Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 14.7: CAAMFest – A Policy-Maker’s Package of Films for Empathy

Ms. Purple
"CAAMFest is anchor, lifeboat, society, medicine. Food for thought, and food for heart." - Ravi Chandra

The idea of America is like San Francisco: three seasons in a day. But is that so different from the idea of Humanity itself? And really, is this much different from how we might think about ourselves? We are turbulent creatures, our three-pounds of gray- and white- matter, with more cross-talking connections than stars in the universe, can make hell or heaven in electric bursts, coruscating together in time to a mood, tendency, or personality. We scribble flash fiction in the blink of an eye. Our self-concept can pulse from stratospheric to cataclysmic as we trip over our imagined potholes. Our survival depends on cultivating coherence out of this chaos. Dropping an anchor in choppy seas. Holding onto a lifeboat of friends, family and community. Building a society of mind, and literal society as well. As Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilization: “It would be a good idea.” The 21st Century, the third millennium, can feel like living out a fever dream, rising from our human body wracked with the disease of misguided drives, cravings and addictions. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What is happening in the skull of our collective consciousness? What is happening to our body?

CAAMFest is anchor, lifeboat, society, medicine. Food for thought, and food for heart. I’m still reflecting on films I’ve seen over the last four days – which have all become part of my own self-concept, as they put their lenses on individual struggles in a too-often unaccommodating society. I’ve invented my own proverb from my own observations about this struggle: “The Rolling Wire Monkey Gathers No Moss.” (Watch my 17 second video to see what I mean.) Harry Harlow’s famous experiment of wire and cloth monkeys demonstrated the importance of attachment and nurturance, and the damages inflicted in the wake of traumatized relationship. We face off against the rolling wire monkey of ego, with its aggressions, ambitions and blind spots. CAAMFest helps us slap some cloth on the wire monkey, and maybe even stop its ominous, deadly roll. Three programs in particular should be part of a “policy maker’s package” to help them weave the cloth of empathy and compassion, to make us layers to wear as we live out the strange weather of this idea called America.

We Gon’ Be Alright

Don Young, CAAM’s Director of Programs, called Justin Chon’s MS. PURPLE “the best film I’ve seen all year,” with good reason. It means a lot when a movie has special resonance for us as Asian Americans, as this one does. If we could be our own gatekeepers, critics and cheerleaders, MS. PURPLE would trend like GOT. Premiering at Sundance, this is Chon’s second film of a trilogy exploring Korean American lives in Los Angeles, the first being GOOK (NEXT Audience Award, Sundance 2017 and Comcast Narrative Award Honorable Mention, CAAMFest 2017). What I loved about this film was its absolute raw honesty, and the coherence and purity of the lead, Kasie (in a stellar performance by Tiffany Chu), enfolded in relationships with her brother Carey (Teddy Lee, also stellar), her disabled father (James Kang), an abusive sugar daddy (Ronnie Kim), and a gentle Mexican American valet (Octavio Pizano). Chon is telling stories that no one else has, stories embedded in the Korean American experience but calling out dysfunctions in American and Korean American society, such as the lack of healthcare support and violence against women. Kasie reminds us that every person has a backstory, an origin story, that could really stop us/stop the wire monkey in our/its tracks if we were paying attention. MS. PURPLE reminded me of Wong Kar Wai, with dreamlike montages and flashbacks cut almost like unfolding fight sequences to give us the sway of the self caught in the breach of memory and time. An outstanding musical score by Roger Suen interspersed classical piano with Latin flare, broadening our cultural palate as if to say Kasie’s life, dismissed and devalued by what we call society, is epic, stirring, and necessary. There is so much inner life in this film, and fairly spartan dialogue. It’s exactly the kind of film to call us in to where we need to go: deep relationship, compassion, and care. It’s disappointing but perhaps not surprising that a (presumably white) reviewer would miss the power of this film, but this has happened before (see my comments on WHITE RABBIT, Vivian Bang’s fantastic film last year).

My tears flowed at Jason DaSilva’s Centerpiece Documentary WHEN WE WALK, which was awarded the CAAMFest 2019 Jury Prize for Best Documentary. (The other winner was S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun’s incredible OUR TIME MACHINE, also dealing with issues of disability and loss. OUR TIME MACHINE plays again at the Piedmont on Wednesday.) My first deep sadness came in noting there were only about two dozen people in attendance at this showing, though many other films and events this weekend played to sold-out audiences. Jason humbly took the heat in the Q and A, saying he didn’t do a big publicity push for this screening, but I couldn’t help but feel that our community didn’t do its part. The film had multiple community sponsors, yet despite being on many of their mailing lists, I don’t believe I got notice from them. Please show up on Saturday, May 18th at the Roxie for the second CAAMFest screening of this exceptional, moving and informative film. WHEN WE WALK is the second installment in DaSilva’s trilogy about his struggle with Multiple Sclerosis, focusing on the difficulties of fatherhood and relationship loss. His first film covered his diagnosis and transformation into a disability access activist, and his third film, WHEN THEY WALK, will move further beyond his individual story and into the life and needs of the disabled community writ large. Jason talks with his own father about fatherhood in the film. It’s not about playing catch, it’s about being a role model, his father says. Jason would balk at this description, but he is not only a role model, in honestly displaying his human predicament and quest to be a loving and loved father and man, but he is a hero for our Asian American community. I know there are lots of unsung heroes in our midst. As a psychiatrist, I have been moved, working with Asian Americans who sacrifice so much to care for their disabled family members. Not to mention the heroism of the affected family members themselves. But I learned much from this film. I was struck by the disparity of care and outcomes for disabled people. New York City seems close to utopia, and Texas and other states are dismal. One of DaSilva’s policy solutions would be to nationalize Medicaid, bringing equity in benefits to all 50 states. I look forward to learning more from DaSilva and other activists on this critical topic.

Bao Nguyen’s WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT, based on Jeff Chang’s lauded book by the same name, itself taking its name from the Kendrick Lamar track, illustrating the intersectionality of all our communities, is a four part web-series of ten minute episodes covering front-and-center topics for our country such as affordable housing and re-segregation, affirmative action, media representation, and identity. (It will be streaming online beginning May 14, 2019, and Nguyen, Chang and crew hope to extend the series in the coming year.) Nguyen’s expressive visual style, honed in documentary (LIVE FROM NEW YORK, about SNL; and a series of profiles on Việt Kiều, among others) and feature films (SAIGON ELECTRIC, NUOC 2030, both past CAAMFest films), combined with Chang’s searing focus on the plight of individuals caught up in forces beyond their control combine to make a highly watchable edu-drama, easily digestible and shareable in our modern media environment. It’s digestible, but it will stick in your craw. Or maybe be that flea on the dog of injustice that Dr. King spoke of. Let’s get this puppy to scratch, amirite? Jane Kim’s discussion after the film with Jeff Chang, Bao Nguyen, showrunner Kimmie Kim and activist Isaiah (@randymcphly on IG) is available on the Pacific Heart Podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Knowledge got dropped, y’all.

The four episodes are now streamable online:

Episode 1/ Alright: Surviving Resegregation in Silicon Valley
Episode 2/ The Odds: Is Hollywood Finally Diverse?
Episode 3/ Is Diversity For Asian Americans?: The College Admissions Crisis
Episode 4/ The In-Betweens: How Can We Live Together in America?

I have much more to say about all I’ve taken in. But the message is clear. Pack the seats, and take the streets.

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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.