The long yet not-so-illustrious history of Asian Americans in film includes such blots as the submissive woman and Dragon Lady types, the geek who provides comic relief (often for white counterparts), and the arch villain. All of these compound and express the overarching taint of foreignness.
You don’t have to search too hard for the same representations in pop culture today: there’s the kerfuffle over pop star Lorde’s Asian boyfriend, Day Above Ground’s ill-conceived song, “Asian Girlz,” and more.
It’s precisely the persistence of these archaic and often racist representations — when there are any Asian Americans represented at all — that spurred Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang to reconvene the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) last year.
The festival is back again for 2014, running from February 6th to 9th at Ark Lodge Cinema in Columbia City.
Au and Bang, both UW graduates and new to film festival planning, took the reins of SAAFF in 2012, after the festival had been dormant for five years.
“I felt a deep void not only personally, but for the Asian Pacific Islander community and Greater Seattle,” Bang says. “There is a significant Asian-American population in this city and to not have a festival that highlighted and celebrated their stories was disappointing and a disservice to the community.”
Au also cites the absence of Asian-American films from Seattle, especially given the city’s creative pedigree.
“Seattle is a hotbed for independent film festivals, “ Au notes, “but even with events happening year-round, you can count the number of Asian-American films making it to the big screen on your fingers.”
Along with a core group (including me) Au and Bang proceeded to fundraise, promote, and plan a three-day festival held last January at the Wing Luke Museum. The demand for a festival devoted to Asian-American independent film was eye-opening. Multiple screenings sold out at The Wing’s Tateuchi Story Theatre, and visitor after visitor noted how important the venue was for bringing to Seattle films that would not otherwise get on the radar in our corner of the country. Similarly, many directors of festival films were on hand to answer questions after screenings and at post-film mixers throughout the festival.
As LeiLani Nishime, UW communications professor and SAAFF advisor, puts it, festivals are “another way of creating the social bonds that help people feel connected to one another and to a more collective identity.”
Moreover, there’s something unique about physical gatherings that deepen connections that can’t be had in, say, the comments section on YouTube.
“While the internet connects people across distances and to a large number of people,” Nishime continues, “film festivals connect people to a particular place, with less breadth but more depth.”
For this year’s festival, Au and Bang, hope to bringing together an even broader community of Asian-American film supporters to watch an even stronger slate of films. With an extended run of four days and a new host in Ark Lodge Cinemas, the festival organizers are excited to offer a bigger venue to accommodate more viewers.
While other Asian-American film festivals like those held in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego also screen films with an Asian-Pacific focus, SAAFF prides itself on being a platform for films with connections to the Pacific Northwest. Only at SAAFF are local Asian-American films screened alongside their counterparts from across the U.S.
This emphasis on films by and about Asian Americans is undergirded by SAAFF’s belief that there’s still much to be said about how Asian Americans are represented and how we choose to represent ourselves. It’s a belief that’s given credence by the depth and diversity of experiences treated in this year’s program.
If your vision of Asian America is the engineering major who sailed through math and science into a lofty job at Microsoft, you’ll want to see “Raskal Love,” a documentary about local b-boy and actor Vanna Fut’s journey from Southern California as he tries to escape a gang-banging past he just can’t seem to shake.
If Asian Americans don’t appear to have much of a presence in U.S. politics and shaping social change, “One Generation’s Time” disproves this by highlighting the lives of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, Filipino-American activists in Seattle who fought for workers’ rights and union reform, leading to their devastating assassinations in 1981.
Similarly, “American Revolutionary” reminds us of the legendary work of 98-year-old activist Grace Lee Boggs, who rose from the Black Power movement to inspire countless others to advocate for equality.
And if you think Asian-American men can’t jump, “Linsanity” points to the force that is Jeremy Lin.
Although dealing with weighty Asian stereotypes is not a prerequisite for the festival, SAAFF has purposefully curated a diverse film line-up to expand the definition of “Asian American.”
“One of the great things about a film festivals is that you don’t need one film to do all things for all Asian Americans,” Nishime says. “The films speak to and against each other so that we can see that there are many ways of being Asian Americans.”
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival takes place from Feb. 6 through Feb. 9 at Ark Lodge Cinemas in Columbia City. Visit SAAFF’s website for the full program and to purchase tickets.