The year 2023 will go down in history as a pivotal year for Asian American media. Last spring, Asian artists swept the awards ceremonies. One year after we co-presented the Bay Area premiere of Everything Everywhere All at Once—with Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephannie Hsu at the Castro Theatre—the box office hit took home ten Oscars and numerous other awards. It seemed like Asian Americans had finally made it in representation.
But for every Hollywood blockbuster, there are many more undertold stories that deserve the spotlight, too. And that’s where our work at the Center for Asian American Media has continued to be necessary and impactful.
Along with the unprecedented prominence of Asian Americans onscreen, 2023 also brought instability to our world. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are under scrutiny after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action. Writers and actors strikes underscore the challenges of sustaining creative careers, and war in the Middle East has us all searching for meaningful storytelling that helps us bridge disparate communities. Our work at CAAM intersects with many circles, and we are constantly striving to respond to the conversations that are most relevant in our changing world.
“Today, as we confront such a polarized world, we see the importance of Asian American representation and authentic voices as being crucial, not only to confronting the issues that face us today as a society, but in order to build a more just, more equitable, and more inclusive world,” says CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. “And that’s what we employ at CAAM and in supporting storytelling.”
As we reflect on CAAM’s work over the past twelve months, we are proud to continue our 43 year tradition of building community and creating opportunities for Asian American storytellers. Keep reading to learn more…
Broadcast and streaming documentary national premieres play a core role in fulfilling CAAM’s mission to bring Asian American stories to the broadest audience possible. Through National PBS, local PBS stations, YouTube, and the PBS website and app, these programs are available to virtually anyone in the United States. In 2023, 10 CAAM-supported programs brought a wide range of Asian American narratives to just about anyone with a TV, computer, or smartphone. Here are some of the highlights:
Free Chol Soo Lee, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s film which opened last year’s 40th anniversary CAAMFest, made its broadcast and streaming premiere in March. This documentary sheds light on the wrongful conviction of a Korean American in San Francisco that sparked a pan-Asian community movement.
Thanks to our partnership with PBS, CAAM-supported programs were made available in May in honor of Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Highlights include the broadcast premieres of Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV and Fanny: The Right to Rock, the story of the revolutionary 1970s all-female rock band featuring several Filipina musicians.
Liquor Store Dreams, the debut feature-length film by 2021 CAAM Fellow So Yun Um premiered on PBS in July. The documentary, featuring Um and her friend Danny, who were both raised in Korean-owned convenience stores in Los Angeles, shows intergenerational tensions, as well as the potential for interracial healing. Liquor Store Dreams also garnered an honorable mention in the Best Documentary category at CAAMFest 2023.
Crossings, a documentary by CAAM mentor and former executive director Deann Borshay Liem, also aired in July. Timed with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire, this film about women activists calling for peace at the DMZ is the latest in Liem’s body of work inspired by her Korean adoptee heritage. “Without CAAM, I’m certain that I would have not found a home at PBS for my films,” says Deann Borshay Liem, director of Crossings. “There’s an idea that our stories are not universal enough to reach a broad public audience. And it was really only through CAAM’s support, and advocacy, and the channels that CAAM had developed over the years, that enabled my work to find a place on PBS.”
In October, Li Lu and Anthony Pedone’s three-part documentary series A Town Called Victoria showed national audiences what happened when a mosque in rural Texas burned down following the 2017 ban on travelers from Muslim nations. Closing out the month, Rea Tajiri’s lyrical documentary Wisdom Gone Wild, also aired, challenging our preconceptions about aging and dementia.
In addition to nationally broadcast programs, CAAM also collaborated on three digital series that were streamed online.
Homegrown: Future Visions Continuing our commitment to uplifting Asian American narratives outside the coastal metropolitan areas, CAAM collaborated with Firelight Media on this series spotlighting eight short films by Midwestern BIPOC filmmakers, including Hao Zhou’s Here, Hopefully, a documentary focusing on a non-binary aspiring nurse trying to make a life in the heartland.
These shorts will also be broadcast as a four episode series titled, Reel Midwest: Homegrown on PBS Plus available starting January 15, 2024.
PBS Short Film Festival We were thrilled to present Emily May Jampel’s short narrative film Lucky Fish in annual online festival, with films streaming during July. This lesbian coming-of-age narrative about a chance meeting in a Chinese restaurant not only premiered at CAAMFest40, but it has won the hearts of TikTok and spawned many fan videos. Watch Emily’s reaction to these videos on our TikTok account.
Seva premiered on the PBS YouTube channel in December, highlighting how the pandemic profoundly impacted people, and how Sikhs contributed to helping and saving lives around the world by responding to the crisis and redefining what seva looks like. This film aims to honor those who lost their lives and the Sikhs who selflessly served during one of humanity’s darkest hours.
CAAM’s work in illuminating these lesser-told Asian American narratives garnered notice this year, with Historian’s Take and Police on Trial nominated for NAACP Image Awards and Rising Against Asian Hate nominated for a Peabody Award.
The past year also saw more in-person events, as the world continues its journey toward the new normal. Our most well-known event is CAAMFest, our annual celebration of film, music, and food in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read on to learn more about this year’s festival and other gatherings.
With people craving human connection in the post-pandemic world, we welcomed the community together during Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May at our 41st CAAMFest, with 11 days of film, music, food, and ideas. Crowds filled the Castro Theatre for the Opening Night screening of the raucous comedy Joy Ride with stars Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, Ashley Park, and Sabrina Wu in the house.
The festival also provides in-person activations for many CAAM-funded works which are destined for public media: Liquor Store Dreams was highlighted as the Centerpiece Documentary and Wisdom Gone Wild was screened and director Rea Tajiri was honored as the Retrospective Spotlight Filmmaker, with a program that also included her earlier works History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige and Strawberry Fields.
