Sunday, April 26, 2009

APRIL 2009: Taking Time to Remember...

It has been a l-o-n-g time since I last entered a diary entry in this blog, but it hasn't been for a lack of trying. Between braving the cold of Berlin back in February to enduring the crazy up-and-down weather of Southern California the past few weeks, me and the Film Festival organizing team have been busy "sealing the deal" for this year's edition of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. As I sat and perused the review copy of the program catalog that is rolling off the presses this weekend, I am reminded of all the works that came OH-SO-CLOSE to being included in this year's edition, only to get left out due to scheduling conflicts with distributors and other film festivals, the dreaded "premiere policy" issue, and a lot of other stuff that doesn't deserve to get mentioned. But that is water under the bridge. And there is so much more work to do between now and the start of Festival Week 2009 on April 30.

I could be using this entry to hype one of our "big event" pictures like CHILDREN OF INVENTION, TREELESS MOUNTAIN, or DEPARTURES; or even one or more of the exceptional works we are showing from Japan, the Philippines, or other parts of Southeast Asia -- truly, there are indeed a lot of highlights to talk about, but in the middle of all that planning, we got word of a rather sad event that helps to put things in perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, David and I were in the middle of finalizing reception plans with one of this year's filmmakers when he noted that he got word of the sudden passing of Joselito Torres, a filmmaker whose works we've shown at the Film Festival in years past. Lito, who began making films while studying at Los Angeles City College in the late 1990s, was a very personable fellow and very persistent in bettering himself. I wouldn't exactly call him the most technically accomplished filmmaker we've seen rolling through our doors -- his 1998 short, A BOX OF COOKIES, a revenge fantasy that underlined his fervent interests in foregrounding the AIDS epidemic in ways that didn't hew to the "victim" mentality, was also typical of the need for him to hone his craft and storytelling aesthetic, as his early works were of such a quality I could best describe (charitably) as heartfelt, but crude. Yet, as David would tell me time and again, there was a "there" in Lito's work -- an intangible gift for storytelling and a genuine desire to become more polished, more accomplished, that was itching to get out of that body-builder physique of his. The fact that his works involved the participation of a stable of friends and acquaintances that over the years became a sort of support network for Lito and his ever-evolving creative vision -- a kind of "St. Elmo's Fire" clan, of sorts. I would always see Lito and his friends at the Film Festival, or around town at other film events that his works would show at. And, in spite of the subsequent protestations by our program committees past that we'd be doing a lot better -- a WHOLE lot better -- than taking on his works, me and david would continue to invest in Lito's vision. And you know what? Little by little, the work actually got better, more accomplished. Oh, sure, he still had a ways to go, as evidenced by a long-form documentary he completed and presented at the 2005 Film Festival, QUEEN OF ASIA, about the contestants of a transgendered/cross-dressers' beauty pageant and their reasons for choosing to flaunt their innate beauty in such a public, cruel forum. But it was clear from looking at that work, with a large and supportive audience, that Lito, from a filmmaking point of view, was growing up.

The Festival, with the participation of Lito's good friends and members of select organizations who have supported him (and vice versa) will gather at this Friday evening, May 1 at the DGA to celebrate his life and filmmaking accomplishments. For me, Lito's passing is just another unpleasant duty that I, as a film festival co-director, must acknowledge -- he certainly wasn't the first, nor will he be the last. But I'll instead be filled with warm recollections of an irrepressible, at times goofy, but always sincere and earnest gentleman whose desire to better his filmmaking craft and ingratiate himself into his community of fellow Asian Pacific American artists exemplifies why me and David "keep the door open" for filmmakers who are worth supporting, even when others might not think so.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FEBRUARY 2009: Back From Europe, Pt. 1

A number of weeks back, I took a close look at the works that came in through our Open Call as well as the works we solicited from various film festivals around the world and came to the conclusion that in order to make our programming truly special, I was going to have to take a week out of February, when the bulk of our programming decisions would be made and confirmed, and travel once again to Germany to seek out works (and in select cases, lock down confirmations that were "sitting on the fence") at the European Film Market and the Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival. The decision to travel into another cold weather film festival so soon after enduring the biting cold and lukewarm offering of the Sundance Film Festival was not taken lightly: since we decided five years ago that trekking to South Korea in the fall to attend the Pusan International Film Festival to seek out new works was a more productive business itinerary for me, I've always found myself looking towards Europe to see what the programmers of the Berlinale were up to. Though not primarily known as a film festival that focusses on Asian international cinema the way that PIFF does, the Berlinale nevertheless offers a daring, if slim, profile of new Asian cinema; and through its complementary European Film Market, a gathering place to discover new works in an environment decidedly more intense and frenzied than the main Festival itself.

