As the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) speeds toward the horizon, their 20th anniversary partnership with the city of San Diego shines with the bright light of cinematic delight where like any successful marriage…it isn’t always about looking at each other, but looking in the same direction. One of those directions that is evident in the theater is when crowds of differing ethnic communities, races, gender identity, partnership bond choices and religions come together in cultivating a global citizen mindset with the simple act of doing one thing…watching the same movie.
In speaking with the Pacific Arts Movement (Pac-Arts) executive director Kent Lee, SDAFF being their flagship event, he avers, “The 20th Anniversary has been a year for us to reflect. For me, its my fourth year here and it was an opportunity for me to look back on the history of us as an organization.”
For those that came in late, SDAFF began in 2000, when Leader Lee Ann Kim with soul fire and a cool personality, with help from the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego, founded the San Diego Asian Film Foundation (renamed Pac-Arts in 2012).
When I began covering SDAFF in 2007, during my first of many interviews over the years with who I respectfully call Fearless Leader Lee Ann Kim, she shared that the festival is a means to bring people of all different backgrounds together, Asian and non-Asian, and do so by screening diverse, well-rounded, top-notch quality films. Though an Asian Film Festival, she wanted it to be all-inclusive for everybody. In 2006, 15-20% of the audience was non-Asian. By her retirement in 2016, 45% was non-Asian.
Kim added, “For Asian American communities, when these films are seen on the big screen, they create a sense of empowerment and cultural pride, which they daily don’t get to experience due to the lack of diversity in mainstream TV and Hollywood films. Our film festival helps us to redefine what it means to be Asian American and we’re still trying to figure that out in America because the mentality is such that we identify with the country we come from, the language our parents spoke, rather than seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters, and as Americans first.”
As the festival gained steam, it was their 10th Anniversary that earned SDAFF the label of being a world-class festival when during the 2009 devastating economic climate, when the country’s top Asian and non-Asian film festivals drastically cut their programs, SDAFF didn’t. At the time, the 30-year-old N.Y. Asian Film Festival cut their normal 8-Day festival to less than three days and the powerhouse L.A. Asian Film Festival only ran for eight days showcasing 183 films. Yet against economic logic, SDAFF ran for 14 days and featured 200+ films from 20 countries.
Kim reflected, “We had a reputation and since it was our milestone 10th anniversary, we decided not to go small but balls to the wall all out. I wanted it to be a thriving festival.”
This said a lot about the organizers and their passion to not bow to the economy and exceeded the safe positions made by other festival approaches by putting themselves out there to show the world that Asian film is worth the time and effort. Global media recognized this achievement as proof positive that Kim and SDAFF was setting a higher standard. SDAFF had become the most important exhibition of Asian and Asian American Cinema on the U.S. West Coast and the second largest Asian film festival in North America.
During my first interview with Kent on why he became the new executive director for Pac-Arts/SDAFF in 2016, he stressed, “Apart from films, people come together as part of a social gathering and social experience. When Lee Ann retired, with my non-profit management background, loving the organization, what they stand for, and believing in how they open people’s minds in a positive manner, I expressed my interest in the position and here I am. It’s fun, socially invigorating and it gives me a sense of family.”
Skipping to 2019 and SDAFF’s 20th Anniversary, Kent admits, “It is a milestone, yet for me, it’s a mix and not necessarily my milestone because I’ve been here so few years. It’s Lee Ann’s milestone and one that she should certainly celebrate. To hit 20 is an achievement. Lee Ann telling us stories about the early years of the festival…we’re just building upon the foundation that she started.
“I started as a volunteer in 2010 and most of the staff came in after that, so it’s not necessarily our history but to be able to hear it from Lee Ann and others that have been here for the amount of time to see the impact it has had on filmmakers actors and actresses who back in 2000 would have plenty of time to go to a film festival. Yet now we are excited to see that they are being consistently asked to act, write, direct and be featured on screen. It’s amazing what has come with the years and what’s been done to advance the representation of what is now.