CAAMFest welcomed a legend in Asian American sports, Jeanette Lee, for a rare in-depth conversation following her documentary, Jeanette Lee Vs. by filmmaker Ursula Liang.
“It’s a different thing to be in community, to show up to a theater and to have like sort of that energy in the room,” says Ursula Liang (director of Jeannette Lee v). “It’s irreplaceable, and it gets you excited about being Asian American, about Asian American stories.”
This year, our CAAMFest programs also included expanded epicurean experiences, like our sold-out Futurist Flavors feast which was a collaboration between Filipino American culinary trailblazers Francis Ang of San Francisco’s Abacá and guest chef Tara Monsod of San Diego’s Animae.
We also celebrated the 115 year old legacy of Benkyodo, the beloved Japantown confectionary in the world premiere of Benkyodo: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town.
Musical performances continue to be a big draw for our festival, including a concert by Fanny at Yerba Buena Gardens.This concert was part of the CAAM-produced Fanny Revivify Tour, reuniting members of the band for six stops across California, including a show at the iconic Whisky-a-Go-Go in Hollywood. We also showcased a preview of the CAAM-funded production Larry The Musical, which is scheduled to premiere Spring 2024 in San Francisco. The live show, an example of CAAM’s work to support creative expression in different media, is based on the life of farmworker activist Larry Itliong.
“I was so proud and honored that CAAMFest supported us,” says Gayle Romasanta, writer and producer. “It was also Larry: The Musical’s first public showing. We were able to directly interact with our audience and feel everyone’s energy in the room. It’s part of artistic process to understand how story impacts a community in person.”
Beyond Heritage Month, CAAM also presented other live events in the Bay Area, such as Under the Same Sun, an evening of contemporary art at Edge on the Square in San Francisco Chinatown and Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu’s stage show Soul of the City. Throughout the year, we also co-presented dozens of other movie screenings, performances, and industry discussions.
Media Fund and Talent Development
In keeping with our mission to expand our impact on the community of Asian American makers, CAAM brought back our in-person Filmmaker Summit with a day-long event at San Francisco City College’s Chinatown campus. After three years of virtual gatherings during the pandemic, Filmmaker Summit, more than 150 creatives gathered to discuss trends and issues in making Asian American documentaries. Watch recordings of panels A Story Only You Can Tell, Lunch and Learn with Documentary Funders, and Does Identifying as Asian American Feel Limiting? on the YouTube CAAM Channel.
Financial support of the production of Asian American films and programs continues to be a major component of our work. During our Fiscal Year 2022-23, the CAAM Documentary Fund provided support for three documentaries:
Nurse Unseen, directed/produced by Michele Josue, produced by Carlo Velayo and Joe Arciaga, this documentary that screened at CAAMFest explores the little-known history and humanity of the unsung Filipino nurses risking their lives on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic while facing a resurgence of anti-Asian hate in the streets.
Pinball, directed by Naveen Chaubal and produced by Bryn Silverman, a poignant coming-of-age feature that follows 19-year-old Yosef in suburban Louisville, Kentucky as he navigates adulthood in the shadow of a war that displaced his family from their Iraqi homeland.
Untitled Ping Chong Documentary, directed/produced by Melanie Vi Levy and Ben Wu, is a powerful and revealing portrait of one of America’s most inspiring unsung heroes of theater and choreography as he creates the final, culminating work of his 50-year career.
For 33 years, CAAM has been providing vital career development for Asian American filmmakers. In 2023, CAAM Fellows Jason Rhee, Andy Sarjahani, and Suja Thomas were paired with experienced mentors—Deann Borshay Liem, Farihah Zaman and Jason Da Silva—for the year-long program, which culminated with Ready Set Pitch! in October. During this virtual event, the fellows each presented their works-in-progress to a panel of jurors for an opportunity to win funding from the MacArthur Foundation. Suja Thomas was awarded $10,000 to finish her untitled film focusing on the U.S. court system.
CAAM also supported some of the youngest aspiring filmmakers. For the second year in a row, we worked with the City of San Francisco Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program (MYEEP). The five-month long program gave nine interns a chance to explore workforce and creative development through lessons in documentary filmmaking, Asian American history, current events, and CAAM’s work, culminating in a screening of a youth video at the Castro Theatre during CAAMFest.
Watch a video of their presentation on YouTube.
Media Advocacy and Community Building
As part of the National Multicultural Alliance with other BIPOC-serving media nonprofits, CAAM continues to work in the public broadcasting landscape to collaborate and to advocate for Asian Americans in the wider media landscape. Many of our staff attended the PBS Annual Meeting in San Diego as well as other industry events. CAAM’s Director of Programs Don Young spoke on a panel about DEI in Documentary Filmmaking that we co-presented with A-Doc at Gotham Week in October. Co-presented with A-Doc, this discussion explored the fallout of the culture wars on non-fiction filmmaking.
Looking Forward to 2024
As CAAM heads into our 44th year, we are looking forward to unveiling new partnerships and initiatives responsive to our evolving world. Just like Evelyn and Waymond had a multitude of possible lives in Everything Everywhere All at Once, the Asian American community also has a plentitude of untold narratives. As we wrap up one year and begin the next, we hope to draw upon our legacy of uplifting Asian American stories, while also unveiling new initiatives highlighting communities that don’t always get the spotlight, as we bring the rich narratives of Asian America to the next generation of makers and audiences. At times, the sheer multitude of stories can be bewildering – but together our stories illuminate the connections we have with one another within our community and as and finding our way in the world at large.
If you have the means, we hope you will consider making a tax-deductible donation of any amount to sustain CAAM’s work to support Asian American stories.