By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Adrian Alarilla, filmmaker liaison at this year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF), grew up in Manila and spent some time on the Philippine island, Cebu, and Chicago, before moving to Seattle in 2010.
“I instantly fell in love with Seattle,” he remembered. “It’s a big change from the heat and pollution of Manila, and I like being so close to nature.
I also loved how tight-knit the Filipino American community and Asian American community are.”
Alarilla had a short film in the 2014 festival and liked the experience so much that he volunteered for the festival the year after. Then, for this year, he asked for an even more active role.
Festival co-director Martin Tran took a different path to his position. He grew up in Kirkland, watching Bruce Lee movies.
“Living in America,” he explained, “where no heroes ever looked like me, made him extra special. He was the hero I could imagine myself being, without feeling like I was putting on a skin that wasn’t mine.”
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival, as Tran elaborated, “has been in existence, off and on, for 30 years. It began with King Street Media in the 1980s, and the mantle has been taken up several times since then, including Wes Kim and his team who rebranded it as
the Northwest Asian American Film Festival.
This current incarnation of SAAFF began in 2013. [Co-director] Vanessa Au and [festival adviser] Kevin Bang, independent of one another, approached Wes Kim and asked him about reviving the festival. Wes introduced them to each other, and here we are today, putting on our 4th festival.”
Festival Grants Manager LeLani Nishime’s day job is adjunct professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Washington. She grew up in Los Angeles, but also logged time in the San Francisco Bay Area; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Brighton, England; and Tokyo.
She remembered growing up “without any Asian cinema, except for the old samurai movies my dad would watch. My fascination with Asian American film came later in life. I was introduced to some great documentaries in college, including ‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’ I still love Asian American documentary films.”
Nishime’s introduction to the Festival came in 2012, where, as she related, “The original team had been meeting for a few months before I joined. I believe I was the first cold applicant, just someone from the community who heard about SAAFF through Facebook and really wanted to be a part of it.”
“I sent in a resume, met the team, and dove right in,” she added. “That first year, we were all still figuring out how to run a festival, so everyone wore so many different hats. My duties included everything from grant writing, shooting a promo trailer, connecting us with community organizations for co-presentations of films, working as a projectionist, and even screening a music video I co-directed.”
To select a full program of films shot by Asian Americans, Tran explained, “We assigned our staff members films to review. We had sub-committees review short documentaries, short narrative films, feature-length docs, and feature-length narrative films. The programming team then took all the scores and comments into consideration as we built the schedule.
“This year, we were very lucky in that there were so many submissions, but it also made choosing films so much more difficult. We only have so many available slots, and unfortunately, many deserving films were not selected for this year’s festival. In the long run, it’s a good ‘problem’ to have, and makes us that much more excited for the films we are showing.”
When asked about favorites from this year’s programming, the staffers called that a tough question. “My favorite has to be ‘My Life in China,’” concluded Alarilla. “It was a moving portrayal of a son’s attempt to understand his father, as they retraced the steps his father took to escape China. It was very emotional for me, and at the same time, it made me reflect on my own experience in the diaspora, as well as my relationship with my dad, whom I left back in the Philippines.”
“I’ve been focusing on the documentaries,” admitted Nishime, “but the narrative film that would be my top pick is ‘Advantageous.’ I’m a sci-fi film buff and have done a bunch of writing about science fiction film for my research. This is an amazing addition to the genre. Asian women show up more in sci-fi than in most genre film, but they are usually these disposable sex-bots. This movie, which is written, directed, and starring an Asian American woman, tells its futuristic story by centering on the Asian female star. It’s also beautifully shot and so very smart.”
Tran championed “In Football We Trust,” which, as he explained, “is about four Polynesian high school football players who struggle to overcome gang violence, familial expectations, and near poverty to chase their dreams of one day playing in the NFL. I feel the film plays with very familiar themes for any immigrant family with all the pressure and sacrifice to ‘make it.’ But set in a world so American, yet so unfamiliar; high school football in Salt Lake City.”
When asked about the Festival’s future, Tran grew excited. “First off, we’ll bring back the Outdoor Summer Series and screen films in the park. Beyond that, we would like to grow our festival and show more films in larger venues.
“And lastly, we must look into our past to see our future. When King Street Media first started the SAAFF in the 1980s, they not only screened films, they also created films. We want SAAFF to grow into an organization that is both a media maker, as well as presenter.” (end)
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival runs Feb. 19-21 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., between Pike and Pine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For schedule, prices, and showtimes, visit seattleaaff.org/2016 .
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.