CAAMFest 2016

Review

CAAMFest 2016

By Catherine Nueva EspaƱa April 5, 2016

Many of the film offerings at the Center for Asian American Media Festival (CAAMFest), a ten-day annual celebration of Asian American film, music, and food, explore the question of identity and one’s place in an increasingly globalized and mobile world. These topics are sometimes viewed through the lens of identification as an Asian or Asian American, but just as frequently are considered through the complexities of gender, sexuality, class, age, colonialism, displacement, geography, and history. This broad yet fruitful approach complements the festival’s rigorously global and pan-generational focus and is partly responsible for its wide appeal, success, and continued growth. Many CAAMFest filmmakers produce work within some multicultural context, whether as a second-generation Taiwanese in Buenos Aires, a Filipino American celebrating the regional quirks of Bay Area cities, or an Asian Canadian uncovering racism within the multiple borders of the British Commonwealth.

Fumito Fujikawa. The Name of the Whale ;2015, Japan (film still).

Until 2013, CAAMFest was called the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, a long if descriptive moniker that delineated its original purpose and set it apart from the Bay Area’s many film festivals. Its rebranding as CAAMFest not only signaled its move toward increased year-round film programming (a common strategy employed by other local film festivals), but also made more visible its mission to support and promote a wider variety of artistic media. This is but the latest of the festival’s strategic steps toward ensuring its sustainability and reenvisioning storytelling. Further, it is an acknowledgment that film production and media consumption have changed significantly since CAAM’s beginnings in the 1980s, with Bay Area audiences in particular becoming not just more diverse culturally but also more conversant with different ways of filmmaking, image-making, and storytelling.

Identity politics are fertile ground for uncovering stories within stories, paired with formal experimentation. An example is Mina Shum’s documentary Ninth Floor (2015), about the 1969 student occupation of Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University) in Montréal. While the film largely focuses on one professor’s racism specifically directed at Black West Indian students, the film touches on broader issues of identity politics, including the importance of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in North America and the legacy of colonial attitudes in Commonwealth countries. While not specifically about Asians or Asian Canadians, Ninth Floor’s subject matter expresses the festival’s commitment to telling stories in danger of being lost to history. 

Mina Shum. Ninth Floor; 2015, USA (film still). Photo: Véro Boncompagni.

Oscar-nominated director Rithy Panh’s moving and melancholy La France Est Notre Patrie (“France Is Our Mother Country”) (2015) also offers multiple narratives combined with an original use of filmic techniques. La France addresses the French occupation of Cambodia with a devastating, expertly edited compilation of colonial propaganda films that recall the natural rural beauty of Cambodia while directly underlining the violence of occupation. The film makes innovative use of soundtrack and titles to not only expose the unmistakable racism inherent in propaganda films, but also, unsettlingly, blur the lines between film as art, film as visual activism, and film as colonial propaganda. Panh, best known for his highly acclaimed The Missing Picture (2014), has a gift for uncovering and refuting official government narratives and cover-ups through highly stylized, unexpected, and personal storytelling that delves into the truth of people’s experiences. La France is also one of many festival films that address the idea of a “mother country” and its attendant anxieties and assumptions. Another example is the festival’s Pacific Showcase, which included films and events about Hawai’i and highlighted the importance of preserving cultural identity through cooking and art-making.

Coming-of-age films and films exploring multiple generations are told through the lens of Asian and Asian American identity, yet transcend a narrow reading based solely on ethnic heritage. Bay Area filmmaker Narissa Lee’s short film Adrift in Sunset (2015) pays homage to a close and loving mother-daughter relationship that survives generational difference, mental illness, and the process of coming out as queer. King Lu’s heartbreaking Christmas in America (2015) and Ougie Pak’s well-acted Boardwalk (2016) are two short films that capture the fleeting and poignant moments when children begin to discover the particular vulnerabilities of their immigrant parents. Robert Riutta’s Donut Shop (2016) presents one Oakland man’s particular immigrant story, but in its telling exposes another, larger narrative about an entire generation of people wiped out by war and genocide.

Randall Okita with art installation for Portrait as a Random Act of Violence; 2012, Canada.

These explorations of identity, generational politics, and related issues are strengthened by highly diverse methods of storytelling and filmmaking. Despite its broad range of programming (which over the years has expanded to include music, performance, and food), CAAMFest still manages to focus on “the discovery of new talent, new voices, new stories, and new visions.” Over the years it has showcased new and emerging filmmakers as well as artists whose nimble experiments make creative use of sculpture, animation, and other plastic arts. An afternoon with Canadian filmmaker Randall Lloyd Okita was a highlight of the festival, with a screening of his best-known short films and visual installations, including Machine with Wishbone (2008) and Portrait as a Random Act of Violence (2012), followed by a conversation with festival director Masashi Niwano at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in the Mission District of San Francisco. Okita is notable for his attention to the materiality and physical laws of everyday objects, and his oblique yet powerful narratives. His films and art installations blur the boundaries between process and product, exemplifying CAAMFest’s commitment to promoting new ways of storytelling (and, incidentally, to showcasing some of the best Canadian filmmakers around).

While #OscarsSoWhite may have been the predominant film-related headline so far this year, local festivals like CAAMFest are instrumental in raising the profile of rising independent filmmakers and are a great reminder of the artistic diversity of American filmmaking.

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