Though I've attended events in the past few months that, on paper, should have yielded a crop of new selections, the fact is that such selections can't be guaranteed to possess a long shelf life. Some works are quickly swept up into "distributor hell" and long-term "festival strategies" (a common code that exposes a producer's wishes that their work is deserving of mainstream festival exposure, at the expense of the less obvious dividends that specialty film festivals such as ours can yield); while other times, selections I was initially excited about just don't hold up well. The reality is that year after year there will always be that crop of programming "spoils," and in order to minimize the prospect that our committee would be obliged to select from a crop of so-called "leftovers," I made the decision to trek to Berlin and see if the new works that emerged subsequent to our jaunt through the American Film Market in November and Sundance in mid-January would be accessible to us.

Another, stressful reason for going had to do with securing works I saw last October at PIFF, when they weren't yet screened but in final-cut stages. Since then I made some invitation for select films only to discover that they have been indeed invited to Berlinale and its heavyweight precursor, the International Film Festival Rotterdam. So, my mission was simple: secure the films that may fall through the cracks, and view brand-new works that could possibly make it into our program in May.

As I'm writing this entry on the plane on the way back from Berlin (the Festival just concluded a couple of hours ago, according to the clock on my laptop), I'm still processing the week that was, and will be sending off follow-up letters in the next day to take care of the final details.

Friday, February 13, 2009

FEBRUARY 2009: That "Question" Again

It's been a couple of weeks since my return from Park City, and the question of whether I find any identification in mainstream stories (and even more pressing, if I can look past the cultural "exotica" factor) has remained a nagging one. One night, in between screenings, I explain my activities to Ellen Park, who manages the Media Fund for San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media. I mention my ever-present struggle with reconciling support for our communities' APA makers regardless of subject matter versus those mainstream directors and producers who create stories that purport to give a "face" to diasporic and overseas Asian communities and peoples -- these days, I guess the question has taken on the identity of The "Slumdog" Question, given that very famous film that's screaming out "Oscar me!" lately.

I find that Ellen also faces such conflicts at her work, particularly since she finds herself in the position of considering projects by mostly white directors who locate their stories in Asian themes and locales. We agree that, all around, the question is a tricky one, and at some point we're bound to leave someone dissatisfied or unhappy with our decisions, both from the funding side (Ellen) to the exhibition and promotion side (me). I leave that question to hang for the time being, as I leave to attend a midnight screening of the documentary GOOD HAIR.

As Sundance soldiers on without me (I leave midway through the Festival, without a clue as to how the rest of the week turns out), I ponder the effects that "visions and perspective" inform the remaining works I take in. The most challenging, the documentary EL GENERAL by Natalia Almada, attempts to stitch together the fragments of the directors vague recollections of her grandfather, a politician who became Mexico's President in the late 1920s. I say "challenging" because I was obliged to screen the film on a Sunday night, the worst possible time to view a work that demands the viewer's utmost attention. "Challenging, too, for its daring storytelling structure: starting with halting recollections by the director's mother recorded before her death, the audio tapes yield grudging insight into a father/mother relationship, and it is left to a pastiche of audio, interviews, and astounding archival footage to tell the story. Were I attentive enough to really watch the film, I would have to say that EL GENERAL is the most absorbing documentary I've seen in a long time.

Far more problematic was GOOD HAIR, a documentary produced by a team led by comedian Chris Rock (the director, Jeff Stilson, and executive producers were, in fact, part of the team that created comedian Rock's HBO talk show of a few year's back). This exhaustive examination of everything to do with nappy hair finds its creative kernal in a comment that Rock's youngest daughter shares with father one night -- that she doesn't have "good hair" like the people she sees on television and advertising. This prompts father Rock of a far-flung journey around the globe to see how different societies, but the least being Black diasporic society, views black hair, styles and decorates black hair, and otherwise worships and reviles black hair. Yet something was missing from the documentary -- Rock's own children, particularly the one who raises the question in the first place. Without the kids perspectives or on-screen personages to provide any sort of counterpoint to dad's efforts (outside of a few throwaway still shots somewhere in the first ten minutes of the film -- oooh, don't blink, or you'll miss them!) the journey to GOOD HAIR is criminally incomplete, and for me, real tiresome, real quick.

