Friday, October 02, 2009

DIASPORA BY THE BAY: SFIAAF—The Evening Class Interview With Festival Director Chi-hui Yang

Continuing with my survey of the diasporic dimension of San Franciscan film festival culture, Chi-hui Yang—Festival Director for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAF)—invited me to the offices of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) to discuss the Center's mission objectives and the Festival's ongoing relationship with Bay Area Asian and Asian American communities. Chi-hui is a graduate of Stanford University and the founder of the Stanford Asian American Performing Arts Series. He has written about culture, music and film for Spin, Giant Robot, and other magazines and on-line outlets and has curated film programs that have been screened at venues and festivals nationwide, including the Seattle International Film Festival and Minneapolis' Sound Unseen Festival.

The San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media was founded in 1980. Formerly known as the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), CAAM has grown into the largest organization dedicated to the advancement of Asian Americans in independent media, specifically in the areas of television and filmmaking. In 1986, CAAM took over planning, programming and management of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Since then, SFIAAFF has become the largest festival of its kind in North America.

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Michael Guillén: Chi-hui, what prompted CAAM's decision to create the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival?

Chi-hui Yang: When NAATA was founded in 1980, its main purpose was to present works on public television. Then we added the film festival, then our Media Fund which funds documentaries, and then our educational department. Most recently we've added a digitial media department.

The public television work had a national focus. CAAM is one of the five minority consortia funded by the U.S. government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The funding for the entire organization is relying upon commercial appropriations. The money that we get is the same money that ITVS and PBS gets, committed towards building public media.

Guillén: So, in contrast to several of the other film festivals in the Bay Area, you're receiving funding on the Federal level?

Yang: For the organization. The Festival's resources come from a different pool of money, primarily from earned revenue, corporate sponsorship and foundation grants, which is the same as every other festival. The Federal money that comes into CAAM funds our public television and our film funding efforts.

Guillén: What was the perceived need to develop a film festival?

Yang: At that point in the late '70s, early '80s, there was a loose confederation of Asian American filmmakers. There had been a lot of movement in the early '70s in Los Angeles and New York with community-activist filmmaking happening through Visual Communications in Los Angeles and Asian Cinevision in New York; but, those were very much regional. All those groups and more came together for a convening in Berkeley in 1980 to found a new organization which would try to fulfill the promise of public television, or hold public television to what it promised to do: i.e., offer diverse programming for the entire nation that reflected the composition of the country. At that point there was very little Asian American programming on public television. It was still primarily imported British programming. That calculation was strategic in that—with regard to interest in terms of sheer audience reach—nothing can really compete with a public television broadcast. It couldn't then and even still you can reach millions of viewers through one broadcast, which is the large impact the founders thought they could have. That's the reason why the organization was started: to take advantage of American public television to reach modern audiences with Asian American content.

The festival component came after that when the organization decided that it wanted a local component that built community and interaction in the Bay Area as opposed to just a national broadcast that was beamed into homes but didn't actually bring people together.

Guillén: In determining the content that you wanted to show at the festival, what were you looking for? Was it specifically Asian American representation?

Yang: Yes.

Guillén: Yet, you also profile Asian film?

Yang: Our interest is to look at the continuum that happens between Asian American and the diaspora from Asia, to really see what the connections are because in a lot of ways the original impulse was to offer more diverse views of Asian people with a focus on Asian American filmmakers. There's an interesting tension that happens between Asian American and Asian programming in that—politically, in the U.S.—Asian and Asian American often are conflated to be the same thing. They might presume someone from Japan is the same as a Japanese American, even though they couldn't be more different. With cinema there's a strong tension to disassociate Asian from Asian American as a political statement; but, then there's so many interesting cultural, linguistic, and different types of artistic linkages between Asians and Asian Americans that flow back and forth. Part of our interest is to address that tension and look at what it produces. Also to look at what Asian filmmakers in other parts of the Diaspora are creating to reflect upon the cinema from the U.S. Increasingly, you have Asian American filmmakers who are working not in the U.S. but somewhere else. For example, you might have an American indie that is being shot in a non-English language. Those ideas are starting to blur a bit but are the ideas that we're interested in exploring.

Guillén: By giving Asian American filmmakers the opportunity to strengthen themselves, has that cross-pollinated Asian cinema? Is the tension you're referencing a collaborative tension?