“Now…is that we’re a different organization than when we started. The name’s different, focus is different, there was no paid staff when Lee Ann began. Over the years, it’s not just about the organization or our work, but also about the audiences that have supported us. So for us coming into this 20th year, part of our focus is how do we not tout this, as not a milestone year? For many people it’s just a number. How do we turn around and thank the audiences and communities that they have made the work possible with their willingness to support it, to attend the films and to fund our work on a regular basis?”
By focusing on the achievement in three celebratory directions. The first of which began over the summer when Pac-Arts initiated a kind of preparatory phase by creating a series called Jump Cuts, a monthly array of events where each month featured a program that tied back to something programmatically in Pac-Arts history: organizing a conference for creative workshops and careers; doing a concert that tied into the Blowfish Program that highlighted music videos and a music video history of Asian Americans; the Food Crawl events where a series of buses would take folks to 14 different restaurant on Convoy Street to explore and sample what Asian American food looks like in the public today; and with Real Voices, a program that celebrated documentary filmmaking.
Kent explains, “Each event was in a different part of San Diego and the hope was that we would be able to reach and engage communities that have supported us in different neighborhoods throughout San Diego.”
Speaking of Asian American communities, when I ask Kent what current issues are important to the Asian American community and how is SDAFF connecting with these issues at the festival, he thoughtfully posits, “It’s hard to say what are the specific issues. I feel like many issues that Asian American communities have are not different than other issue faced often by people of color, face or by any minority group in general.
“Last year, people celebrated representation and for us it was representation in media. It was a banner year with films like Crazy Rich Asian and Searching, with a lot of people touting the expansive representation that took place for Asian Americans. Yet Brian (Brian Hu; SDAFF’s artistic director) always reminded me that representation has always been there…we’ve always been showing films made by Asians and Asian American filmmakers for 20 years now and it’s just a matter of what audiences are these works getting shown to. We’re constantly pushing and showing that representation is important on the big screen and exists in the work we’re highlighting and with the filmmakers that have been here in the festival’s early years, where some have made in Hollywood.”
Thus the second way of this anniversary celebration stems from a project Brian embarked upon this summer; working with the Los Angeles Times to find out what are the top 20 Asian American films over the past 20 years. The result were published in the LA times in early October and has garnished a lot of attention.
Kent shares, “Justin Lin (known for directing Star Trek Beyond (2016), four Fast and Furious films and recently championing Bruce Lee’s Warrior for Cinemax) is represented twice in the list, Better Luck Tomorrow at No. 1 and F&F: Tokyo Drift at 20. Other significant films from the list have played at the festival but never made it to theaters.”
Yet Kent sternly notes that two episodes of Warrior were shown during their 2019 Spring Showcase, a TV show that has made Bruce Lee once again a highly relevant individual in regard to Asian American entertainment by the show’s depiction and discussion of the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) of 1882. It’s the only time in American history that singled out a specific race and nationality with a law that made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and Chinese nationals already living here to become U.S. citizens. Originally meant for 10 years, the CEA was enforced for 60 years. During the times prior to the CEA, white and Mexicans mass lynched Chinese in 1871 Los Angeles and the punishment for killing a Chinaman was a $12.00 fine.
The Lee legacy has again been capturing the attention of mainstream America and China via Quentin Tarantino’s controversial and wrongful depiction of Bruce Lee as an arrogant, boastful asshole in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where upon the behest of Lee’s only surviving child, Shannon Lee, as of 10/18/19, the PRC government has respectfully and considerately cancelled the release of OUTIH in China.
Kent points out, “In today’s political environment, we’re seeing a lot of exclusion and negative portrayals of people of color, immigrants, being from somewhere else or of something else. Even listening to the news, the wording that’s being used, I hate to say, by our president, to say Americans at the other end of the political spectrum are evil people trying to ruin our country is shocking. It’s an issue that I think we’ve always been trying to tackle. So how do we bring people together through film and how do we inspire more compassion because that is our mission statement that aspires us to accomplish ways to build a more compassionate society? It makes our work even more important.”
Kent hesitates in believing that his personal vision is what drives the organization adding, “Everything we accomplish now is done as a group and as a community. I absolutely believe there are decisions I have to make, directions I can take us, but I think in order for us to be viable it has to be something both our team as a whole and the community buys into. Over the last few years we’ve made forays into doing more to engage the Asian American culinary community, telling stories through food, and then onto the screen. The biggest example being our Film to Table events. This year’s Chew the Scene was the biggest ever in regard to the number of partners engaged and people attending, showing that food is another way we engage communities, and their hearts and mind. They’re hungry for food and film, and finding ways to continue to tie these together is important.
He insists that relevancy is not attained by just showing films but by bringing communities together so they can experience what is built around the festival. This also gives people and filmmakers the opportunity to engage with each other, have discussions, drink, eat food and share in the community experience with what they’re seeing.
“Sometimes we step on toes,” Kent nods, “and showcase films some wont agree with. What’s unique about us relative to our program, for example, is that we show LGBT film perspectives outside of what we think of in the United States, because for many people, the issue is localized. They see it in local politics and with the with people they know. With film, they now see how issues are being dealt in places like Taiwan or Vietnam. We’re seeing this year and the last few years several commercial Vietnamese and Bollywood films with LGBT central characters. A couple of years ago you’d never see that happening especially with top stars of those countries playing those characters. The context of that is important because if audiences are coming out to see those films, they show how long of a road there is to go for many people around the world and here too.”
A third unique activity embarked upon for the 20th was a project where filmmaking and storytelling were tied together using local communities as the source material. Kent enthusiastically tells, “For the first time ever, we commissioned a series of short films that highlighted Asian America stories from neighborhoods that specifically have Asian American or Pacific Islander roots. We don’t often see these kind of stories at this local level and thus four filmmakers either from, born or attended school in San Diego, will be featured in the opening night film, The Paradise We Are Looking For, which includes stories from South Bay, National City, City Heights and University City where the differing portraits and story subjects are connected to Asian American communities.”
The South Bay story is about the 20-year reunion of the class of ’99 at Montgomery high school that features interview with classmates of the director, thinking back to what it’s like growing up in a community that was predominantly Filipino and Mexican, close to the border and beach, with the military nearby. National City focuses on karaoke bar called Gapo and the individuals who visit everyday to sing. There’s a riveting documentary about a funeral director of a mortuary in City Heights who took up her role to help serve a community and the refugees who needed to have their funeral arrangements and traditions honored. The final story is an idea born from Lee Ann about when a Marine Corps Air Station Miramar F-18 jet crashed into Korean family’s home in University City in 2008.
My wife and I live in University City, our home on the edge of a canyon where jets fly over when they take off from the base, head toward the ocean and then return to base making they’re final approach to the airfield through the valley. We remember that fateful afternoon, when we heard a jet losing speed and altitude, you can tell by the way the sound echoes around the valley. We knew something was amiss. The pilot evaded hitting the local high school full of students and crashed into a single house. The film reveals the effects on the local civilians and the huge impact on the Marine community, revealing what it means to live in San Diego.
Kent adds, “It was our hope to use our 20th to do something different rather than how great we’ve been here 20 years but to look and see what stories are relevant for our communities, what stories that haven’t been told and what’s our role in sharing them.”
When I ask Kent what are the aims for the upcoming year he relates that a lot of their focus has been on the anniversary, a sort of cherishing the moment of celebrating SDAFF history mentioning, “We’ll be here after 20. We have more work to do and we’re thinking about the challenges of engaging everyone beyond an anniversary year, which maybe can present us with a unique opportunity to gather people. It’s important to engage people not just because its anniversary year and this was the chance to display that by reengaging them for the future, to show them this is worth it in regard to what we’re doing today. The documentary series is new and we need to garnish support to continue telling stories like that.
“As previously shared, it’s been a year of reflection. So much credit must go to Lee Ann and how she started this with nothing, just this crazy vision that needed to exist. She did all the hard work. Our job is to find out how we can sustain and build upon it and to find new audiences and ways to connect with them, while maintaining our connection with old audiences.