For me, the most nettlesome conflict between "vision and perspective" versus "representation" played itself out during the screening of PAPER HEARTS, a "hyrid" film seemingly built for the Judd Apatow Generation. Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec, the film is in many respects the creation of its screenwriter and executive producer, a comedian named Charlyne Yi who made her mark as one of the background "buddies" in the comedy KNOCKED UP. A cockeyed romance built around Yi's documentary footage seeking the answers to why people are fearful of love (and why she herself resists throwing aside her exterior smarminess for true love), I came away wondering if the narrative love story (devised by Yi and director after observing that she constantly insinuates herself into the documentary footage) was more the director's doing; or if director Jasenovec's role was subservient to serving Yi's story. I dunno. The film received big enough laughs from the audience I sat through it with, but I'm not easily swayed. PAPER HEARTS is a work of very manneristic filmmaking, and weeks later, I'm still debating in my head whether this was a work of genuine guerrilla filmmaking, or some kind of big put-on.

I see Ellen in a few weeks time, though I doubt that with a film festival of her own to work on in San Francisco she'll have time to sit down and play back with me that conversation we had that night. No doubt, The "Slumdog" Question will hound her as she sifts through another round of funding applications later this year, in the naked light of day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JANUARY 2009: Extraordinary People, Unique Lives

Day Four at Park City, Utah: as I mentioned previously, the weather has been unseasonably warm, I walked into an anti-fur demonstration on Main Street, and I'm now determined to replace my wifi-impaired laptop. Internet hotspots in the Park City condos -- tell me where, I'd like to know.

Sitting down to a lunch at a Burger King just off the main drag, I recall the first time I walked into the joint two years ago and observed the steady stream of Latino day laborers, townies and festival-goers lining up for fast food. In a sense, this is the real Park City, with no inflated prices, no presenses, and no worries. I now find myself making at least one pit stop at the Burger King on Park Avenue -- I come here to decompress and think without having to stress over where I have to be like, five minutes ago. Definitely a welcome respite.

Many of the feature-length works I see as part of the Sundance slate foreground the stories of remarkable people, placed into extraordinary and at time hazardous situations. A pair of works I was able to screen while helping out with the preparations for the 8th annual APA Filmmakers Experience Reception also distinguish themselves for referencing world events both historical and modern, but as with just about everything I've been watching, their success depends on how one reacts and identifies with the situations depicted.

For instance, take the emotional roller-coaster that was the back-to-back bill I took in -- Ngawang Cheophel's TIBET IN SONG and Cherien Dabis' AMREEKA. Both foreground stories of external and internal exiles in markedly different ways, and with varying degrees of success. In TIBET IN SONG, director Cheophel, a musicologist by profession, embarks on a mission to record traditional Tibetan folk music, an art form that is rapidly dying due to the introduction of recorded music by the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s, and by the PRC's insistence that lyrics that stressed Tibetan traditions and stories be replaced with praises to the wisdom of Communism and, specifically, mao Zedong. Those who continued to uphold the tradition of Tibetan folk music and arts ran the risk of immediate and lengthy imprisonment, a fate that befell Cheophel upon his return to Tibet in 2001. Since released after an intense five-year battle to win his freedom, Cheophel narrates his story by intercutting scenes that depict the damages that outside culture has wrought on Tibetan folk music and its practitioners. Clips of Tibetan singers crooning lyrics singing praises to Mao and collecctive struggle encroach upon traditional stories and fables; while in the modern-day streets of Llasa, the capital city, mix tapes and even contemporary strains of hip hop music relegate the practice of composing and singing traditional Tibetan music to a refugee community in northern India, where persecuted Tibetan folk artists flee. Foregrounding the history of Tibet's 20th century history through both mesmerizing archival footage and director Cheophel's restrained narration (the Dalai Llama is referenced, though he thankfully doesn't hog up any more screen time than absolutely needed), TIBET IN SONG moved me deeply, something that 9 a.m. press screenings fail to do for me much these days.

