By Erin Chew
Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month of May marks the start of the 39th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (#LAAPFF) for 2023. Opening at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), the launch party held on May 4, was a spectacle of Asian branded swag, revolving DJs playing music all night, food trucks to quench the hunger pangs and an exclusive beer garden for mingling and drinking the night away.
A momentous way to start for sure. With that, this year’s festival also showcased a number of films which were emotionally moving as it touched on the untold pasts of Asian families, but also discuss some important social issues such as migration paths and Americans who are considered undocumented migrants in America.
Filipino American filmmaker Set Hernandez, who identifies as they/them is a community activist and filmmaker who makes their directorial debut with their new film Unseen, which had its US premiere at #LAAPFF. The film follows Pedro, an aspiring social worker who happens to be blind and undocumented. Pedro faces political restrictions to obtain his college degree, secure a job in his field, and support his family. As he finally graduates, uncertainty looms over Pedro. Through experimental cinematography and sound, unseen reimagines the accessibility of cinema, while exploring the intersections of immigration, disability, and mental health.
Hernandez, who is also an undocumented immigrant/dreamer, wanted to use their community organizing skills and showcase all of this in a film. Whilst the film follows the journey of Pedro, who is of Mexican descent, Pedro’s predicament is something that is also shared among many AAPIs who are also living, studying and working in America as dreamers/ undocumented immigrants, and having a disability just adds another layer of complexity to Pedro’s situation.
In a recent interview with AsAmNews, Hernandez spoke about how it was the strong spirit and resilience of Pedro which inspired them to tell this story and gather the strength to publicly share their own experiences being undocumented in America;
“I think at the start when I approached Pedro, my intention was to highlight the experience of being an undocumented immigrant and how this predicament manifests in other ways. After 7 years of filming his journey, I realized that this was more of a human story about Pedro who is living in difficult circumstances and has a disability”.
Over the years the journey for dreamers/undocumented Americans has been tough with different government administrations instituting different rules regarding dreamers/undocumented status in America. This has also impacted public opinion with many Americans ( including AAPIs) showing their prejudices against those who fall into the dreamer/undocumented category.
“The interesting thing about Unseen is that everyone who worked or had any contact with Pedro had something which they could identify with Pedro. Only when we can find some type of connection and reflect on it that we can overcome any prejudices, and this includes our own AAPI communities. Where, Unseen may not change their minds, I hope it will at least be a point of reflection”.
In addition to its screening at #LAPFF on May 6, Unseen will be doing the film festival rounds. Please check their website for future updates.
In Search of Bengali Harlem directed by Vivek Bald and Aladdin Ullah explores the life of Ullah, a New York actor and playwright who investigates the pasts of his Bangladeshi immigrant parents. By doing so, Ullah unearths a lost history in which South Asian Muslims, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans forged an extraordinary multiracial community in the tenements of mid-20th century Harlem.
Both Bald and Ullah discussed the importance of telling stories from the South Asian diaspora, and despite In Search of Bengali Harlem being about Ullah and his journey, the film still manifested itself personally for both directors in different ways. In a recent interview with AsAmNews, Ullah and Bald shared why it was important to tell this story.
“For me personally the journey of making this film was one about creating a narrative of discovery. That means when I am discovering something new about history, my Bangladeshi parents and their pasts, the audience is discovering this at the same time, making it personal for all,” said Ullah.
“Even though this is Alaudin’s story and history, as someone who is South Asian, I can identify personally with his journey to find his identity. Learning about his parents, their traumatic pasts and going through the archives for research into Bangladesh, made me emotional and allowed me to have that personal connection to this film”, Bald expressed.
The topic of being invisible was discussed greatly during the interview, with both Bald and Ullah mentioning that South Asian stories are often told by non-South Asians–rendering South Asian voices invisible and lacking authenticity. In addition the term South Asian is a broad church, with Ullah specifically pointing out that it is difficult to find a Bangladesh narrative in America among South Asian American stories, and this is why he and Bald wanted to make In Search of Bengali Harlem.
