A Bit of Clarity: Post-Film Festival Blues, v. 2014

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In this undated photo, Susan Melgarejo, Cinthya Felix, and Tam Tran spend some quality time together (From diaCRITIC website)

At this time back in 2010, the folks at Visual Communications had just wrapped up another successful edition of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Having opened with a true trans-Pacific hit in USC alum Arvin Chen’s AU REVOIR, TAIPEI and closing off a full week of screenings with the Hong Kong actioner BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS by Teddy Chen, the Film Festival gave a hint of the big changes to come in independent Asian Pacific American cinema through the premiere screening of Daniel Park’s web series-turned-feature K-TOWN COWBOYS and the presentation of Justin Lin’s The Interpretations Project, an ambitious short filmmaking initiative for novice filmmakers. ADRIFT, AOKI, CLASH, IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE, LAST TRAIN HOME, MANILA SKIES, MY TEHRAN FOR SALE, ONE VOICE, THE PEOPLE I’VE SLEPT WITH, RASPBERRY MAGIC, SHE, A CHINESE, THE TAQWACORES, and A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES were just some of the many highlights from that year, one that left me on a bit of a high as we closed down Festival Week No. 26 on May 8.

A week later, on May 15, VCers got news that no one in their worst nightmares would want to receive: Tam Tran, one of the shining lights of VC’s long-running Armed With a Camera Fellowship, was involved in a horrific traffic accident in Maine and passed away from her injuries. Also killed with Tam was her friend and colleague, Cinthya Felix. A week after that, on May 21, the two were memorialized at an overflow celebration at UCLA, where they received advanced degrees; the two had landed in prestigious doctoral programs at Ivy League schools — for Tam, Brown University, and for Cinthya, Columbia University. Both were deep into theor respective programs at the time of their deaths.

And just like that, whatever Film Festival afterglow existed for me was extinguished. Doused. Hosed. The Real World welcomed me back, in a cruel way.

Never mind the fact that Tam and Cinthya were both “stateless” citizens — a term I use to describe people who are undocumented in this country through no fault or circumstance of their own doing — and never mind the fact that both were staunch advocates of the bitterly-contested Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act for short). The fact that these two young women were on the cusp of doing amazing things with their lives, in spite of the fact that they nor their families were not welcome or wanted in this country, was truly saddening. Even more galling was the notion that, in spite of their gifts and outsized potential, they both were eulogized in some narrow-minded quarters as no skin off the American tax-payers’ teeth, that they didn’t belong here in the first place.

I did not know Cinthya personally, although from all accounts I would have been delighted to have known her. And this little posting isn’t about the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform or even our xenophobic, do-nothing Congress.

Instead, this article is about Tam, a little production she made as part of the AWC Fellowship in 2007, and what supposedly is supposed to be different about the state of APA cinema in this year, 2014.

When Tam came into the AWC Fellowship for the 2006-2007 cycle, she was in pretty heady company. Included in her fellowship class was a coltish filmmaker who would make his mark at no less than the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival (Jerry Chan, DJ LA); cousins who, in their own way, would nurture and grow the burgeoning Viet Kieu filmmakers movement on both sides of the Pacific (Jenni Trang Le, ME OI; Nadine Truong, THE MUSE); an award-winning documentarian-to-be just finding her way around the filmmaking process (Mina Son, PAST THE FOOD); a hard-working if quiet filmmaker from the North Valley with a LOUD story to tell (Rey Corpuz, THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM); and a pair of prolific filmmakers who would in fact hook up, marry, and become a promising producing team (David Ngo, BREAK-UP THERAPY; Jin Yoo-Kim, BEARING DREAMS).

In stark contrast, Tam learned filmmaking through UCLA’s Video Ethnography Workshop, an Asian American Studies course administered through the Center for Ethnocommunications. Having produced a class project entitled SEATTLE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (about UCLA undocumented students sojourning to Seattle, WA to obtain a driver’s license) a year earlier, Tam’s AWC proposal called for a more local, personal read on the current situation of “stateless” undergrads at UCLA: by following a fellow coed, Stephanie Solis, through the grueling routine of pursuing an education at UCLA, Tam hoped to give a face and voice to the realities confronted by those for whom the DREAM Act would help. That film, LOST & FOUND, wound up being a rather modest effort compared to the more polished efforts of Tam’s seven classmates, yet found its power in Stephanie’s story of a youngster whose American dream was rudely interrupted when her parents made a devastating admission to her.

