Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 10.7
Birdman vs. Superfan
A sparsely attended screening at CAAMFest is like a kick to the gut to me, and I’m not even a filmmaker. When this happens, my shoulders tense, my head gets tight, and my thoughts spin: “why, why, why?” I spent my entire meditation session on Sunday morning telling myself to let go. “There is no rest in desires,” I repeated, over and over. I had to accept that sometimes things weren’t how I’d like. My anxiety and turmoil is the flip side of my enthusiasm for CAAMFest. Empty seats are kryptonite to this Superfan.
I have a long list of reasons why every show isn’t sold out—as was often the case in years past. From the 21-and-over policy on shows after 4 pm at the Kabuki, to the rising price of tickets alongside tuition hikes, to the double-edged sword of social media. Yes, I can always find a way to blame Facebook for all the ills of the world. Basically, I think that social media anoints certain shows; if you’re not “popular” online, then you die a quiet death in the Hunger Games of ticket sales. And now maybe more people are getting their fill of Asian American identity and history on the internet, through streaming content and a screaming newsfeed. That makes me sad. The theater experience has been so vital to me and many others. As I said in MOSF 10.5, paraphrasing Stephen Gong, CAAMFest was the original social app for Asian Americans in the Bay Area.
The other kick to the gut happened Friday night. I spotted a couple of my besties heading into the Kabuki, and I joyously asked them what they were seeing. “Birdman,” said the woman of the couple, nervously eyeing Superfan for his reaction. Now, I absolutely loved Birdman—but to make this choice during CAAMFest!?? I was flabbergasted. I asked her for her Asian American card back. I’ll be holding this till you’re off probation, my friend.
Truth be told, there were only a few disappointing screenings for me; I witnessed and heard about many other really well-attended shows. Ham Tran’s Hollow got an extremely warm reception, as did Lawrence Gan’s Love Arcadia, Ravi Kapoor’s Miss India America (winner of the Comcast Narrative Award, congrats!) and Ursula Liang’s sold-out 9-Man (winner of the Juried Documentary prize!) and Top Spin by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens. I heard amazing stories about the Forbidden City, U.S.A. screening at the Great Star, with former cabaret performers in attendance, and many audience members in tears. The Family Ties shorts program was at capacity, and included my friend Tony Nguyen’s short Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, winner of the prestigious Loni Ding Award in Social Issue Documentary. And this year, CAAMFest co-created the AMCA Student Film awards for shorts. The winners: Hotel 22, Elizabeth Lo’s film about a Palo Alto bus turned moving homeless shelter (screens in The Home Promised shorts); and Jaya, a narrative short by Puja Maewal about a street urchin looking for the father who abandoned her (screens in Family Ties).
But poor attendance at a great screening of shorts about falling in and out of love? On a Saturday night in San Francisco? What is going on? I can’t believe the City of Hearts could miss such incredible films as Manuel Roman’s breathtaking Seed of Need, featuring a woman’s romp around the world craving love and solace for desires. Eugene Lee Yang’s Comfort Girls was a jarring musical look at surgical disfigurement/enhancement in search of self-esteem. And how could my activist and Korean American community miss Cart, about striking retail workers in Seoul? Nut rage grabbed our attention on social media, but labor issues are much deeper than that, from Korea to Wisconsin. This film enhanced my understanding both of lives and forces at work. Director Boo Ji-Young said her film was eclipsed by Interstellar in its fall release – but she might have been safer as a result, as her film threatens the status quo of corporate control. How ironic that the modern opiates of the masses, blockbuster cinema and online entertainment, are anesthetizing us to cinema that can make a difference.
But there is hope. My spirits lifted when I saw the crowds for two Sunday afternoon screenings at the Castro, time slots that can be hit-or-miss when the weather’s nice as it was this weekend. Grace Lee won acclaim last year for American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, and she was back with Off the Menu: Asian America, flavored with stories from the heartland, coasts and islands of this diverse nation. Food is one way to talk about culture and history, Lee said. I was impressed with the writing and spirit of this doc, which will air on PBS this winter. What’s on our plates is just the tip of the Instagram iceberg. There’s no app to capture the conscience and consciousness that goes into our meals. For that, you need Grace Lee, and film.
Arthur Dong’s wonderful film, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, was powerful and moving. I’ve been deeply affected and forever changed by the stories of my Cambodian patients. Dr. Ngor, with his life and eloquence, brought those stories to the world in the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields and with his humanitarian mission. His niece and surrogate daughter Sophia Ngor was on hand with Dr. Ngor’s Academy Award, still the only one won by an Asian American actor. Nephew Wayne Ngor and best friend Jack Ong were also present. Dong’s documentary blended archival footage, animated recreation, interviews with the slain physician, and selections from Dr. Ngor’s incredible autobiography to create a compelling narrative of the life and times of a country and a man who made a difference. I’d like to think that we can all carry the good doctor’s mantle a little farther as we create a world of peace. Dong’s documentary helps provide the foundation for that goal.
CAAM’s vision and scope is truly breathtaking and transformative. Please come to the theater this week. Become a fan, or even a superfan. The cinema of the soul is waiting for you.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.