“I think one of the major things is that in America there is a lack of understanding about the South Asian community. For many being South Asian is just being Indian, where in reality we are a very culturally and religiously diverse group. Oftentimes, being Bangladeshi American, our stories and experiences are not told, and I hope In Search of Bengali Harlem can start making invisible voices more visible”, Ullah mentioned.
“It has always been my goal to tell different South Asian experiences because our histories in migrating to America or to other parts of the world are similar but also different. Our individual South Asian communities, whether we are Indian, Sikh Punjabi, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc, have our own stories and narratives which are distinct and all need to be told authentically to be inclusive of the term South Asian,” Bald expressed.
In addition to its screening at #LAPFF on May 6, In Search of Bengali Harlem will be doing the film festival rounds. Please check their website for future updates.
Liquor Store Dreams directed by Korean American So Yun Um follows the intimate portrait of two Korean American children of liquor store owners who set out to bridge generational divides with their immigrant parents in Los Angeles. Um’s directorial debut touches on Korean-Black relations in Los Angeles, including the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins in a Korean convenience store, the 1992 uprisings sparked by the police brutality against Rodney King and the ensuing looting of Korean businesses, and growing political organizing.
For Um making this film was a learning experience for her about the history of race relations in Koreatown and the pressures her parents had running a Korean American liquor store.
“Ultimately, I wanted to make a film that would challenge my values and allow me to continually learn about my Korean American history. So this is all a journey for me to learn about my parents, what they experienced, and how they contributed to building my own identity”, Um expressed.
The 1992 uprisings really defined how white/mainstream America let down both the African American and the Korean American communities. Misinformation and sensationalist headlines and images were plastered all over the media, creating an ‘us versus them’ climate. This part of history has made Um uncomfortable and it is one of the reasons why she made her film about this as it got her out of her comfort zone. One thing she pointed out was that this event really changed how Korean Americans in LA see themselves and how they see other racial groups in America.
“Many Koreans who came to America were escaping from a war-torn country. So when they set themselves and their businesses up in LA, it was all about survival. At no time were they thinking about race relations in America or even about the term racism itself because they didn’t feel they had the luxury to do so. After the 1992 uprisings the community would be thinking why they were targeted, without having any context of Black history, and hence the escalation”.
In addition to its screening at #LAPFF on May 10, Liquor Store Dreams will be available to buy + rent on digital, May 26th (Google Play, Amazon, iTunes) and will have its broadcast premiere on PBS POV on July 10th.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown directed by Chinese Canadian filmmaker Karen Cho shows how across North America, Chinatown communities face a looming threat of being displaced – and along with them, the rich history of a community who fought from the margins for a place to belong. The film takes audiences to the scene of the collective grassroots fight in Vancouver, New York and Chicago to save Chinatown.
The phenomenon of displaced and in some cases disappearing Chinatowns is a real issue. Chinatowns all over the world were created during the late to early 1900s as a way of creating community, culture and family. In some countries back then Chinese people were not allowed to own land or properties outside of Chinatown, so it was also a mobilization for survival. In more recent years this history has been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, racism and gentrification.
In a recent interview with AsAmNews, Cho spoke about how Chinatowns built as a way to create a cohesive community is now being displaced which erases important moments of history and diminishes the history of the Gold Rush and Chinese settlements in other regions, such as North America.
“In making this film, something I came to realize that one by one in different Chinatowns there is a recurring pattern of the threat of being erased. A lot of this has to do with the intersection between racism and urban planning, with those making the decisions not being Chinese and/or who have no idea of its historic significance and its original purpose”, said Cho.
Finally, Cho pointed out that one of her aims in making this film was for audiences to realize how important Chinatowns are as a place for community, gathering and history.
“I would like audiences to realize the problematic intersections between racism and urban planning, and for them to look around their own historical areas and ask these hard questions. Another takeaway is for them to realize neighborhoods like Chinatowns should never be taken for granted and efforts need to be made to preserve its original look and its history.”
In addition to its screening at #LAPFF on May 7, it will be screened all across North America at other film festivals and community screenings. Please check the film’s website for screening details.
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