Of the five documentaries I previewed on DVD screener for this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), my favorite is one doc-purists might disavow. Indeed, when Variety reviewed Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia last year they tagged it a narrative feature, while SFIAAFF is showing it under their Documentary Showcase banner. Whatever. Lyrical, advocative and exquisitely shot, this portrait of rice farmers in Northern Thailand shouldn't be missed.
Scenes of rice planting and harvesting are blended with activities like beehive foraging, mushroom cultivation and snake hunting—extracurricular necessities for these farmers who are essentially hired laborers drowning in debt. Raksasad, who is originally from this area, acts as his own cinematographer and what he captures is unforgettable—men hand-threshing rice stalks by the light of a kerosene lamp, time-lapsed electrical storms zooming over verdant paddies, the horseplay of children, the daunting task of training a water buffalo. His "characters" appear unconscious of the camera's presence, making us privy to intimate conversations that frequently revolve around fiscal struggles (and which frequently take place during the acts of cooking and eating). The film is bookended with political rallies that place the farmers' plight in the context of recent upheavals in Thai society. If I have one quibble with Raksasad's film, it's that women's voices are largely absent.
Two other worthwhile SFIAAFF docs fit a more traditional mold, and both concern a Japanese American male with life-changing ties to the U.S. military. Eight years in the army qualified Richard Aoki to become Field Marshall (and an early arms supplier) for the Black Panther Party. Who would have guessed that the iconic marching, drilling and chanting of the Panthers was orchestrated by a self-described "baddest Oriental to come out of West Oakland."
Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang filmed Aoki for the last five years of his life and spin a captivating narrative with archival materials, interviews and speeches. Born in San Leandro in 1938, Aoki spent part of his childhood in Topaz Relocation Camp, after which his family moved to Oakland. Following his army stint, he enrolled in Merritt College where he met Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (the latter appears extensively in this film, along with Panthers communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver). In addition to the Panthers, Aoki was involved in the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and more notoriously, the Third World Liberation Front, which instigated the largest student strike in U.C. Berkeley history. He would end up spending most of his life in academia, while remaining a staunch and greatly admired activist. Curiously, the film makes little mention of Aoki's life outside his activism.
In 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada became the first commissioned officer in the U.S. military to refuse deployment to Iraq. In her incredibly moving new film Lt. Watada, Oscar®-winning director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) looks at this brave, thoughtful young man and the journey his refusal to be "part of something deeply illegal and immoral" took him on. After graduating magna cum laude with a business degree in 2003, this non-pacifist Eagle Scout, mindful of 9/11, joined the army with a desire to protect his country. In 2006, however, after having researched our reasons for invading Iraq, he decided that deployment there would be a violation of his military oath. Watada offered to resign and twice offered to fight in Afghanistan. The army refused. They offered him a cushy, non-combative job in Iraq, which Watada refused. Mock's film expertly lays out what happened next, detailing three years of court martial limbo during which time Watada continued to speak out and dig his hole deeper. Lt. Watada is part of a SFIAAFF spotlight on Frieda Lee Mock, and after the festival's only screening of the film on March 14, the director will take part in an on-stage interview.
Another SFIAAFF documentary by an Oscar®-winning filmmaker is the North American Premiere of A Moment in Time by Ruby Yang (The Blood of Yingzhao District). Her film looks at the phenomenon of American Chinatown movie theaters—particularly here in San Francisco—and the role those theaters and the films they screened played in the Chinese community. From melodramas that made Chinatown matrons weep, to the kung-fu pics which established new models of Asian masculinity (and whose themes of loyalty and revenge carried over into Chinatown gang life), these films served as a link to the homeland and were a reflection of community not found in Hollywood films.
San Francisco's Chinatown has had as many as five theaters operating simultaneously and A Moment in Time profiles several, including the Grandview (which had its own film studio) and the Great Star (which if memory serves, is where I saw my first Jackie Chan flick, Operation Condor 2: The Armour of the Gods.) At times this doc overreaches by attempting to provide an entire history of Chinese cinema and consequently loses focus. There are also some strange digressions, like the young woman who praises her current boyfriend for the soy and oyster sauces in his cupboard, while bemoaning the ex who had ketchup and baked beans in his. But overall, it's a satisfying look at a bygone era. By 2000 there wasn't a single remaining Chinatown theater anywhere in the U.S. A Moment in Time will screen with Eric Lin's short, Music Palace, which looks at New York City's final Chinatown movie theater.
Sports documentaries are about as far outside my interest zone as you can get, but I checked out Brigitte Weich's Hana, dul, sed… for that rare glimpse of life in North Korea. The film's first half traces the ascendancy of its women's soccer team—culminating in a 2003 Asia Cup win—with profiles of four players and lots and lots of requisite training and game footage. (They get revved-up for a U.S. match by visiting the country's Anti-American Museum). After losing a 2004 Olympics qualifying match to Japan, all four women are forced into retirement. That's when the film gets interesting, as we watch them deal with life as ex-sports stars. While hardly a portrayal of "average" North Koreans (they get to keep their nice state-given Pyongyang apartments and get extra food rations as "Players of the People"), we get to know them and experience the world from their POV: the wide boulevards devoid of auto traffic, the palatial subway stations, a beauty parlor visit, an outing to the National Zoo with its caged dogs and kitty cats, couples rowboating on the Taedong River and a bounty of Socialist Realist poster art (most of it helpfully translated). This film is definitely worth a look.
There are many other documentaries in the festival, which you'll find spread across the Documentary Showcase, CAAM 30th Anniversary Showcase and Documentary Competition sections. One I'm planning to catch during the fest is Tehran Without Permission, a collage of life in Iran's capital city, shot entirely on a Nokia camera phone before last summer's civil unrest.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.