“The first year, it was a party. The second year, it was a happening. Now, this is an annual event. You know what we call that? We call that a tradition.”
So said Winston Emano, for many years the program emcee and a founding member of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City. Since 2002 — a year that welcomed the presence of a vanguard generation of Asian Pacific American filmmakers who presented short and feature-length works at the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals — a small but resourceful group of media arts and cultural workers have worked diligently to make a space for APA cinematic artists. In the words of Experience co-founding committee member David Magdael, “If not for us supporting our own peoples, no one from the Sundance or Slamdance side was going to recognize us, much less celebrate us. So we ourselves had to.”
The Experience’s fifteenth edition (it took time off in 2011, 2012, and 2014 due to the pronounced lack of APA artists selected to participate in either Park City film festival those years) was held in the wake of what many have proclaimed an epochal year in cinema by people of color, women, and LGBTQ members. Indeed, 2018 was bookended by two taste-making works from African American filmmakers whose pedigree was forged in the crucible of the Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals — Ryan Coogler’s third feature, the box office behemoth BLACK PANTHER; and Barry Jenkins’ lyrical and soulful IF BEAL STREET COULD TALK. In between, the emergence of distinctive works directed by African American filmmakers including Boots Riley’s mind-blowing SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, Spike Lee’s BLACKkKLANSMAN, Antoine Fuqua’s THE EQUALIZER II, Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS, and others spoke volumes about the vitality and scope of the African American experience. And, while the roll call of studio works by women in general has been typically abysmal, we can’t move on without name-checking Ava DuVernay’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, which has the distinction of being the first feature by an African American woman director to top $100 million at the box office.
Chicano(a) filmmakers (much less stories by and about them and others who fall under the rubric, “Latino”) seem to have been largely missing in action this year, leaving the responsibility for essaying the “Brown” experience in America to such execrable junk as SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO. Not even work by the otherwise reliable Jennifer Lopez (SECOND ACT) could mask the relative dearth of relevant Chicano/Latino cinematic voices and perspectives this past year. And to that point: neither of the aforementioned films were directed by a Chicano or Latino filmmaker. I’ll leave others to hash out the “Mexican American-ness” of Alfonso Cuaron, the auteur behind arguably the most attention-getting film of the year, ROMA.
And, how about those Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers? The year 2018 in APA cinema was launched at Park City through the stellar quartet of award-winning documentaries CRIME + PUNISHMENT by Stephen Maing, FREE SOLO by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, MINDING THE GAP by Bing Liu, and SHIRKERS by Sandi Tan; not to mention Aneesh Chaganty’s nail-biting drama SEARCHING, starring John Cho. Understandably, much of the “buzz” around APA cinema in 2018 centered around USC film school alumnus Jon M. Chu’s CRAZY RICH ASIANS and Aussie James Wan’s AQUAMAN. But there was no doubt that, if one looked closely enough, the successes of these box-office champs and the excitement they generated in the form of hashtag campaigns as #AsianAugust and #GoldOpen were built on the bonafides of the Sundance works and the equally stellar works that emerged from SXSW and Tribeca Film Festivals, to the various APA film festivals throughout the year. This critical mass of striking and eclectic works announced to the mainstream a long-denied arrival for Asian Pacific American filmmakers and the audiences that have long supported them via the specialty film festival circuit and the arthouse market.
But with that amazing string of successes comes the question: is this just a flash in the pan? Was Asian Pacific American and Asian international cinema a “flavor-of-the-month” in 2018? And if we are saying, “hell, no” — or as Jon M. Chu stated in assessing the amazing success of his CRAZY RICH ASIANS, “It [Asian American cinema] is not just a ‘Movie’…it’s a ‘Movement’” — then we as a community seem caught between the task of creating and championing works that proves that last year was no mirage, versus tempering expectations and continuing to produce good, solid work that will hold up to mainstream scrutiny.
Those were among the many questions that followed the members of the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience Committee (or #APAParkCity) in the weeks and months leading up to the 2019 edition of the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals starting on Jan. 24. As if to create the “perfect storm” catering to the call for cultural inclusion, Sundance this year instituted a series of initiatives calculated to broaden the participation of people of color whose business it is to champion, interrogate, and celebrate the stories and creators of underserved communities. In that context, the #APAParkCity Committee packed a whopping four major programs spread over seven days. In concert with another potential banner year for Asian Pacific American cinema at both Park City film festivals, the timing for the fifteenth edition could not have been any more auspicious.
After a pair of Day One meet-and-greets for POC programmers and members of the press, the #APAParkCity Committee teamed up with RYOT & VICE Studios to host a Meet-and-Greet event as a means of welcoming filmmakers, programmers, and supporters to settle in for what promised to be a meaningful weekend. Over one hundred guests crowded the former Kimball Arts Center space just off Main Street to get their drank on, meet up, reunite, and wax philosophical on the prospects for APA cinema in the coming year.