Yang: I think it definitely is and the areas where we see it the most are actually where there are the most Asian Americans returning into Asia to make films. A good case study is Vietnam. There's a strong Vietnamese American film movement happening now. There's a number of filmmakers, including people like Ham Tran who made Journey From the Fall (2006), Stephane Gauger who made Owl and the Sparrow (2007), and others who were raised in the U.S., went to film school in the U.S., grew up within the domestic scene here, and returned to Vietnam to reinvigorate Vietnamese cinema. Vietnam is an interesting example, as is Taiwan where Taiwanese Americans are making investments in Taiwanese films. A different model is Korea where a lot of Korean Americans are finding work in Korea. It's not so much about Korean American filmmakers going back to Korea and changing the film scene there, but more that the Korean film industry has seen a route to finding a market in the U.S. to make money for Korean films; their vehicle being Korean Americans. So there's a number of different interactions happening, some based upon personal dynamics, others more on the global film industry processes.

Guillén: Which addresses the question: do Asian American film festivals provide a distribution/exhibition channel by which Asian films can reach diasporic audiences situated in the U.S.? When you're programming content for your festival, how much are you aware that your audience is more than just Asian American? Especially here in San Francisco where the last census revealed that more than one third of the city's population is of Asian descent?

Yang: Our audience demographics tell us that about 60% of our audiences are Asian and the other 40% is a mix of other communities. Our audience is broad. The films that we show are a mix of English language and a lot of other languages too. The audiences that we have are primarily second-generation. As a rough estimate, one fourth of our audience is first-generation where their first language is a foreign language. That dynamic is interesting because a lot of the films that we show are more independent or artistic in nature. We don't show a lot of commercial films. We found that a lot of first-generation immigrants don't gravitate as much to independent films as to commercial films. There's an interesting barrier there that we are trying to address. At the same time, when we show films like Mother India (1957) or other important classic films for certain communities, we see those folks come out. There were certainly a lot of people from the Indian diasporic community who came out to watch that film.

Guillén: Would you say that—by placing a revival screening within your program—you broaden your constituency?

Yang: Absolutely. What's interesting about this idea of what "Asian American" is, it's a term that some people embrace while other people don't quite know how they fit within it. Certainly, within second-generation Asian people living in the U.S., they are the group that embraces that identity more, which is essentially the identity of the festival. At the same time a lot of the offerings that we present are just as interesting to either first-generation immigrants or other groups which haven't historically identified as Asian American but whom we see as part of that.

About 10 years ago we did a big focus on cinema of the South Asian diaspora. At that point we noted that our audience stats for the South Asian community were fairly low and—from talking to people in research—we understood that a lot of folks didn't identify solely as Asian American; they were more South Asian. So that was our effort to bring in and build connections with that community. That program worked well and was about the time that we started working with 3rd i to build in-roads into that community. In this coming year, 2010, we will have a focus on the Filipino American community. In the Bay Area, after the Chinese community, the Filipino American community is the second largest. It's quite big. For that community, there are a lot of ties to homeland, a lot of movement back and forth, both culturally and linguistically, and in terms of travel. There are a lot of first-generation Filipino immigrants in the Bay Area and so that's another community that we want to build connections with and bring into the festival.

Guillén: Is your demographic data from the last census, now 10 years out of date?

Yang: Yes. But we also do a lot of data gathering at the festival so we have a sense of who's coming matched up against the last census information for the city. Also, we acquire information anecdotally, just from being in the community and understanding where those communities are at. The place we've actually found the most interesting demographic data is with advertising agencies who work with us closely. Their intent is to move into the Asian American market and our festival is actually the largest Asian American arts event in the nation. We offer them a great laboratory and an in-road into the Asian American community in the Bay Area. Those advertising agencies actually have the most up-to-date information because they've done a lot of their own in-market research.

Guillén: Having attended SFIAAF for about 10 years now, I've noted that your festival's audiences stand out as some of the most fun, ebullient and engaged audiences of any film festival in the Bay Area. Clearly, as you've been indicating, you have built this audience through community outreach. Do you have a specific community outreach position within your festival staff?

Yang: Yes.

Guillén: So when you're bringing in Asian American content to your festival, its audience is presumed; but, when you're bringing in Asian content, such as Vietnamese or Filipino, as you've mentioned, how do you shape your audience? How do you reach your first-generation, second-generation Asian audiences? What efforts does your community outreach perform specifically?

Yang: There are a number of different key ways that we do that. We work with ethnic press first. We also connect with community social service and cultural organizations, and we work through them to reach communities who often need to be communicated to in their first language. By example, we create a lot of in-language publications and flyers to the Vietnamese and Korean communities.

