Asian-American Film Festival Begins In San Francisco

The country's largest showcase for Asian American and Asian film is underway in California. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival features more than one hundred films, music and interactive media. Host Michel Martin speaks with its new director, 29-year-old Masashi Niwano, about the festival and the films on offer this year.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, we'll hear about the largest showcase for Asian-American and Asian films in the U.S. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival starts today. The public can look forward to more than 100 films, along with music and digital and interactive media.

The festival is welcoming a new director this year, Masashi Niwano, and he joins us now to tell us more about the festival and why he wanted to be part of it.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MASASHI NIWANO (Director, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This festival is almost 30 years old, as this is the 29th. So can you just tell us: How did it get started?

Mr. NIWANO: The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is presented by the Center for Asian American Media. The Center for Asian American Media has been around for 30 years now and is one of the largest and oldest organizations for Asian-American media.

And it started really to confront the lack of representation or the negative representations in Hollywood and since there we've grown and we're now a great space for Asian-American filmmakers who are looking for funding, who are looking to showcase and distribute their films.

MARTIN: What can people who are lucky enough to get to attend look forward to? And is there any particular theme to this year's offerings?

Mr. NIWANO: The great thing about our film festival is that we have over 150 special guests. We have comic book writers. We have female comedians and just all different types of artists.

People who come to the festival not only get to see amazing films, but they get to engage with filmmakers, and although they're Asian-American, they are making films all around the globe. And sometimes the story behind the film is as interesting as the film itself.

MARTIN: The opening film kind of speaks to your point that the festival is actually global now. Tonight's opening film is called "West Is West" and it follows a multi-ethnic family from the United Kingdom to rural Pakistan. The father is introducing his son to daily life in Pakistan. I'll just play a short clip and then you can tell us a little bit more about the film. Here it is

Mr. NIWANO: Sure.

(Soundbite of movie, "West Is West")

Unidentified Man #1: A father must go the distance to show his son another way.

Mr. OM PURI (Actor): (as George Khan) You'll be respectful all the time.

Unidentified Man #1: And they're about to discover this is no place like home.

Mr. AQIB KHAN (Actor): (as Sajid Khan) I need the book.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Help yourself.

MARTIN: Well, that's obviously from the trailer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more about the film.

Mr. NIWANO: Absolutely. Well, "West Is West" is the sequel to the 1999 film "East Is East" and stars the legendary Om Puri. And the child in the film or the kid is played by Aqib Khan, who will be in attendance at our festival. And it's an amazing film. It's charming. What we really like about it is that it deals with a lot of issues that we deal with within our communities, which include immigration, mixed-raced families, generational issues and assimilation in different countries.

MARTIN: Well, it's also kind of one of those classic coming-of-age stories...

Mr. NIWANO: Right.

MARTIN: ...that a lot of people will recognize no matter what their background. I mean the boy is bullied at school.

Mr. NIWANO: Right.

MARTIN: He suffers from teen angst. He's, you know, a little bit of jerk.

Mr. NIWANO: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, come on. He is a teenager.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And he rebels by shoplifting and is arrested. And his father decides that the only way to kind of get this straight is to take him back and introduce him to his roots.

It's got everything. It's got the quest. It's got the father-son story.

Mr. NIWANO: Yeah. It has all of that and it's a funny film. I'm getting jaded when I go to theaters, and this is one of those films where I was just laughing and almost falling on the floor. It's a really funny film and definitely recommend people go out and see it.

MARTIN: And here's another film that's considered a hot ticket. It's called "Clash." It stars two of the biggest actors from Vietnam. Tell us a little bit about that, if you would.

Mr. NIWANO: "Clash" is our centerpiece film and it's playing on Sunday. And it stars Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo, who are two big Vietnamese actors who will be coming in from Vietnam. And it's a big splashy action flick that has some kick-butt females in, which I love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who do you think will most enjoy the festival? Is it film buffs?

Mr. NIWANO: We really do program for as many different types of people as possible. So we do have, you know, romantic comedies from Hong Kong and we have these action flicks and revenge films from Korea. But we also have bold and refreshing documentaries and Asian-American narratives, so our audience is very diverse.

And so when we're programming, we do have the film buffs, who come every year, and it's our challenge to bring films that they're going to love but also show films that they're going to be surprised that they love.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. It starts today. It's the largest festival of its kind in the country and we're speaking with festival director Masashi Niwano. This is his first year directing the festival.

So tell me about yourself. How did you get started in film and why did you want to be a part of the festival?

Mr. NIWANO: When I was in college, I took an internship at the Center for Asian American Media, and so my big job for that summer was to archive all the films - Asian-American films - that played at the festival till that point. And just seeing over the 500 films, I just fell in love with Asian-American cinema and I just didn't how rich and how many stories there are.

And after that internship I moved to Austin, Texas, and I was the executive director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival. And I got my film degree so I'm still an active filmmaker, and when I make films it's very similar to the mission of the festival, just celebrating our unique stories.

MARTIN: You know, we just heard from a filmmaker who is African-American.

Mr. NIWANO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Who expressed both a sense of frustration about the difficulties of getting these films in front the public, but also a lot of excitement, just joy and happiness at the amount of talent that is out there. For example, she said that this is both the state of emergency and a Harlem Renaissance moment, is the term that she used.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What about you? On the one hand it seems to me that we're seeing Asian-American actors and people both in front of the camera and behind the camera, both in film and on television. There is a person of Asian-American background who is nominated for an Academy Award, I think for cinematography this year.

Mr. NIWANO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But on the other hand, people still feel like this is all we get? You know, and it's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NIWANO: Right.

MARTIN: So what is your sense of kind of how Asian-Americans are faring both in front of and behind the camera?

Mr. NIWANO: There are more visible Asian-American characters in the media landscape from television to film and there are more Asian-Americans behind the camera. However, I would also say that, you know, it's an interesting space because although you have more representations, you still have to be critical about what these representations are and who is writing these stories. And I know that when I watch television or watch films and I see Asian-American characters, there is still a disconnect for myself. I don't feel like these are authentic stories.

MARTIN: What do you hope to bring to future festivals? What stamp do you think you will put on this enterprise?

Mr. NIWANO: What I could bring to the festival is more ways of engagement with audience members. People are consuming media in different ways, so this year, one of the interesting things that we're doing is a multi-stream package. So people who want to see these films, they can go to our festival and engage with the filmmakers. But if they're not able to attend they can go to our website, caamedia.org, and they can actually see some of the short films for free on demand.

So I think it's new ways of engagement, of getting our stories out there, and also more live events.

A lot of time people can see films easily - or more easy these - right now through YouTube and other forms. And so it's our job as a film festival to have exciting events that people will want to see the films but also have an experience.

MARTIN: Masashi Niwano is the festival and exhibition director for the Center for Asian American Media. He's the director of this year's Asian American Film Festival. The center is presenting the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. It starts today and runs through March 20th. And Masashi Niwano was kind enough to join us at this very busy time from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. NIWANO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: If you want more information about the festival, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on the program page, then on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR.

I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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