From there it was all about the films, and even more importantly, celebrating the over sixty Asian Pacific directors, producers, and screenwriters with works presented at Sundance and Slamdance venues throughout Park City. From Lulu Wang and Justin Chon’s electrifying Day Two narrative competition offerings THE FAREWELL and MS. PURPLE, to veteran Desi director Nisha Ganatra’s effervescent and witty LATE NIGHT; from the APA artists whose works distinguished the VR galleries of Sundance’s New Frontiers section for transmedia works, and to the very top of Main Street Park City where Tim Tsai’s SEADRIFT played to a packed Slamdance house, Park City afforded something for every taste, with plenty for APA audiences to celebrate and ponder over as many of the pubs, eateries, and hangouts that dotted the overburdened ski town.
That set the stage for #APAParkCity Sunday on Jan. 27, an all-day affair that kicked off at the Kimball Arts Center with a VIP reception and panel “The Road to Decolonization.” Presented by the Center for Asian American Media in partnership with the Sundance Institute, the SRO panel, moderated by #APAParkCity Committee member David Magdael, sought to identify strategies in tearing down the walls of ethnic and gender inequities that have conspired to freeze out peoples of color from full participation in mainstream entertainment and its many production and delivery platforms. The panelists — filmmaker Karim Amer, Harness Executive Director Marya Bangee, Level Forward co-founder Abigail Disney, and ARRAY vice-president Tilane Jones — made an impassioned case for owning their unique backgrounds and capacities for telling compelling stories and for constructing clear directions and strategies for insuring that artists, executives, investors, and audiences of color are ingrained into the larger entertainment arena. The struggle for enfranchisement, as panelist Bangee intimated, also involves looking within oneself and interrogating the prejudices that we all have, and working to remove those barriers as a necessary step in achieving true inclusiveness of storytelling from a wide spectrum of communities and consciousnesses.
From Kimball Arts Center, guests caravanned up the road to high above Main Street Park City, site of the spacious Kickstarter Lodge and the “Main Event” activities that have been a part of #APAParkCity from the very beginning. David Magdael ran up the hill to share hosting duties with Kollaboration Board member Minji Chang and Comcast NBCUniversal’s Laarni Rosca Dacanay. Together, the threesome guided the overflow audience through an overview of the Committee’s activities for the afternoon session, and even took time to recognize recently-appointed Sundance Film Festival programming chief Kim Yutani for her overall fierceness in championing inclusiveness and enfranchisement of all forms of storytelling in the entertainment arena. From there, Minji and NBC Asian America Managing Editor Traci Lee led a pair of insightful mini-panels that introduced the audience to the broad range of APA storytelling craft, from creators of narrative stories to the visionaries whose work in non-fiction filmmaking demand equal footing with the “hotness” of narrative features; followed by the traditional #APAParkCity Celebration and Party hosted by Kickstarter, which insured that the Committee Team’s long-standing credo that “all our guest will be FED…guaranteed,” was fulfilled spectacularly.
The Filmmakers/Creatives panel — moderated by Minji Chang and composed of filmmakers Justin Chon (MS. PURPLE), Lulu Wang (THE FAREWELL), content creator and actor Sujata Day (INSECURE), actor Avan Jogia (NOW APOCALYPSE) and Chan Phung (Acquisitions Executive for Netflix’ Original Indies Film team) — assessed the current field of American independent cinema and how their works fit into that framework. Chon, director of the award-winning 2017 Sundance feature GOOK, was adamant that his stories remain firmly grounded within a more inclusive “Americana” aesthetic, while Wang recounted her frustrations at being approached by audiences in the wake of her World Premiere screening who prefaced their accolades for THE FAREWELL as somehow being “not quite Asian.” Day, HBO’s 2019 APA Visionaries brand ambassadress, implored the audience to look at themselves — artists and budding content creators alike — to aggressively seek out avenues of support and exposure of their stories, while Jogia, a hyphenate talent as an actor and budding producer/director, also detailed his challenges in negotiating his identity as being multi-racial. Jogia’s comments triggered a wild series of “piggy-back” comments through which all the panelists riffed on “representation” as both an opportunity and impediment for Asian Pacific American cinematic artists of all disciplines. Meanwhile, Phung, whose own sojourn through various studio jobs has landed her at her current position at Netflix, noted that the current environment she works in is vastly different that when she first started out. “When I started, there were only two Asians in the whole company,” she quipped. “Now, the workplace is populated with more people who look like me.” Phung still sounded a note of cautious optimism, observing that she is glad to see where Asian Pacific Americans and other people of color are at in the executive and decision-making branch of movie-making, while stating that “we still have a ways to go.”