A completely different turn is provided by Muna Farah, a Palestinian bank examiner and single parent who is presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to emigrate from her Ramallah, West Bank suburb to Chicago in AMREEKA. As played by actress Nisreen Faour, Muna is indeed the archetypical bank beaurocrat: a bit plump, stern-looking in the face of impatient customers and hapless co-workers, and unfailingly devoted to her teenage son Fadi. Things change when her family is granted a U.S. green card. Reluctant to leave her home country, she is determined to provide Fadi a future that would be impossible for a Palestinian man with little hope to attend college. The turning point comes soon after, when at yet another Israeli checkpoint that mother and son are forced to endure, Fadi is subjected, at rifle-point and in front of his mother, to a strip search for explosive devices on his person. That's it, they're outta there. When next we see them, Muna and Fadi land in Chicago, where her relatives live in relative luxury and where Muna can enroll Fadi in a college prep school and set about building a new life, complete with a new job.

Okay, hold everything: did I not mention that the story takes place circa 2003, at about the same time that the U.S. invades Iraq and overthrows Saddam Hussein? I think you know what happens next: Muna's cousin's husband, a successful doctor, sees an exodus of patients who suddenly feel uncomfortable with an Arab physician; without an income to finance their quality of life, the family falls behind on mortgage payments; and husband and wife have a falling out over her free-spending ways, not to mention the two new additions to the family. Muna's savings are confiscated at immigration control, placing immediate pressures on her landing a job, and fast. No one is hiring, except for the most unlikely of places -- a White Castle Burger, where Muna is hired to flip burgers. Conscious of the humiliation of accepting work far beneath her station, Muna hides the details of her new job from the family until a series of events forces her secret out in the open.

I dunno -- I went into the screening halfway expecting an insightful glimpse into the experiences of a contemporary Arab woman that vaguely sounded like a work reminiscent of masters as Shohei Imamura or even Wayne Wang. I certainly didn't expect to get bludgeoned over the head with yet another assimilationist melodrama. Once Muna and Fadi arrived into the U.S., all their travails, from the money hidden on cookie tins seized by immigration; to the white punks who taunt Fadi at school; to even the benevolent white high school principal and bank officer point to a conclusion I saw coming a mile away. The packed audience I screened the film with cheered their approval well enough, but it seemed clear to me that while certainly universal, AMREEKA was a film produced for the audience in the back seats, as it were. In this economic environment, it certainly seems poised to be a feel-good movie to be championed in the same manner of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, another work that casts an eye on a misunderstood minority community, albeit one not set in the United States. But then, the trick would be for the film to get sold to a distributor. As I haven't engaged with anyone with any knowledge of word-of-mouth "buzz" around this or any other film this week, it's hard to say what the commercial prospects of AMREEKA would be. We'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

JANUARY 2009: Battling Brothers and (Kinda) Sisters

It's day two of this Park City experiment to see if me, as an Asian Pacific American person, would find any sense of shared identification with films by and about anyone not of Asian Pacific origin -- three, if you count the day spent traveling here. Walking back home past midnight after a late-night press screening of director Emily Abt's wildly uneven Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition feature TOE TO TOE, I found myself looking up at the sky every now and again to marvel at how clear the night sky was, and how bright the stars lit up the Park City night.

In a way, I wish TOE TO TOE resonated to me with such clarity -- not that it didn't try hard. The story of two DC-area teenagers at an ultra-competitive prep school on the verge of earning lacrosse scholarships are as different as night and day. Tosha, a driven African American teen from the rough Anacostia district, is determined to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of earning admission into Princeton and getting out of the neighborhood; while Jessie, a privileged white girl from Bethesda, is talented all right, but struggles with promiscuous tendencies that threaten to derail her already shaky prospects. Tosha and Jessie befriend each other on the lacrosse field, but off-campus their relationship mixes like oil and vinegar. Jessie, desperate to fit in, is pulled closer and closer to self-destruction: becoming sexually involved with a Muslim schoolmate and other wannabe homies, enduring a virtual non-relationship with her globetrotting mother, and is implicated in a racial incident at school involving Tosha that triggers Jessie's expulsion just weeks before graduation. Tosha herself must endure troubles at home, chief among them a gaggle of layabout teens who epitomizes the "crab in the barrel" mentality of most minorities, a family that regards her dreams with a mixture of tough love and indifference, and her own conflicted allegiances to her friend and teammate.

