When you start telling a story, sometimes you don’t know how it’s going to end. Two weeks ago, we didn’t know whether the Bay Area Asian American community (and even our own CAAM staff), was ready to come back together for an in-person CAAMFest. We had spent months setting the scene for our first theatrical events in over two years, but as with any good narrative, there was tension and unpredictability. With our new festival and exhibitions director Thúy Trần joining CAAM in January and many other new staffers, our 40th anniversary festival was less of a re-run of years past and more of an opportunity for re-evaluate and reinvent, as turning 40 often entails.
With change comes uncertainty. We all know that, as we’ve been living the mask-on, mask-off life. Over hours of video calls and late-night g-chats, our team tossed around terms like “have you eaten yet?” and “where we’re really from” and “hella Asian”, coming up with our series of slogans representing the narratives of Asian America. Behind the scenes, we were developing new graphics and testing different platforms to present a hybrid festival with in-person events at six venues as well as a slate of virtual programs. Our website went live one week before the festival’s start.
On Opening Night, as the line for Free Chol Soo Lee snaked around the corner, the reality sank in: we’re having a film festival! As our executive director Stephen Gong bounced onstage in his white kicks and proclaimed, “It feels great to be back together!” there was a collective exhale (behind masks, of course) in the theater. Yes, it does feel good to be back together. But how would audiences react to this serious, complicated documentary about a Korean immigrant wrongfully incarcerated for a 1970s Chinatown gangland murder (TLDR: all look same) and the legacy of Asian American activism it catalyzed? The audience stayed in their seats for Thuy’s conversation with directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi and other members of the filmmaking team. Then, many of us headed over to the Asian Art Museum to meet friends old and new and taste everything from vegan curry lumpia and fried shrimp heads, to guava chocolates and pastries featured on Top Chef.
This tension between activism and celebration was a little jarring, but also felt representative of this time when we are tiptoeing back into into the real world, looking over our shoulders for the next coronavirus variant and also weary from over two years during which attacks on Asian Americans – in workplaces, subways, and places of worship – have produced constant low-level anxiety for all of us. This hit close to home for me, as I sat in the darkened theater after watching a Cambodian-Mexican family facing the repercussions of their choice to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement in the documentary Bad Axe. My phone buzzed about shootings at a Taiwanese church in Irvine. The victim, Dr. John Cheng, is one degree of separation from my friends and relaties. While not rooted in the extremes of US politics, the gunman was motivated by Taiwan homeland politics that are not well portrayed or understood in American media. There are so many variations on the Asian American story… could all of them possibly be told?
But over the 11 days of CAAMFest, I was reminded that every big story starts as someone’s personal and quirky idea, be it Alauddin Ullah following the nagging feeling that there was a significant untold story behind his father’s immigration from present-day Bangaladesh to Harlem, Alika Tengan’s dreamy lo-fi creative nonfiction film about the journey to leave a comfortable, but unfulfilling life in Hawaii, or Martika Ramirez Escobar’s movie-within-a-movie about an aging screenwriter who becomes a character in her own film.
Perhaps some of my favorite moments during the festival were the post-screening Q&As, the panel discussions. and chatting with directors and guests as they lingered in the theater lobbies. “Not every festival is as accessible as CAAMFest,” one filmmaker told me, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Great Star Theater. Everyone was so willing to answer questions and to take an interest in other people’s projects, as well. And those conversations spilled over into after-movie meals and walks back to the parking lot.
Throughout the festival, I was reminded of the interconnectedness of our community, as Asian Americans, as storytellers. During the Conversations on Chinatown panel at SFMOMA, photographer Lenore Chinn displayed a black and white photo of a teenage girl. In front of her is a display of candy bars, like at a store counter. Her eyes stare directly through the lens. It is a photo of Virginia Poon, shot by her sister, photographer Irene Poon. “Ginny” Poon Yamate was the first person I interned with in college, in the public affairs department of KGO-TV. I was a student at Berkeley, just starting to explore a possible career in the media—something which was appealing, yet also unfamiliar and a bit scary to me. Ginny was a person who not only assigned me tapes to log and papers to file, but she asked about my own interests and specifically how my own Asian immigrant parents felt about my path. I didn’t realize at the time what a gift it was to be seen and supported in that way. Even though I did not know it at the time, my own work has been influenced by this legacy of Asian American art-making and the insistence on creating representations of our communities because it brings us joy.
This spirit of creativity and collaboration was in the air. I could hear it as viewers streamed out of theaters, buzzing about the films they had just watched, and as photographers geeked out together over lenses while waiting in front of the step-and-repeat, and as Filipina grandmas danced on the grass at Yerba Buena Gardens at the Pinays on the Rise concert (the first time CAAMFest has put a stake in the SOMA Pilipinas neighborhood where Filipino families were pushed out by re-development). Being around this generative energy is something that I have missed more than I realized during the past two years.
Following the screening of Centerpiece Narrative Leonor Will Never Die, director Martika Ramirez Escobar told Thuy in an interview she recorded from the Philippines (which is going through its own political turmoil), “We’re being written by other forces, but it’s still important to write our lives.” So until next time, go forth and write your own screenplays, finish that book, or simply sit down with your grandparents and invite them to talk story.
See all our photos from CAAMFest40 on our Flickr page. Check back as more images are being added!
CAAMFest40 is made possible with lead support from Presenting Sponsors Comcast Xfinity and Amazon. Additional support is provided by the Asian Art Museum; Bloomberg; Meta; Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, San Francisco; AARP; Motion Picture Association; Verizon; NBCUniversal; Warner Bros. Discovery; Pacific Islanders in Communications; San Francisco Symphony; The Gotham; Rakuten Viki; Film SF; Kaiser Permanente; POV; and America ReFramed. Special thanks to the following institutional funders and government agencies: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, San Francisco Grants for the Arts, Ford Foundation, simplehuman, National Endowment for the Arts, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Asian Pacific Fund, Robert Joseph Louie Memorial Fund, Jessie Cheng Charitable Foundation, and APA Heritage Foundation. Thank you also to the following media supporters: KQED, KTSF Channel 26, KTVU, SF/Arts, and AsAmNews.