On a bright, cold Tuesday afternoon in January 2009, I was sitting in the Sundance Industry Center, on the second floor of the Park City Marriott. At the halfway mark of the Sundance Film Festival, industry professionals and some first weekend fest-goers are already slowly preparing to make their way back home, to their hometowns, jobs, families, or to wherever. On this day, however, fest-goers throughout the industry office and indeed much of downtown Park City was transfixed, by large-screen television monitors, to the happenings taking place nearly 2,100 miles away in Washington, DC, as Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s 44th President, not to mention the country’s first “21st-century” President, as a biracial man born of an Ethiopian academic and white Midwesterner who spent his formative years in Indonesia and Hawaii and who started his post-graduate career working in anon-profit social service agency in Southside Chicago.
And on a personal level, I quietly beamed with expectation and trepidation at the prospect of a President who grew up, came of age, and developed his political footing as part of my generation. It would be time to find out if the policy-making malaprops that dogged our generation — from the negative fallout from the free speech and affirmative action and the civil rights movements; the roller-coaster ride into political oblivion from the Nixon administration through to the Reagan and Bush years; the anti-Vietnam War and progressive/Third World student movements; the Bakke Decision of 1978 and subsequent attacks on affirmative action as “reverse” discrimination; not to mention long-intransigent attitudes towards womens’ rights, police brutality, and cultural plurality (ie: race relations) — could possibly undergo at least the beginnings of a paradigm shift under an Obama presidency.
That was 2009. Today, eight years later to the day, I sit in the Sundance Film Festival Press Office on a cold, clear January Wednesday, and in forty-eight hours, eight years of slowly but surely moving the needle to some semblance of true cultural and political plurality is going to be flushed down the tubes as a meaner, whiter, and arguably far less compassionate brand of government will once again lord over America.
I am no political scientist, so I’m not going to sit here and regurgitate all that has been said about the American election since early November. Anyone with access to the news or even a Facebook feed can figure out the current attitude of the country. Coming in to Park City to help organize the thirteenth edition of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience reception for Asian Pacific filmmakers with works screening in this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, I’ve wondered out loud just what the mood of the over 40,000 fest-goers will be — what will be the effect of an incoming government that on its face devalues and marginalizes women and ethnic minorities, vilifies undocumented immigrants and those they hold as “outside” the constructs of traditional American archetypes and values (that means pretty much anyone who isn’t White), and is willing to dismantle all avenues to social, cultural, and wage equity? In past writings from Park City, I’ve observed in most unflattering terms my ambivalence at attending a film festival at which much of the programming or the social infrastructure erected to celebrate these proceedings are seemingly not meant for us POCs. It’s as if the Sundance Film Festival finds ways to tell us that we’re all outsiders, after all. For instance, to a Chlöe Zhao (an episode of recent vintage; see: 2015, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME), reductive policy-making towards artists of color is as easy as back-handed comments as “ni-hao” with a deep bow or a sincere proclamation to start off your Q& session that your English is impeccable — where did you learn to speak English so good?
It is with all that baggage — the impending coronation of a AmeriKKKan Fourth Reich, and the certain decimation of our civil liberties at the hands of an incoming government that has been irrefutably proven, as evidenced by a mind-numbing series of confirmation hearings for cabinet positions that are easily accessible through CSPAN or, yup, your Facebook feed — that I arrive into Park City to assess the prospects of a record sixty-nine directors, screenwriters, and producers of Asian Pacific descent whose works will be screened here. Of course, some of these works bring a certain level of heat to cold, cold Utah, from Justin Chon’s GOOK, set in the days leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, to ROXANNE ROXANNE, the latest achievement from uber-producer-of-the-moment Nina Yang Bongiovi. Up the hill, Asian and Asian American animators rule the Treasure Island Hotel as the Slamdance Film Festival squares off against its far tonier progenitor down the hill. That’s not to say that the animators are the only game in town, as longtime micro-movie director Gu Yu moves up to maxi-filmmaker status in a BIG way with her feature-length documentary collaboration with Scott Drucker, WHO IS ARTHUR CHU?, while Canadian Joyce Wong challenges the parameters of “vision” and “perspective” versus “representation” in her drama WEXFORD PLAZA.
And as if these various dichotomies aren’t bound to make my head spin, consider this: on Saturday, January 21, the day after the Presidential Inauguration, a multi-headed committee of filmmakers and activists will lead a huge march and demonstration down Main Street, the epicenter of the Sundance Film Festival, in a show of solidarity for freedom, human and gender rights, health and safety, and cultural and ethnic plurality.
Over the course of several new blog postings, I’ll assess the relative merits of the film and digital works created by these sixty-nine Asian Pacific filmmakers. But in the back of my mind, I’ll be taking a hard look at these works and come to some conclusions as to whether our makers, and the audiences that supposedly support them and will be here starting Thursday, will be merely conscious of the form of Asian Pacific cinema, or concerned with the “message” that can inspire, incite, and engage POC communities far beyond the confines of lilly-white Park City. If the answer is the former, instead of the latter, then I fear we’ll be in big trouble in the weeks, months, and years to come…