In the years since its premiere at the Film Festival on May 7, 2007, the impact of LOST & FOUND can best be appreciated in the context of Visual Communications’ own legacy of advocacy through the media arts. Capitalizing on the burgeoning online netisphere that was ramping up at the time, Tam uploaded LOST & FOUND to YouTube, where it became a rallying tool for fellow DREAMers like herself. The film is arguably one of Visual Communications’ most-shared, most-commented-on, and (not surprisingly) most vilified productions ever made. If you don’t believe me, then visit the film’s page here — and don’t mind the haters. A whole boatload of other hateful comments have been taken down, but that hasn’t seemed to stop newer visitors to the page. The point I’m making here is, that LOST & FOUND exemplifies the best in advocacy cinema of a type that has a long legacy in Asian Pacific American cinema, from Christine Choy’s FROM SPIKES TO SPINDLES (1976) to Curtis Choy’s THE FALL OF THE I-HOTEL (1983), to even Choy’s collaboration with Renee Tajima, the Peabody Award-winning WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN? (1987). I’ll even go so far as to make the claim that, in hindsight, LOST & FOUND helped spark a movement, one that is still very much in progress; and has sparked much useful, qualitative debate around our current social situation. That’s a lot to hang onto a modest five-minute short film, but then I flash-forward to the Film Festival that just concluded a few short days ago.

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Festival Week 2014 oversaw a period of transition and potential change that has audiences and fans of APA cinema in a state of excitement. Two feature-length productions proposals supported through Visual Communications’ VC Film Development Fund are nearing principal photography, with one of them — an as-yet untitled project to be produced by the Wong Fu Productions trio of Wesley Chan, Ted Fu and Philip Wang — the beneficiary of a wildly successful crowdsourcing campaign earlier this spring. And in the world of mainstream entertainment, it was announced that the ABC Television networks have green-lit a situation comedy for the fall that foregrounds an Asian American family trying to make a go of running an American-style steakhouse in Orlando, FL. Already the Twitter-sphere and Facebook netizens have gone gaga over the promo trailer for this upcoming series, and have championed the actors who are set to star in it.

And outside of APA cinema, some disturbing news: a coalition of largely over-privileged Chinese-Americans (and I use the hyphen in this case to connote those who are of the post-Movement community and who aren’t apparently into the concept of cross-cultural coalition-building) typified by the geriatric terrorists who run the fatuous 80-20 Campaign, have crowed long and loud the past few weeks about the role that “Asian Americans” played in defeating California Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, which would ask voters to consider eliminating Proposition 209’s ban on the use race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in recruitment, admissions, and retention programs at California’s public universities and colleges. Clearly, some of us are scared of affirmative action and its purported negative effects on the enrollment rates of Asian Pacific Americans in higher education.

So what does this have ANYTHING to do with Tam Tran and her little AWC film production, LOST & FOUND? Exactly this:

While I understand that enfranchisement into the firmament of American society involves the delicate interplay of acculturation and homogenization into all areas of culture, politics, and strata of society, that process is by no means “post-racial.” That is, race continues to be and will play a role in this process for a long time to come. If you don’t believe that, then ask yourself why the state of Florida has a “stand your ground” law; or why a certain strata of the Asian American community considers themselves as “honorary white people”; or why some of us get all up in arms over purportedly distorted or “erased” representations that are already the creation of white people when those episodes bring into stark relief the lack of time and energy being spent making our own stories through cinema (and yes, I’m talking directly to YOU, protestors of THE LAST AIR-BENDER).

In the meantime, I think it’s important for our communities to continue to create meaningful, impactful media productions that speaks to our communities, and articulates our perspectives, our issues, our visions. And more important, we cannot depend on others to tell those stories for us, because if we do, they will never get told. Or worse, we may not like what gets produced. That call is no less true whether the end product is a social-purpose documentary or a feature-length narrative aimed squarely at a commercial audience. At the end of the day, if a single film, feature-length or short, promotes change — whether it be in the way one views their world, how they regard the people around them, or inspire positive action — then I consider that work to be a success. LOST & FOUND fit those qualities for me, and I only lament that I see fewer and fewer works like them in the program line-up of the Film Festival each year. Instead, it seems as if the parameters of the stakes that now define “success” for us APAs have shifted: whether a film can gain entry into the Holy Trinity of film festivals (you know the ones — Sundance, TriBeCa, Toronto); whether the right proportion of “colored” faces (for the purposes of this essay, yellow ones) make the fall television season line-up; whether we can continue to depend of the largess of mainstream Hollywood directors and producers to bring a little bit of “ethnic” flavor to their works in the name of “authenticity.” And most galling of all, that a feature-length film is the barometer that defines the validity of one’s cinematic achievements.

I don’t know what kind of story that the Wong Fu guys are going to produce. I haven’t seen, much less “liked” or rated the trailer for that ABC television comedy set to debut in the fall — frankly, it seems a bit disingenuous to refer to a Taiwanese American family newly-arrived to Orlando, Florida from, ahem, Washington DC as being “fresh off the boat.” You feel me? I like to think that I can recognize what is genuine and heartfelt, and what clearly reflects a filmmaker’s unique perspective and vision. Conversely, I also think I can recognize works that are fatuous and are being produced “for” me. And I mean that in the worst possible way. Who knows what the impact of the latest Wong Fu production or some Asian-themed television show on next fall’s television schedule will be. Will there be impactful, qualitative change that occurs because of these and others productions? For those works, we’ll have to wait and see.

For a film like LOST & FOUND, those questions have been answered long ago. And though the director of that work has left us long ago, her legacy continues to live and inspire.

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A makeshift memorial to fast friends and colleagues Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix (From diaCRITIC website)

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