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For viewers of Asian American film, 2006 was a notable year. It was the year that many first-time feature filmmakers debuted their projects to critical acclaim not only in the Asian American community but also in the greater indie film scenes. However, while quality and quantity were there, acquiring distribution was another hurdle in itself.
It's a potentially awkward dichotomy that many can relate to: Asian or non-Asian, filmmaker or non-filmmaker. No one wants to be defined by their race. But, in terms of community, there is also an inevitable connection that binds people together, because as much as we might resist, society often takes an individual's minority status into consideration, whether it's conscious or unconscious.
For Asian Americans, because we haven't yet reached a point in the mainstream media where our voices are heard and our images are represented accurately, there is naturally an emergence of pioneers who are passionate about making changes and breaking through the barriers. As Adachi explains: "Anyone who is serious about advancing the political and cultural agenda of Asian Americans has to be involved in media and the creation of images, news, and storytelling.... If Asian Americans are excluded from popular culture and media, then we are excluded from society and access to it."
Because this struggle exists, Asian Americans are linked despite themselves and therefore propelled forward by each others' successes. For example, if one Asian American director succeeds, it helps the rest of the community because it shows the rest of the mainstream that Asian Americans are capable of filmmaking that is notable and inspiring and unique.
Asked if they feel a sense of community amongst fellow Asian American filmmakers, many say they do. "I've felt that way ever since I screened my short at the Asian American film festivals," says Kwan. "I think the Asian film community is unique in a way since we face all the same challenges as any emerging indie filmmaker, but we also have the added challenge of convincing funders of the marketability of Asian stories. Our adversities certainly can create a stronger bond."
Lee hopes that the camaraderie and support within the community continue as Asian American filmmaking moves forward: "As Jane Chen and Mia Riverton, my two producers in crime, always say: 'A rising tide lifts all ships.'" She describes many of her fellow filmmakers as all having individual connections with each other and actively trying to help each other whenever they can. In particular, she acknowledges Greg Pak and Michael Kang as being the best at organizing support and bringing awareness to other filmmakers' projects on their websites.
"Most of my filmmaker friends are from New York, where I lived for the past 16 years," says Kang. They got together weekly to work on scripts, practice directing, and provide each other with constructive criticism. Even now, he still asks his friends to watch rough cuts of his film for feedback.
"These days," says Kang. "I love meeting new filmmakers out there. Usually, it only happens in festival settings, but usually that's where the best parties are anyway."
"I think this year's Asian festival circuit began to establish a community of filmmakers," says Wong. "I definitely looked forward to seeing and hanging out with them at each Asian festival. It did start to feel like a family." In fact, Kwan singles out "the soju-filled karaoke nights with the filmmakers and staff" among her fondest moments of the year in Asian American cinema.
"The types of people I met this year at the festival -- we had such a blast," says Chopra. "Everyone's work is so different, so there isn't a competitive vibe. I think that's something about the festival circuit. We're really into supporting each others' work. It's a new generation of filmmakers, and I still keep in touch with a lot of them. These types of friendships don't always happen."
A common concern of Asian American filmmakers is to avoid being pigeonholed, an issue which can come up when deciding where to screen one's film. In the past, Asian American film festivals have been seen as both a blessing and a curse, depending on who you talk to. Questions like "Do you want to play at the Asian festivals?" and "Is it going to limit our film?" inevitably make filmmakers nervous.
According to Ferrer, this year was no different: "The same old problems exist -- sponsorships and funding, drumming up audiences, dealing with diva-ish filmmakers, the usual stuff. [Select] Asian American films filling out someone's diversity line-up card of programming. Having to sit down with filmmakers and explain to them why their works aren't programmable. Certain APA filmmakers telling me their works would program best in a mainstream (read: white) film festival, instead of being ghettoized in an APA one."
By tracing the trajectories of many of this year's films, we're definitely seeing a greater level of flexibility. Speaking to some of the filmmakers who have chosen to screen at the Asian American film festivals, there isn't as much of the feeling that one can't cross over and be part of both worlds. Many films this year have been savvy about balancing both mainstream and specialized festivals. Perhaps they are working under the philosophy that having more audiences watching their films can't hurt them
Punching at the Sun premiered at Sundance, screened at the Tribeca film festival, but also played in many international, Asian American, and South Asian film festivals as well. Colma: The Musical and Red Doors were able to play both the Asian and LGBT film circuits -- despite not being films that are obviously gay or Asian -- and utilized these communities to generate positive world of mouth. From there, the buzz kept growing until it inevitably sparked attention from the outside. So Yong Kim's film In Between Days was distinct, because despite being a personal story about a Korean American girl, it got most of its attention outside the Asian American film festival circuit. Similarly, while Mora Stephens' Conventioneers didn't have any Asian American characters in it, the film was able to successfully play at Asian American festivals and the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. The Motel and Eve and the Fire Horse both got attention at Sundance, and looking forward, Kwan says she has gotten offers to direct scripts that aren't Asian-themed at all.
These different combinations and successes show a greater level of open-mindedness placed both on Asian American filmmakers and their films that will hopefully continue to diversify and grow.
In addition, a lot of the filmmakers that frequent the Asian American film circuit find this particular festival scene a useful, enjoyable, and positive means of exhibition.
"My [initial] reservations stemmed from the fear that my films would be marginalized and I would be pigeon-holed as an Asian (North) American filmmaker," says Kwan. "I've since learned that it is possible to skirt between the two worlds.... Now, I have no qualms about screening my films at specialized festivals such as Asian or women festivals. I know of a few Asian filmmakers who refuse to play at Asian festivals, but I think it's a shame, because I love to hear the responses from a predominantly Asian audience. The questions are more challenging because they are from an insider's perspective, and I learn from them as well."
One thing that Chopra observed about the 2006 Asian American festival scene was the unique loyalty that lingered way beyond people's individual desires to showcase and promote their own work. Even when actors and directors 'break through,' they still come back to support the cause. "This year at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, there were a lot of stars there," he says. "Daniel Dae Kim was there, Justin Lin, Grace Park. You look around and they're all giving back to the film festival community. Now there is talent that has crossed over to mainstream TV and movies, and it's never been like that before. And they're all coming together and happy to be part of the festival.
"I think we're a new generation that actually got our start on the Asian American film circuit. Some say that you should never play your films in the Asian American film circuit, but a lot of us owe a lot to these festivals. My very first short film: the first place it played was the VC Filmfest in 1999 when I was in college -- and it's not as if any mainstream festivals were going to play it. If I hadn't gotten affirmation from that festival, who knows? I could have been discouraged."
Date Posted: 1/12/2007