CAAMFest 2013: New name represents expanded scope of former SFIAAFF

Lisa Murphy. photo by Ben Hamamoto/Nichi Bei Weekly

Lisa Murphy. photo by Ben Hamamoto/Nichi Bei Weekly

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has been a community institution for three decades. Since 1982, the festival has been perhaps the premier venue in the United States for Asian Americans filmmakers to showcase their cinematic works, and for Asian American filmgoers to see themselves on screen.

This year, the Center for Asian American Media, which has organized the festival since its inception, took the bold step of changing the name to CAAMFest, removing the word “film” from the title entirely, (though the fest’s tagline is “Film. Music. Food”).

The Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Masashi Niwano, CAAM’s festival and exhibitions director, to talk about what’s changing in the world of Asian American media, and more specifically, about the changes that the name change represents.

“Though the name change is the most visible sign, the change has been quite gradual,” Niwano explained. “Music and food have been part of the festival for some time now. For one, we’ve seen an increase in films about food and music. … But these ‘themes’ transcend beyond the film programming; we’ve always tried to incorporate them into our live events.”
Indeed, the festival has featured live music performances for many years.

“We really internally thought about what it means (to change the festival name),” Niwano explained. “We wanted to showcase storytelling. For us, that goes beyond filmmaking. We wanted to showcase other types of Asian American artists, culinary chefs, but also musicians, and we wanted to find spaces for their storytelling as well.”

The “Dosa Hunt” event bridged all three kinds of storytelling that constitute the festival. Held at the Asian Art Museum, it featured the film “Dosa Hunt,” a documentary short that saw Amrit Singh take a group of musician friends on a hunt for the best dosa in New York, as well as a Q-and-A format session with Singh, a performance by Indian Bastards From Hell (comprised of Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu of rap group Das Racist) and dosa provided by The Dosa Republic’s food truck.

Two CAAMFest events this year focused exclusively on food, “(Bitter)Sweet Cook Salon” and “Asian Chops.” The former was a demonstration, lecture and food tasting featuring the founders of two local, independent food producers, Lisa Murphy of Sosu Artisan Sauces and Wendy Lieu of Sôcôla Chocolatier. Murphy, who started Sosu as an experiment to create an artisan ketchup, detailed the process for making what is now known as the all-American condiment. She also shared samples of her company’s sriracha ketchup (known as Srirachup) in various states of fermentation. Murphy spoke about her company’s history. She started selling her culinary inventions at local farmers markets and, with some help from Kickstarter, Sosu, she said, is now carried at Bi-Rite and other Bay Area retailers. She also spoke about ketchup’s history, (including the fact that the condiment has its origins in kechiap, a savory Chinese fish sauce).

Lieu, of Sôcôla, told the story of her business as well, which began when she was 19 and making truffles for her family and friends. Lieu’s truffles left enough of an impression that people began asking her for more, and a neighbor even suggested she start selling them. With the help of her sister Susan, then 16, they started selling their chocolates at Santa Rosa’s downtown market and today, their chocolates are available in Whole Foods and San Francisco’s DarTEAling Lounge. She offered guests a special sriracha truffle that she made in collaboration with Murphy, just for the event.

“Asian Chops,” which was held at KQED, was a conference announcing a CAAM/KQED co-production for PBS that will explore the question, “What exactly does food reflect about Asian Americans and America itself?”
The “Asian Chops” event also represents an increasingly participatory approach for CAAM.

“It’s really representative of what CAAM’s doing,” Niwano said. “At the launch, we’re collecting stories that indicate what this program can really be about, we’re also funding digital media projects and new media projects. We want our fest to evolve and be as relevant and exciting as possible for our communities.”

One example of this is the “Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies” project, which collects and compiles Asian American home movies from across the United States taken at various times in its history, inspired partly by the Prelinger Archives, which aims to collect “ephemeral” (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films not preserved elsewhere.

“Stephen Gong, our executive director, felt (a similar thing should be done), for Asian Americans. We’ve been around for a long time and so there’s a lot of footage from all over the country,” Niwano explained. Despite this, through much of this history, Asian Americans have been largely invisible in mainstream media. What images existed were largely not produced by the communities depicted. But CAAM saw an opportunity to change this.

“‘Memories to Light’ is an attempt to redefine American history through the lens of Asian Americans. Home movies is a type of media that hasn’t really been tapped into. We have a filmmaker, Mark Decena, editing it together and we have a live score. It’s really blurring art with the personal in a beautiful way,” Niwano continued. “It’s a national initiative and we’re hoping to have more home movies sent to us as a way to really redefine American history.”

Another CAAM-produced project that signals a new direction for the festival is “Nice Girls Crew,” a Web series, which is directed by Tanuj Chopra and created and written by Christine Kwon, that had its second season screened at CAAMFest.

Niwano acknowledged the extent to which the Internet has influenced the way in which films are made and viewed. While the festival was once the only place to view Asian American media, the Internet has permanently changed that. However, Niwano doesn’t feel that this makes the festival any less valuable.

“There’s been a lack of Asian American people and stories in the mainstream media and the Internet has, much like our festival, been able to fill that void with some amazing content,” he said. “The festival though, is just as relevant as ever. There really aren’t many other opportunities to watch this content on the big screen with the community.”

The “Nice Girls Crew” season two screenings sold out, despite the fact that it will be available on the Web. The series is certainly unique; it’s a somewhat raunchy comedy starring a largely female Asian American cast, made by Asian American filmmakers. The turnout may be a result of an audience that was built online, but wanted to connect with the content, and each other, more directly.

“It’s a good example of where we’re at. We’re in control of our own stories … There is such a range of projects being created today and ‘Nice Girls Crew’ is a solid example of where storytelling is going,” Niwano said. “I feel like the reason it’s created such a buzz is because the characters are fresh and there isn’t a heavy yearning to discuss Asian American identity issues, lack of representation, etc. There will always be a need for these issues to be reflected on screen and showcased, but there is new crop of filmmakers who are interested in other types of stories and characters. In the end, I’m glad there are a diverse mix of storytellers out there.”

In order to capture this diversity, the festival has had to experiment.

“I’ve worked other events and festivals before, where they have a strict formula for ‘success’ and there is no room for this,” Niwano said. “I think having experiments that don’t go right isn’t failure, it’s just finding new equations of success.”

Niwano chalks up CAAM’s ability to experiment with films, programming and formats to two factors.

“A majority of our screening committee consists of filmmakers, film educators and people within the industry. However, we also include other types of community members, including social activists, so we can have a breadth of opinions and perspectives in our committees,” he said. “With my three years at CAAM as festival director, I’ve always felt that there’s a common yearning for experimentation. The CAAM leadership (is) very open to new ideas and finding space within our festival for creative exploration.”

The audience, he added, is just as big a part of this.

“There have been things that flop and things that are really successful, internally we’re trying to figure out what the community wants because at the end of the day, we’re really for the community,” Niwano explained. “In the Bay Area, we have a really thoughtful and intelligent community and audience, people who have been coming for decades to our festival. To keep up with them, we have to keep moving forward and in order to do that, we have to experiment. If the community doesn’t come out, we really can’t do anything.”

To learn more about the Center for Asian American Media and CAAMFest, visit caamedia.org and caamfest.com.

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