saw that this documentary wasn’t included in this year’s Mostly British Film Festival in San Francisco, I was bummed. But turns out CAAMFest snagged it. For those who weren’t familiar with why the mash-up of the Michael Jackson Thriller dance with “Poi E” at the end of Taika Waititi’s Boy (New Zealand, 2010) was so significant and delightful, this documentary will fill you in.
Gook (Justin Chon, USA, 2017) Straight out of Sundance, this film tells of a friendship between two Korean American brothers and a young African American girl amidst the tensions that erupt between their communities during the Rodney King riots. Chon was great in the lead role of Seoul Searching (Benson Lee, USA, 2016) and his feature acting/directing/writing debut Man Up! (USA, 2016) was an entertaining bromance. But those were both primarily comedies, (although the former had major dramatic moments), so I’m curious to see how Chon tackles this difficult, serious subject in his sophomore effort.
And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool (NAGAHASHI Makoto, Japan, 2016) – Also straight out of Sundance where it won a Grand Jury Prize, this short is part of the “For the Faint of Heart” series at CAAMFest. I saw this while screening shorts for another festival and it was my favorite one of the over 120 I watched. About four young girls feeling trapped in their less than inspiring hometown, there is so much energy and vitality packed into its short 28 minute running time. Honestly, if you only see one thing at CAAMFest, make it this short.
For more information, visit the CAAMFest website.