The measured tone of TOE TO TOE thankfully doesn't approach the over-the-top race politics bombast of directors such as a John Singleton and the like (director Abt, a white woman, has a background of community work with borderline individuals as well as social issues as AIDS awareness and prevention), but I found myself alternately enthralled by the at-times sharp and genuine dialog (a lesbian suitor to Jessie is blown off in favor of a potential fling - her off-camera retort from across the parking lot, "Fuck You, Jessie!" elicited laughter in the audience I sat in with), and impatient and fidgety with the sometimes clunky transitions between the two girls' stories -- at various points during the screening I asked myself how a 100-minute feature could feel an hour longer! The director's insistence of grounding the film by including scenes at a gogo [a uniquely DC-area form of deep house party funk] and by cross-cutting between Tosha and Jessie's homes could have been handled more deftly. Ultimately, I had a hard time determining which character I should focus on, as Tosha and Jessie both possessed arresting storylines that was missing that extra...something.

Far more palateable to my tastes and sensibilities is the Mexican comedy/drama RUDO Y CURSI, by Carlos Cuaron. The film reunites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna of the well-regarded Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN as two dim-witted brothers who toil on a banana plantation and play soccer on their local team. Beto (Luna) the hot-tempered one with a penchant for gambling, goes by the nickname Rudo and dreams of becoming a top-flight player. Tato (Bernal), a gifted forward with a burning desire to be a famous singer, earns the nickname Cursi and wins the adulation of his teammates. Both are recruited by a talent scout who secures positions for them, but on rival teams -- Cursi is chosen to be a starting player and is poised to rocket to superstardom. Not to be outdone, Rudo grows into a goalie without equal.

Their fame comes with steep prices depicted in comical, yet fatalistic ways. Cursi is awarded a new house and luxury SUV, as well as the long-coveted recording contract and opportunity for stardom -- I don't think, however, that Cursi was expecting to build a career crooning an ernest ranchero send-up of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me." His stubborn insistence on a singing career jeopardizes his now-stagnated soccer skills, and Cursi finds himself riding the pine, without an opportunity to play, stood up by the gold-digging slut who accepted his marriage proposal and ran off with another stooge, and seemingly destined to be demoted to a second-tier league. Rudo fares less better. Flush with success at an impressive winning streak without allowing a goal, he parlays his earnings into increasingly rash gambling habit. Sinking deeper and deeper into debt, Rudo's own fame is put on the line: the luxury accoutrements of the house he shares with Cursi is repossesed, the gambling syndicate he owes money to gives him a deadline to pay back or else, and the worst possible insult: the talent scout offers to make all his debts go away if, on the verge of breaking the all-time scoreless record, he throw the game against the very team that his estranged brother Cursi languishes on. Filled with numerous witticisms and morals provided in voiceover by Batuta, the soccer scout, RUDO Y CURSI is a winning effort. Cuaron directes the film with energy befitting a sports film -- and a comedy at that. Both brothers meet a bittersweet end -- I can't tell you how it ends, it's a sports films after all, and you just gotta see it -- but don't despair. I have a healthy suspicion that the film will turn up at your local art-house theater sometime soon.

As for Asian Pacific American stuff: the two short animated pieces weren't by APA's, but should resonate with audiences at a film festival such as ours. WET SEASON, by Singaporean Michael Tay, is an ingenious and heartfelt ode to the director's father who passed away in 2001. The film's stop-motion animation evokes references as obvious as the legendary Canadian animator Norman McClaren to more dubious, modern-day markers as the JibJab Brothers. And in Yi Zhou's HEAR, EARTH, HEART, computer animation renders a uniquely inventive meditation on the relationship of nature and emotion.

Oh, yeah, here's a Sundance tidbit I thought I'd throw at you: Jack Song, a publicist for our Film Festival who is one of David's colleagues, calls to invite us to a party on Main Street at the Queen Lounge, the site of our APA Filmmakers' Experience Reception. It's billed as the "Glam Party." Sorry Jack, I've been to the Queen Lounge a whopping four times today before I filed this entry -- I'm not feeling so glam right now. With the high altitude and the realities of water retention, I feel like a f*$#in' whale right about now...

Friday, January 16, 2009

JANUARY 2009: Different? Or More of the Same Old?

It's a sunny and unusually warm day in Park City, Utah the Friday before Barack Obama is set to be sworn in as our country's next President, and somewhere in the lobby of the Park City Marriott, I'm having a brief conversation with Juli Kang, a friend and former member of our Film Festival's programming team who now works for the Sundance Film Festival. Currently a member of the team charged with overseeing the execution of the feature film competitions and showcases, Juli asks me what films by Asian American or Asian filmmakers I was planning to go see this week.