During the festival, we usually partner with 80-100 community-based organizations. Our marketing, promotion and community outreach strategies exist both on broad-based publicist PR to mainstream publications, all the way to going to grass roots organizations, going to community events, and working through their lists. We have found that these organizations want to be a part of CAAM and the festival. In a way it's a win-win because it allows them to have exposure at the festival and helps them reinforce their relationships with their communities.

Guillén: How do you fit your community organizations to a specific film? I imagine you have a rolodex of opportunity; but, how do you know which organization to approach to co-present?

Yang: Our approach is to go as specific as we can. For example, we often show films about adoption, and if we show a film about Vietnamese adoption, we'll zero in on the handful of organizations that deal with that and invite them to participate in the festival. We'll send them information about the film and make sure it agrees with their politics, as a lot of these social issues are quite contentious within the community.

Guillén: How about consular assistance?

Yang: Consulate help is usually for resources and hospitality; bringing in filmmakers. For example, we had Kiyoshi Kurosawa this last year and the Japanese Consulate hosted a reception for him and helped with travel support.

Guillén: How much is your festival supported by regional collaborations with sister organizations on the West Coast? Do you pool resources to coordinate the visit, let's say, of high-profile talent to the West Coast?

Yang: Not so much. We're good friends with the Los Angeles festival; but, because of the time gap between our festivals—they're a month and a half after SFIAFF—it's harder to coordinate that way. The main way that we coordinate is that every year at the festival we have a convening of all the Asian American film festival organizers in the country. We usually have about 15-17 cities represented, about 40 people, who all come to our festival because it is strategically the first Asian American festival of the year and the largest. A lot of them come to our festival to look for films to lock into their programs. So we have an afternoon meeting to discuss common challenges, collaborations, the state of the field, and how we can help each other out.

Guillén: With the documented proliferation of film festivals world-wide, there is some concern that there is more competition than collaboration among festivals. As most of them are organized on a similar non-profit model, competition for both economic and demographic resources has become a pressing concern. Though that might be generally true, I seek to suggest that in the Bay Area—with its incredibly high incidence of film festivals—there is a strong collaborative ethic between our community-based film festivals, who often co-present for each other, weaving their audiences into each other. Do you find this to be true?

Yang: Yes, film festival work in San Francisco is much different than other cities where they are more competitive for audiences and films. While we do compete for audiences and films in San Francisco, we have found that we have gained more by cross-pollinating audiences. One study that hasn't been done and would prove interesting is how much overlap there is between audiences from Frameline, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and 3rd i, to determine what the percentage is of people who attend all these festivals or just a few of them. We don't really know; but, what we do know is that we're all working with a similar group of people that we're trying to engage with film. We've found that if we collaborate or even just communicate programmatically—What are they going after? What are we going after?—it helps save a lot of time and effort. If we co-present, then we get our festival in front of their viewers and give a benefit to our membership too, in terms of letting them know about something that's exciting. A lot of times, a film that we might co-present at another festival is a film that we might have wanted to show but couldn't show because it's showing up at another festival, but which we continue to want to support.

Guillén: CAAM and SFIAAF are ahead of many of the other community-based film festivals for having an active arm of distribution/exhibition, specifically through your public broadcasting. What is the protocol, if any, of determining which films that have played at your festival become eligible for further exposure through public broadcast?

Yang: We look at the organization as, in a way, a full-service organization for filmmakers. There's a particular type of film that might make its way through all strands of the organization. Starting with our funding department, we fund primarily non-fiction films for public television broadcast; for example, a film like Hollywood Chinese (2007) by Arthur Dong or Daughter From Danang (2002) by Gail Dolgin. Often when the films we've funded for public television are finished, we will show them at the festival and then present them on public television, and then follow up with the educational distribution to colleges and universities. Every year there are a handful of films that go through all those phases. Then again, there are a lot of films that don't. For example, we did everything with Hollywood Chinese except the educational outreach; Arthur Dong did that on his own.

Though ordinarily it is the non-fiction films that make their way through these stages, this year we produced Fruit Fly (2009) by H.P. Mendoza. We funded it, produced it, showed it at the festival, and the next step would be whether we get it onto public television or educational distribution, which we're still working out to see if its appropriate for either of those channels.

Guillén: And this opportunity for "full-service", as you say, is specifically for Asian American filmmakers?

Yang: It is, though we have a fairly expanded idea of that. For example, a recent film we funded was
City of Borders (2009), a documentary about a gay and lesbian bar in Israel. It's about Palestinian-Jewish communities there. Under the broadest possible definition, you could conceive of that documentary as being Asian American—by way of the Palestinian story, which caters to a very broad definition of Asian—but, moreso, we're supporting a talented Korean American filmmaker Yun Suh who had this important film to make.

