San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival Presents Unique and Authentic Global Perspective
by Jessica Mosby
March 10 is the opening day of the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. From now until March 20, Bay Area residents can attend a varied selection of film screenings, discussions, interactive events, and musical performances at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose, California. I was particularly impressed with the selection of documentaries screening at the festival. The eight films in the documentary category each express a unique and global point of view that will definitely lead to thought provoking, and possibly heated, post-screening discussions.
I have been home sick for the last two weeks and have devoted myself to sleeping and watching the Fox hit show Glee. As a fan of musicals, particularly musicals that take place in high school, One Voice was my kind of movie. Director Lisette Marie Flanary documents the annual Kamehameha Schools Song Contest in which 2000 high school students fiercely compete to out sing one another. The 90-year-old competition is more than your run of the mill singing challenge as the students exclusively sing Hawaiian music. The documentary follows the students as they practice and prepare for the big day that is as much about singing as it is a time to celebrate the often maligned heritage and culture of the Hawaiian Islands.
In 2004 Hmong American deer hunter Chai Vang shot eight people, six of them fatally, after white hunters confronted Vang about trespassing on their property. The details of the confrontation, including who fired first, have never been established. What is not debatable is that the incident was racially charged and the aftermath of the tragedy further ostracized the Midwest’s Hmong community. The racism displayed during the trial is appalling, especially considering that Vang – who will spend the rest of his life in prison – was convicted by an all-white jury with no ballistic evidence as to who fired first presented in court. Was it self-defense or an unmotivated shooting by an angry outsider? Directors Mark Tang and Lu Lippold approach their subject with an objective tone, acknowledging the devastating effect of hunters’ deaths on their families and the unsettling racism against Hmongs that the shooting brought to the forefront of public debate.
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words
In the early days of Hollywood, Los Angeles native Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was a rising starlet. When racism stopped her from becoming an American leading lady, she moved to Europe and became an international phenomenon. The film Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words documents Wong’s magnetic screen presence, her steadfast commitment to portraying Asian characters with integrity, and her unending struggle for equality. Director Yunah Hong employs vintage footage, interviews with friends and fans, and historical reenactments by actress Doan Ly to create a compelling biographic documentary that will introduce Wong and her talent to a new generation of fans.
The premise of Resident Aliens is so shocking that you need someone to explain how this could happen, and director Ross Tuttle does just that. The documentary follows three twenty-something Cambodian Americans who immigrated to the United States as young children during the Cambodian genocide. All three were eligible for citizenship, but remained resident aliens. That is until they finished serving prison sentences for felonies. Once released from prison, they were deported to their “home country” of Cambodia. When Tuttle meets up with them in Phnom Penh, they are virtually alone without family or the language skills to assimilate back into their native culture. Tuttle follows his subjects as they take different approaches to establishing a new life all while struggling with the fact that they can never return to the United States.
The House of Suh
A modern day In Cold Blood, The House of Suh retells the 1993 murder of Robert O’Dubaine by his fiancé’s brother Andrew Suh. Andrew and his older sister/co-conspirator Catherine were convicted of the crime, and both are currently serving life sentences. Director Iris K. Shim asks the inevitable question: What would drive a 19-year-old college student with a promising future to kill his sister’s fiancé? From prison, a 34-year-old Andrew has some answers – and they are shocking! Equally astonishing is Catherine; despite the compelling facts supporting the theory that she planned the crime, she is resoundingly silent having severed all ties with her brother and denied all requests to be interviewed. For lovers of crime dramas, The House of Suh is a must see!
During the summer of 2007, directors Lynn True and Nelson Walker III worked with Tibetan filmmaker Tsering Perlo to intimately film a young couple and their baby living a traditionally nomadic life in eastern Tibet. The filmmakers gained unprecedented access to Locho’s and his wife Yama’s daily lives. The documentary’s title references the season during which the couple is filmed. What makes Summer Pasture so engaging is the honesty of its subjects and their unique place in a changing Tibet. In a technologically new world, many have abandoned the nomadic way of life to move to towns and live a less physically demanding life where they can send their children to school.
Tales of the Waria
Films about the LGTBQI community abroad are rare, particularly in countries where homosexuals are persecuted under religious laws. Tales of the Waria follows the waria of Indonesia, a community of biological men who live as women. Most warias do not undergo gender reassignment surgery as they want to observe Islam and return to the creator in the afterlife as a biological man. Director Kathy Huang documents her subjects with an understanding tone, especially considering that life in the world’s most populous Muslim country for those who identify as transgender can be quite disheartening and even tragic. What is most inspiring about Tales of the Waria is the waria who have found love and understanding with men who are willing to step outside of traditional value system to follow their hearts.
When you live in the Bay Area, the sheer number of film festivals – much less the volume of films screening at each festival – can be overwhelming. It seems that there is at least one film festival a month! And yet there is something different and special about the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I was engaged by all eight documentaries I previewed – and it is rare to enjoy every film in a category at a festival. Each selection portrays Asians and Asian Americans in a unique and authentic way. Documentaries like Tales of the Waria and Summer Pasture confront cultural clashes within one’s native culture; whereas The House of Suh and Open Season prominently feature the immigrant experience in a United States where the racism and discrimination that Anna May Wong faced in the 1920s and 1930s still persist today. For me, the joy of a film festival is that you get to see films that are generally more interesting and original than the blockbusters that get top billing at multiplexes. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival epitomizes this independent spirit by featuring a selection of films with an impressive global perspective while keeping it about individuals navigating an increasingly diverse and complicated world.
About the Author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.