Meanwhile, Traci Lee’s Documentary panel highlighted larger-than-life personalities as well as the larger-than-life stories to go along with them. The panel, which included IDA president Kevin Iwashina, Academy Award-nominated documentarian Bing Liu, Slamdance artist Tim Tsai, and CAAM Boardmember and retired NBCUniversal executive vice-president and chief diversity officer Paula Madison, each pondered their role in promoting and insuring cultural inclusiveness as cinematic artists of color. Madison, also the Executive Producer and subject of Jeannete Kong’s 2014 documentary FINDING SAMUEL LOWE: FROM HARLEM TO CHINA, riffed on Avan Jogia’s challenges as a biracial creative to articulate her own challenges as a mixed-race Jamaican Chinese whose African American features only served to amplify her ostracization from a narrow-focussed Asian Pacific ethnic archetype. Also a seasoned television executive, Madison issued a firm declaration that it was time for Asian American creatives to “stop being nice” in demanding a significant measure of participation and agency in creating, distributing, and articulating their own stories. That comment left the panelists momentarily speechless, but they all rebounded nicely. Liu pondered their roles in the creative process, wondering aloud what their place in America’s “new normal” is and how fellow creatives from other ethnic communities can find opportunities for collaboration, while Tsai pondered the challenges in foregrounding the stories of communities that find each other in sharp conflict with one another. Iwashina, meanwhile, echoed Chan Phung’s observations on the gradual influx of POC creative executives in commenting on his own thoughts on how the overall entertainment landscape has changed for Asian Pacifics and other communities of color.
This year’s edition of #APAParkCity closed out with organizers lending their support to another Sundance partnership panel on Jan. 30, “’Broad Cast’ News: How CRAZY RICH ASIANS Changes The Game For Asian Talent.” Presented with Asian Society’s Southern Cal and Northern Cal chapters, the panel was moderated by producer Janet Yang and brought back filmmakers Justin Chon and Lulu Wang to join with director Richie Mehta (creator of the intense episodic series DELHI CRIME STORY) and producer Anita Gou (THE FAREWELL; HONEY BOY) to chat about the real and perceived changes that the Year 2018 has wrought in Asian Pacific American cinema, and the challenges and possibilities for the Movement in the coming year.
In this day and age, it’s debateable whether this generation of Asian Pacific American and Asian international filmmakers actually NEED to be name-checked through #APAParkCity. Sundance veteran filmmakers such as Gregg Araki (NOW APOCALYPSE) and Gurinder Chadha (BLINDED BY THE LIGHT) came to Park City this year with clear agendas of launching their movies, leaving little time for extra-curricular activities. This seemed to imply that not all our communities’ cinematic artists had a need for #APAParkCity. In reality, the Park City environment with its nonstop press junkets, filmmaker commitments, and horrendous transportation infrastructure renders attendance at ANY Festival event an unwavering investment of time for filmmakers and audiences alike. And of those Asian Pacific filmmakers I spoke with afterwards, they were all regretful that their impacted schedules precluded them from making it to a majority of our events. For me, I totally understand. These days, the stakes are higher for our Asian Pacific filmmakers. And, the rewards and accolades are just as high — just a look at many of the filmmakers whose work we celebrated have secured distribution deals in exhilarating fashion. BLINDED BY THE LIGHT – SOLD for $15 million to New Line Cinema. LATE NIGHT – SOLD for $13 million to Amazon. THE FAREWELL – SOLD to A24 for $7 million. THE DISPOSSESED and TRAVELLING WHILE BLACK – ACQUIRED by the New York Times for its highly-regarded Op-Doc Section. ONE CHILD NATION (winner of the Grand Jury Award for Documentary) – SOLD for an undisclosed six-figure sum to Amazon. HALA – SOLD for an undisclosed sum to Apple. DELHI CRIME STORY – SOLD for an undisclosed sum to Netflix. And the hits just keep on coming.
Given these developments, the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City indeed fulfills its guiding mission — to provide much welcome recognition for the filmmakers and creative vision of APA and Asian cinematic arts; and to provide a space for our filmmakers’ fans and supporters to celebrate their achievements and scrutinize the ever-changing landscape in which APA and other filmmakers of color create and present their works. It looks like the stakes are being raised even higher this coming year. Bring it on. We’re ready…
This year’s Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City was proudly sponsored by: Kickstarter; Asian Employees at Netflix; Comcast NBCUniversal; Home Box Office, Inc.; Starz; Center for Asian American Media; SAG-AFTRA; and RYOT & VICE Studios.
The Experience was hosted by the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience Committee, composed of: Visual Communications; David Magdael & Associates; Kollaboration; the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment; Boston Asian American Film Festival; Center for Asian American Media; Pacific Arts Movement; Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival; Asian American Documentary Network; and Asians in Hollywood.
Finally, this year’s Experience could not have been pulled off without the following: Linda Mabalot, Founding APAParkCity member; Irene Cho, Sustaining APAParkCity member; Minji Chang; Bing Chen; Justin Chon; Jon M. Chu; Liz Cook; Francis Cullado; Laarni Rosca Dacanay; Susan Jin Davis; Sujata Day; Abraham Ferrer; Ellen Huang; Alex Hudson; Kevin Iwashina; Avan Jogia; Janine Jones-Clark; C. Wayne Kitchen; Emerlynn Lampitoc; Anderson Le; Traci Lee; Vivian Lin; Bing Liu; Paula Madison; David Magdael; Tiffany Massey; Elise McCave; Verna Myers; Ted Nguyen; Greg Pak; Chan Phung; Geoffrey Quan; Rachelle Samson; Chris Sanagustin; Michelle Sugihara; Mini Timmaraju; Ciara Trinidad; Tim Tsai; Kenji Tsukamoto; Lulu Wang; Jo-Ann Wong; Savine Wong; Donald Young; Marvin Yueh; and Dorothy Xiao.