The Birth

The 1970s saw the emergence of an urgent voice by Asian American filmmakers who, inspired by the social activism of the ’60s and the creation of Asian American media arts organizations like Visual Communications in Los Angeles and Asian CineVision in New York, began creating the first significant batch of Asian American films. Collectively, they sought to address a basic need–the need to see themselves on the screen and the need to see their stories told accurately with all the richness and complexity accorded to others. Yet for all their efforts, limited access to mainstream media meant that these works were not reaching the widest possible audience.

In 1980, independent filmmaker and instructor Loni Ding, along with other local artists and activists, organized a national conference of Asian American producers and media activists in Berkeley to take the next step. From that meeting, NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association) was born. Its mission: to counteract negative images and stereotypes of Asian Americans in mainstream media by providing Asian American programming for broadcast on public television.

Public television was only the beginning. Just as soon as NAATA became operational, founding executive director Jim Yee saw the need for an exhibition venue besides broadcast to showcase many of the works. ACV’s Asian American International Film Festival had been continuing for four years in New York, and an idea for a tour of the films emerged from working relationships with organizations in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and NAATA in the Bay Area. A national network of Asian American filmmakers and media arts organizations was taking shape, and with the success of Wayne Wang’s independent feature CHAN IS MISSING in 1981, the entire community felt the excitement of being on the verge of another significant leap. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival began modestly in this atmosphere, presenting 13 films over three nights as part of this national tour.

Roots (1982 – 1989)

For the first three years, NAATA sponsored the Bay Area leg of the traveling Asian American International Film Festival produced by ACV, adding a Bay Area component to the traveling program package. In 1985, NAATA took its only break from the festival run to date, channeling all its efforts into organizing the National Asian American Media Arts Conference at UCLA. The Festival returned in 1986 as an independent entity, beginning its own journey. Through the rest of the ’80s, NAATA managed to present a series of significant, if sporadic, programs characterized by socially committed documentaries and some seminal works by the pioneers of Asian American media. Due to a paucity of domestic works, the Festival often supplemented its program with international features from Asia, particularly from China. Venues included Pacific Film Archive, Kokusai Theater, and World Theatre, among others. Yee and program director Janice Sakamoto set the tone for the Festival by launching extensive community outreach efforts, infusing the event with a grassroots spirit that remains to this day.

Growth and Stability (1990 – 1994)

Bob Uyeki stepped in as the first full-time Festival Director and began laying the groundwork for a more stable and continuous annual festival, securing a relationship with the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres as its central venue and establishing seasonal consistency by settling into the March time slot. Proactive development of more funding through grants and sponsorships enabled the Festival to grow in scale, while an explosion in creative activity (fueled by a new generation of film school-educated Asian American artists) offered more stories and perspectives than ever before. Starting at a humble 14 films in 1990, the Festival saw its program more than double for two consecutive years. By the time Paul Mayeda Berges served as Festival Director in 1994, the Festival program surpassed 100 films and videos, becoming the largest showcase in North America dedicated to the exhibition of Asian American and Asian films. While the vast majority of works during the ’80s were by and/or about Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, Uyeki and Mayeda Berges focused on programs that explored the changing face of contemporary Asian American experiences, reflecting the diversifying Asian American filmmaking demographic by including works from previously underrepresented communities such as Pacific Islanders, South Asians, queers, and hapas.

Maturation and Expansion (1995 – 2001)

The Festival achieved international recognition as well-traveled Co-directors Corey Tong and Paul Yi brought their global perspectives in expanding the program to include more films from the wide spectrum of the diaspora. More countries were represented than ever before, revealing an array of stories that parallel, mirror, and resonate with the Asian American experience, placing Asian American identity in a
global context. Yet as the Asian cinema fever gained momentum in the U.S. and in the film festival circuit, Asian American film remained virtually invisible. Subsequent Directors Kayo Hatta and Linda Blackaby, Brian Lau, and Chi-hui Yang worked to balance the Asian diasporic portrait by continuing to highlight domestic Asian American films, reminding the audience that a thriving scene of filmmakers here at home are making some exciting, innovative works. In 2000, the Festival expanded its horizons by beginning a showcase of Asian American music videos and musicians in the popular Directions in Sound event, while 2001 saw the Festival geographically extend to San Jose for a weekend of screenings following the San Francisco run.

Burgeoning (2002 – Current)

Justin Lin’s breakthrough hit BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2002) ushered in a new era of Asian American films, spurring a watershed of independent films by young Asian American filmmakers. The increase in the number of quality Asian American and Canadian features led Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Assistant Director Taro Goto to inaugurate competitions in the Narrative and Documentary categories for North American feature-length films in 2005. Narrative works in particular saw an explosion in 2006, with a dozen features screening in the program (more than twice that of any previous year). The Festival’s audience also began “crossing over” to attract an increasing number of non-Asian audiences, which played a significant part in the event more than doubling its admissions to 30,000 within six years.