"Uh, I wasn't planning to see many Juli. I've already seen most of them, or we're already screened many of them for Film Fest consideration."

Feigning incredulity, Juli retorts in mock disgust, "Then why are you even here, Abe?"

"Juli...why, indeed?"

The two of us laughed in mutual recognition of the absurdity of my attending what is arguably the preeminent film festival for independent cinema with no plans or apparent intentions of watching anything by people of "our" communities. Walking back to the condo in the mid-morning sun, I still couldn't help but laugh to myself at my offhanded friends for many years, Juli saw my comments coming from a mile away and wasn't in the least bit fazed. I suspect, as a former programming colleague at Visual Communications, she was well aware of the subtext behind my diss: in a lot of cases, if you see a film at Sundance in January, chances are that you are already behind the curve. The task of tracking, vetting, and inviting potential programming selections for an event like The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival begins long before the World, International, or even local premiere. For instance, veteran Chinese director Zhang Yuan's DADA'S DANCE was first espied by me at the Pusan International Film Festival back in October; while Tze Chun's CHILDREN OF INVENTION was already in the works for the better part of last year -- an expansion of his 2007 Sundance short film WINDOWBREAKER, Chun's film was no secret to Asian Pacific American cinema insiders, nor to the many webbies who've visited his Facebook page. So, the behind-the-scenes work of scouting out noteworthy programming selections has already been in-progress. And for quite a long time.

So, what the hell AM I doing here in Park City, Utah, anyway?

Well, for one thing, to support our communities' artists. As I've done every year since 2002, I'm here along with other VC staffers and media arts colleagues to organize and host the 8th edition of the Park City Asian Pacific American Film Experience, a pro-active effort to bring our artists to the attention of Sundance and Slamdance Film Festival goers. Besides Tze (whose WINDOWBREAKER played our Film Festival in 2007) past, present, and (perhaps) future Festival alumni with works at Sundance include Jessica Yu (THE KINDA SUTRA) and Kimi Takesue (SUSPENDED); longtime patrons to our Film Festival may remember that even director Zhang himself was represented by the much-lauded BEIJING BASTARDS in 1994 and SONS in 1995. And on the Slamdance side, JP Chan explains (somewhat) all those past shorts featuring meat cleavers with I DON'T SLEEP I DREAM; while VCers are especially proud of Jerry Chan, an alum of the organization's innovative Armed With a Camera Fellowship whose 2007 AWC project DJ:LA plays in Slamdance's Anarchy Online section.

The other, more slippery reason for being here has a lot to do with the Sundance selections themselves. As a film festival devoted to some measure of diversity and inclusion in its program line-up, I'm disappointed, but not so surprised, at the relatively small number of Asian Pacific works invited to screen at this year's event. By now, I've stopped bitching and moaning so much over it, instead preferring to promote our own Film Festival set for this Spring and to support our artists already here (and who already know I'm in town). Instead, I've determined to try something a bit different this time out: my plan for Sundance 2009 is to take in works by non-Asian filmmakers and guage whether I can find a sense of indentification, of universality, with the selections I screen. I wonder, are the themes and issues explored by Asian Pacific Americans through cinema a shared experience with African American, Latino, Arab, and other disenfranchised communities, much less those of privileged maistream audiences? And in turn, will a jaded Asian Pacific American film festival co-director and programmer like me find a shared communal identification with disparate stories from other ethnic communities and the dominant culture here in America? I'm only here for five days, and already there are roadblocks in my way: the APA Film Experience Reception, the stack of feature-length screeners of submissions to our Film Festival that I brought with me and absolutely need to get through before my return to L.A.; and my previously stated intention of watching the Inauguration of Barack, Da Hawai'i Kine, as our first truly 21st Century U.S. President next Tuesday. It's gonna be daunting, but we'll see how far I get. Juli, wish me luck...

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

DECEMBER 2008: In Between Screenings

It's a late Friday afternoon in December, and as I write this short note, the members of our Film Festival program committee will shortly walk through the door and deliver their verdicts on the first batch of feature-length entries from our Open Call. This process will be repeated throughout the weekend, as the sub-committee that programs the short film component will begin yet another long weekend sequestered in our offices to view wave upon wave of entries, some embarking on their film festival rounds with us; but many others in rough-cut form, hoping to premiere in Los Angeles next spring. The process, already well into its second month and due to last well into next February, will yield many surprises and discoveries, but more often than not will be filled with sessions in which committee members will encounter works they will disagree with, fight over, or just flat-out hate. In the end, as with every year, our group of hard-working programmers will fill out the program slate and call it a day, but deep down inside will chew over those singular decisions, those "if onlys" and "we really, really shouldas" for days and weeks after we deliver a final screening program to our organizing team.