Guillén: So you're saying that it's not that the content of the film must be specifically Asian American? That the director is Asian American qualifies its inclusion?

Yang: Our interest is in supporting our audiences and filmmakers. A lot of times those interests will coincide where—though we know our audiences want to see Asian American stories and we also want to support the work of filmmakers—a film may have Asian American content and be made by an Asian American filmmaker; but, there are other permutations.

Guillén: How does SFIAAF address the value added of the spectacular dimension of film festival culture?

Yang: We realize we need a good balance between our offerings. Programmatically, our inclination is to go towards smaller, more director-driven projects, because those are the films that have the least support and which audiences would have the least chance seeing. At the same time, knowing our audiences are diverse with a broad range of interests, we do want to balance with some commercial films, namely blockbusters from Asia. Unfortunately, there are no Asian American blockbusters, though—when they happen to come along—we will show the Harold and Kumar movies or films like that, which have a broader recognition. Above all, we want our audiences to have a good time and in a lot of ways the festival is—speaking of the spectacular—as much a community gathering point as it is a festival. Some people come for the films but just as many, or more, come to be a part of something, which they can't find anywhere else. For that reason, we want to enhance that experience by—not just having films—but providing outdoor screenings, concerts, parties, multiple social events where that kind of community gathering happens. That way we can also take a look at Asian and Asian American artists who are working in different mediums than film to explore what the connections might be in Asian American culture between, let's say, music and film. There are a lot of overlaps.

Guillén: You usually include at least one open air free-to-the-public screening at the festival?

Yang: We usually do two a year. We'll stage one in the summer—which we did last week with Kamikaze Girls (2006)—and then we'll stage one during the festival.

Guillén: I see community building as the participatory and celebratory aspect—the "festive" part—of a film festival. You're saying SFIAFF is committed to that?

Yang: Yeah, absolutely. But it's not just fun-for-fun's-sake either. There's a real social value to creating a space within the festival that allows ideas, creativities and connections to be made. Normally at a film festival, those connections you see are often more business-driven or industry-driven; but, here at SFIAFF, it really is more community-based. You see a lot of film projects or collaborations that might emerge out of a casual conversation. Or we have those 80-100 community organizations involved who become part of the mix and other ideas are born from there too. So the festival is a real gathering point for the community and also for people who are outside the Asian American community to see what else is happening.

Guillén: Absolutely. I have to commend that embrace. As a Chicano, I took great pride when your former cohort Taro Goto invited me to contribute a capsule to SFIAFF because it was an open invitation into your community. By contrast, the International Latino Film Festival never once invited me to write a capsule, and barely acknowledged me as press.

Yang: In a lot of ways it's born out of this idea that the Asian American community is so diverse that it's almost contradictory. It's impossible to sum up. Linguistically and culturally it is vast and growing. Out of that, there has to be this acknowledgment of multiplicity. It's inherent within the Asian American experience.

Guillén: I would say that acknowledgment of multiplicity leans into the future, moreso than adherence to identity politics. Local artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña has deeply influenced me with regard to looking past identity politics to explore questions of allegiance in the future: what do you have when a Salvadorian boy and a Korean girl fall in love, marry, and have a child? To what community will that child identify?

Which leads me to ask, is there a point at which your festival will not be necessary? Is there a point where your community, your audience, will be so woven into the multiplicity of the general populace that it will no longer be necessary to specifically address and express the Asian American experience? Or, alternately, with international film festivals broadening their European predilections to include cinema from Asia and the Global South, will a specific venue for such cinemas still be necessary?

Yang: Well, I look at it in two ways. One is through the lens of a specific ethnic original community. The second is in terms of independent media. I think there will always be a need for venues to show independent media, which is primarily what we focus on. In terms of the Asian American focus, sure, there is more integration and assimilation; but, in terms of representation in mainstream media, it actually hasn't progressed very much. In a lot of ways that goes back to why our audiences are so enthusiastic. If you look at, say, other more identity-based film festivals in the Bay Area or across the country—gay and lesbian, Latino, Jewish—they all have more mainstream media representation than Asian Americans.

Guillén: Why is that? I've spoken with Eric Byler about this. He complains about how Hollywood will fly in talent from China or Japan to star in some blockbuster before they think of casting an Asian American actor. Do you have a sense of why that is?

