Anne del Castillo, POV’s director of development, was in California last week for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. She saw some great films while she was there — here’s her report on what to look out for.
Presented by the Center for Asian American Media, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is the nation’s largest showcase for more than 120 new Asian and Asian American films. Festival director Chi-hui Yang and his team always put together an amazing lineup and events. In just the two days that I was there, I saw a range of films that reflect the broad diversity of Asian and Asian American cinema. The festival took place over 11 days, so this is just a tiny slice of what was shown there.
At POV, we’ve had the good fortune of working with Oscar-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu on the broadcast of her stunning documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (POV 2005) about outsider artist Henry Darger, so I was eager to see her narrative feature debut. It wasn’t until the film was introduced that I realized I’d been mixing up my cultural references: Ping Pong Playa is about a Chinese-American wannabe hip-hop b-ball player, and not a Latino update of Beach Blanket Bingo. Though some might say the film is predictable, for me it was reminiscent of a John Hughes film, with Jimmy Tsai as the reluctant, if not implausible, hero, “C-dub,” who must cast aside his aspirations to become the first Chinese-American basketball star in order to defend his family’s honor in the Golden Cock Ping Pong Tournament. Though a dramatic departure from her documentary work, Yu proves to be just as skilled at producing an off-the-wall, hilarious comedy.
On the other side of the spectrum is 19-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf‘s Buddha Collapsed from Shame. The beautiful, but devastating film set in Afghanistan marks the feature debut of the youngest daughter of Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar). The film opens with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, setting the atmosphere for the rest of the film, which plays like a documentary as we follow little Baktay in her quest to go to school like her friend Abbas. Along the way, she is confronted with one hurdle after another, and the film succeeds in depicting the sense of terror that years of violence and struggle have imposed on the country. The film received the Peace Prize at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.
Serambi, on the other hand, is a documentary that plays like a narrative. A collaborative effort by four Indonesian filmmakers — Garin Nugroho, Lianto Luseno, Tonny Trimarsanto, Viva Westi — Serambi (meaning “veranda”) follows four individuals in Indonesia’s Aceh province as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of the tsunami. Despite all the footage I have seen of the tsunami, nothing compares to the opening scene of this film. It is startling and emotional to watch the sequence of waves as they roll into the center of town, first at one meter, then three, then six, carrying with them the wreckage of cars and homes from neighboring towns. Although it is a scripted documentary, the film offers an authentic portrayal of how the lives of each of the four characters have been transformed as a result of the loss and devastation they experienced.
During the festival, I also attended a filmmaker summit hosted by ITVS and CAAM. An impressive group of Asian American filmmakers gathered for the event, from veteran filmmakers Christine Choy, Loni Ding, Steven Okazaki, and Deann Borshay Liem to newcomers Duc Nguyen, Karin Chien, and Marissa Aroy, to name a few. It was an amazing experience for me to sit at the table with a group of filmmakers, whose films are vital documents of Asian American history, offering authentic portraits of Asian American experience. The summit offered an opportunity for ITVS and CAAM to talk about new developments and programming initiatives at their respective organizations, as well as to get perspectives from the filmmakers about the impact of the changing media landscape on their work. Not surprisingly, there is a guarded sense of hope about the future of independent media. It’s clear that there continues to be a need for organizations like ITVS, CAAM and POV to work collaboratively with filmmakers in order to insure sustainability for the field.
Later this year, Chi-hui will curate The Age of Migration, the 54th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, June 21-27, 2008 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY.