Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Postponed Asian American Film Festivals Work Together To Champion Representation In Wake Of Anti-Asian Incidents

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

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The month of May marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and three of the biggest Asian film festivals in the country —  Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Center For Asian American Media’s CAAMFest in San Francisco, and San Diego Asian Film Festival — were revving up to showcase films and projects from all avenues of the Asian diaspora to help build community and put a spotlight on talent from all over the world — but then coronavirus happened. As the pandemic spread, Donald Trump started referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and there was a rise in racist acts against Asian and Asian Americans. As film festivals across the country started dropping one by one, the directors from the trio of the aforementioned festivals prepared for the inevitable while keeping a vigilant eye on what was happening to the Asian community.

In Los Angeles, Francis Cullado, Executive Director of Visual Communications, the group behind the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) said that the group starts planning for the festival a year-and-a-half out. LAAPFF, now in its 36th year, was set to kick off Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on April 30 and continue through May 8. When Cullado heard that SXSW was canceled, he was heartbroken, but he also knew this was a precedent-setting situation.

“We’ve always planned ahead in case of direct things that can happen to our festival,” Cullado said. “Changes in venues, weather — but this is something different. It affects everyone and it shows how reliant we all are to each other.”

Masashi Niwano, Festival & Exhibition Director at the Center for Asian American Media, the organization that puts on CAAMFest also knew that other festivals would be canceled or rescheduled. CAAMFest, which is in its 38th year, was set to follow LAAPFF and carry the torch of Asian film festivals from May 14-24.

Meanwhile, Kent Lee, Executive Director of Pacific Arts Movement, was prepping for that event’s 10th annual Spring Showcase set for April 16-23 and the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) which typically takes place in the fall.

The festivals screen titles from fests like SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival so since those were canceled, all three postponed their events to later dates that have yet to be announced. Even though these fests are not like SXSW and Cannes, Cullado points out that specialty fests like LAAPFF, CAAMFest and SDAFF play an important role in the festival ecosystem.

“We are one of the major film festivals in Los Angeles and our programming, while campaigning Asian Pacific artists and stories, is intersectional and creates cross-connections,” said Cullado. “While we showcase films from across the globe, we’re also very hyper-local.”

Niwano shares the sentiment. “We are a bridge between culture, art, storytelling and community,” he said. “Canceling a festival is devastating on so many levels, including loss of expected revenue from memberships, ticket sales and grant/sponsor funds to stay sustainable. For now, filmmakers have to reenvision their distribution strategies and find audiences in new ways.”

“No one wants to postpone or cancel a festival or event — regardless of whether it features 15 or 500 films,” said Lee. “Sure, smaller festivals like our Spring Showcase may not be seen as having the same weight on the festival circuit or impact on market decisions. What we do have in common, however, are the people we serve — the filmmakers, artists and our audiences…rely on festivals of all sizes in order to be connected together.” He continues, “Festivals like SDAFF are vital platforms that showcase voices and stories that might otherwise be inaccessible to the public.”

The festivals have been platform to spotlight Asian narratives. In recent years, the LAAPFF, CAAMFest and SDAFF have played host to films like Justin Chon’s Gook and Ms. Purple as well as Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light and the docuseries We Gon’ Be Alright from Bao Nguyen, who directed the Bruce Lee docu Be Water which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It also served as a platform for up and coming voices including Diane Paragas’s Yellow Rose, Andrea Walter’s Empty By Design, H.P. Mendoza’s Bitter Melon and Kulap Vilaysak’s Origin Story. 

These festivals have also celebrated milestones in Asian film and TV, honoring Wayne Wang’s Joy Luck Club, Justin Lin’s groundbreaking film Better Luck Tomorrow and reuniting the cast of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. All have conributed to the growth of Asian representation in Hollywood, paving the way for films like Crazy Rich Asians and shows like Fresh Off the Boat. That said, the postponement of all three festivals is upsetting at a time when there is a need for strong, authentic representation for Asian and Asian Americans as many of them were being subjected to acts of hate.

“Sadly, there is a long history of marginalized communities scapegoated and discriminated against, especially during hard times,” said Niwano in regard to the rise of discrimination against Asians during the pandemic. “This is why representation matters, on every screen. The more we, as a nation, see understand and empathize with people outside of our own communities, the better we are.”

Niwano adds as we struggle through the pandemic, racism of any kind should be the least of our collective concerns, but unfortunately, there has been a surge in Asian harassment. And it continues to grow.

Across social media platforms and in news stories, Asians have been sharing their stories. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council has launched Stop AAPI Hate, an open forum to report discrimination against Asian Americans. They launched March 19 and in the first two weeks received 1,135 reports — and that number keeps growing.

Last week, a group of Senate Democrats called on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to take action against the violence against Asians that has been on the rise since the pandemic began. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono led the charge with a letter that urged chair Catherine E. Lhamon to address these xenophobic acts to help prevent them.

“From being profiled while out grocery shopping to physical acts of violence, Asian Americans are unfortunately only shocked by how this pandemic has merely surfaced xenophobic sentiments that are typically masked in some way,” said Lee. “We have always needed representation on screen that reflects the diversity of Asians and Asian Americans and media has always had the power of inspiring understanding and compassion. Once again, we are reminded that there is always still a long journey ahead.”

Although the new dates for LAAPFF and CAAMFest are still in the works and the impact of SDAFF’s November fest is still unknown, Cullado, Niwano and Lee are exploring opportunities to work together and with other Asian film festivals across the country to unify in an effort to shine a brighter light on Asian representation to combat the widespread discrimination.

“We’ve been communication about our different festivals and identifying creative opportunities to work together in the future,” said Niwano. “This also expands larger to other Asian American and Asian Canadian film festivals. Because each festival has our own local microcosm of cultural events and film festivals, it is tricky to coordinate our in-person experiences. At the core, we are thinking of our filmmakers and want to be thoughtful about their potentially limited travel schedules and also creative ways to build more buzz around their films. It makes sense for our festivals to work together in some manner.”

“While the current landscape has our festivals imagining and creating other modes of engagement and presentation, all of us are looking forward to presenting a festival that brings our communities together,” added Cullado. “And when that happens, we hope our communities have a more sustained, heightened awareness of what the power of media is. While media can be used to destroy, our festivals utilize media to build and connect communities.”

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