Yang: It's a complicated dynamic. There are marketing researchers saying that American audiences are more comfortable with an Asian foreigner than an Asian American. It's bizarre; but, people are familiar and accustomed to what they have already seen. They want to see more of what they have seen. What they have seen on television or at the movies is that foreigner. That's the dominating image you see of Asians. So when you see an Asian who's an American, it confuses people a little and—when you confuse people—that doesn't make you money. That's one of the overriding dynamics which controls this. Because, certainly, there's no lack of talent.

Guillén: When I think of mainstream Asian cinema, I think of genre. When I think of genre, I think of audience appeal. Does independent Asian American cinema concern itself with genre?

Yang: I would say independent Asian American cinema is a response to genre, to that pigeonholing. Most Asian American filmmakers aren't interested in that, or—if they are—they're doing it in an ironic way to escape the pigeonholing. What's interesting is that there is this idea of the qualifier. You're watching a film and it's crazy, or it's a new action film, right? It's the same thing as the debate over having or not having a hyphen for "Asian American". The hyphen is a qualification. There's a qualifier that has to happen for people to watch certain things that have an Asian American or an Asian in it. Without that qualifier, it's not that interesting—it's a domestic drama; it's a romantic comedy—but, it's not an absurd, spectacular crazy film that would qualify you to see it, even if it has a non-White cast.

Guillén: Do you think Asian American cinema has any influence on Asian cinema, by way of style, themes?

Yang: I don't think there's a whole lot of that. I think Asian filmmakers are probably looking to some of the big American auteurs. Certainly, I think they might look to people like Ang Lee, M. Night Shyamalan, or Mira Nair, who are well-established filmmakers; but, not so much to independent filmmakers.

Guillén: Shifting to the festival's interaction with press, do you tier press?

Yang: No. But I have encountered that at Cannes.

Guillén: Cannes is the mother of all press tiering, which adheres strictly to their spectacular dimension. I understand what's going on there. You could be Manohla Dargis and have trouble getting into a film.

Yang: I can also understand the administrative, logistical and business aspects of press tiering. If your festival is big enough that you have hundreds and hundreds of members of the press attending, then you need to figure out how to accommodate their various needs. You would probably have to figure out some kind of tiered press system because you wouldn't be able to accommodate all their needs. You'd have 100 interview requests for a single director, which you can't accommodate, so you have to figure that out. That's the only reason I can think of. But, no, we don't tier press. I don't see any reason to. It also has to do with a philosophical approach towards marketing, outreach and publicity. What do you value? We certainly value the mainstream press—television, radio and print—but we know that equally as important, perhaps even more important, is community-based ethnic online bloggers who dictate people's tastes and interactions just as much or more than the mainstream press. There has to be that recognition. That's something SFIAAF really values.

Guillén: So SFIAFF draws no separation between print and online press?

Yang: No, not really. We're aware of the value of having a photo placed in The Chronicle; that's great. That's gaining us a lot of people. But equally important to us is having good, critical, more-in-depth coverage, which a lot of times print can't allow for space issues, which online can. This is not to criticize anyone, but sometimes when you have short pieces in print, it doesn't allow room to go into depth. Online coverage gives good copy to our filmmakers that they can take home and do something with. That's the reality of it.

Guillén: I'm heartened to hear that. Beneath the aegis of film festival studies, consideration of the "written record" of any given film festival has become of importance to me. Much of it is manifesting online where the actual experience of a film festival can be chronicled, relying less on a thumbs-up thumbs-down critique of content. Social networking, microblogging, have become a new frequency of immediate and intense buzz for a festival.

Of related interest:

Want to ask the programmers your own questions? The San Francisco Film Society is sponsoring a SFFS Arts Forum panel on Monday, October 12, 7:30PM—
"Meet the Programmers"—at The Mezzanine. Panelists include Nancy Fishman (SFJFF), Jennifer Morris (Frameline), Rachel Rosen (SFFS), Jeff Ross (SF IndieFEST), and Chi-hui Yang (SFIAAF), moderated by SF360's Susan Gerhard.

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

Film Festival Yearbook 1—A Response to Section One

Film Festival Yearbook 1—A Response to Section Two

Diaspora By the Bay: SFJFF—The Evening Class Interview With Program Director Nancy K. Fishman and Program Coordinator Joshua Moore

Diaspora By the Bay: 3rd i—The Evening Class Interview With Artistic Director Ivan Jagirdar and Administrative Director Anuj Vaidya

Photo of Chi-hui Yang courtesy of Jay Jao. Cross-published on