In a sense I can empathize with the tasks our programmers are charged with: having pre-screened dozens of entries before the committee view them, I can say with a certainty that this year's crop on new works will delight and confound viewers -- that is, if we can find the space to show them. This year, The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, as all cultural events worldwide, is affected by the global economic downturn. For most mainstream film festival, this means cutting back on the frills -- one less music café, one less guest filmmaker to fly out from South America, a few less films to program. For events like ours, however, the consequences of a drastically curtailed budget are potentially more dire -- the loss of a venue (or two or three), a dramatically curtailed program slate, the inability to hire personnel to make the festival run smoothly, and a whole host of other cutbacks that threaten to compromise the experience of presenting a world-class film festival of Asian Pacific diasporic and international works for Greater Los Angeles and Southern California audiences. For now, I have a working budget that me and David Magdael, who co-directs the Film Festival, can use to guide our programming and organizing decisions. But who knows if we'll meet our fundraising targets, or if the economy tanks even further, prompting potential sponsors and supporters to pull back. Years ago, the programming chief of one of our local film festivals once confided to me his consternation with a potential financial shortfall and how cutbacks might threaten to curtail his event's growth. As he put it to me, "I remember when we were operating as a 'third-tier' film festival, and I sure don't want to go back to those days." All I have to say is, Amen brother, I don't us to cut back either. More to the point, I don't want us to LOOK like we're running a low-rent operation to our audience and supporters. In this day and age, persevering is admirable; visibly struggling arguably is not.

I'm thinking about this and a whole lot of issues these days, not just because the current economic unrest recalls similar upheavals when I first arrived at the doorstep of Visual Communications nearly twenty-eight years ago. In 2004 I wrote an introductory essay for our Film Festival's 20th Anniversary catalog reminiscing on how cultural and societal concerns influencing VC's mission were both different yet distressingly the same. In 2009 I can proudly say that Barack Obama IS not, nor WILL not be Ronald Reagan redux -- at least, I hope not. But left to work out is the whole issue of whether art and culture, and those whose mission and/or avocation it is to transmit the best and most honest aspects of divergent cultures to the mainstream, can be able to find a place in the new American society. The signs are mixed. California is still saddled with an Arts Council that is woefully underfunded and unable to support its artists communities; the current governor, who refuses to restore any funding to the Arts Council until state revenues and budgeting priorities warrant such an act (read: Ahh-nold ain't giving up the money, honey), is even more unlikely to do so now that the state budget is sagging under a $41-billion deficit that may never be balanced; and even our own Mayor of The City of the Angels, Señor Antonio himself, was quoted in our local daily some months after his election in 2006 as saying that to him, the arts were indeed a priority, but only as a "dessert" after a full-course meal of job security, beefed-up law enforcement, business development, and economic opportunity for our citizens. Mixed signals, indeed.

As for what we're doing here at Visual Communications: our groundbreaking Armed With a Camera Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists is undergoing a restructuring and relaunch next summer, meaning that the "Digital Posse" program that has become a Film Festival staple will be kept in dry-dock for 2009, to resume with brand-new works in 2010. But, another two rounds of video shorts produced through our partnership with Los Angeles Little Tokyo's DISKovery Center has been completed, meaning that we can expect a new crop of Digital Histories shorts by seniors next Spring. Me, David, and a crew composed of representatives of the major Asian Pacific American media arts centers will trek up to Park City beginning Jan. 15 to organize the eighth edition of the APA Filmmakers’ Experience Reception to honor and recognize our Asian Pacific and Asian international filmmakers whose works were selected to screen at the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.

And speaking of 2010: April of that year will mark the organization's 40th anniversary as the nation's premier Asian Pacific American media arts organization. Though that milestone is still nearly two years away, it already feels so very close.

So for now, it’s back to screening entries, bracing for the rather boisterous firestorm that is our program committee, and initiating the process of shaping the 2009 Film Festival program line-up – all the while hoping that next year, a New Year, arrives more hopeful (if not so prosperous) than this one going out.