CAAMFest presents nuanced personal stories


The Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest 2019 returns to the Bay Area May 9, and includes venues in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. The following short films screen in San Francisco.

‘Period Girl’ photo courtesy of CAAM

‘Period Girl’
Any number of documentaries could be made about Nadya Okamoto. At 21 years old, she’s already co-founded a nonprofit with more than 300 chapters nationwide that distributes free menstrual supplies to homeless people, she’s written a book and campaigned for office in Cambridge, Mass.

The issues her nonprofit seeks to address, the stigmatization of menstruation and the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, are widely underrecognized and could make a great subject for a documentary. So would Okamoto’s run for office at 19 or the platform she ran on — addressing gentrification and income inequality in the city.

This wealth of approaches makes the one that filmmaker Jalena Keane-Lee ultimately adopts more notable. “Period Girl” locks into Okamoto’s perspective from the beginning and never strays. The camera fixes on her in a way that feels almost claustrophobic, appropriate for a subject who has been in the unblinking public eye for almost a quarter of her life now. To the extent that it does explore the issues Okamoto cares about, it explores them through her personal experience. It takes us behind the scenes of her media persona and presents us a seemingly unguarded portrait of the young activist and social media sensation.

It is in the film’s climax, when Okamoto shares, on stage, a story that reveals the deep, personal trauma that informs her work, that the reason for Keane-Lee’s approach comes sharply, shockingly into focus.

The 13-minute precedes “Bei Bei,” which screens May 10 at New People Cinema at 7:40 p.m. and May 14 at 9:10 p.m. at AMC Kabuki 8.

The World War II incarceration of West Coast Nikkei is perhaps the defining event of Japanese American history. The vast majority of those Japanese Americans were either personally incarcerated or are descended from people who were. As such, the concentration camps and experiences of people within them have been widely covered in Nikkei art, journalism and scholarship, to a point where one might ask, “Is there anything left to explore?” “Minidoka” and other similar recent works answer with a firm, “yes.”

“Minidoka” tells the story of a young mixed-race Nikkei visiting, for the first time, the site where his grandparents were incarcerated and connecting what he learns to our current political landscape and the activism he ultimately chooses to pursue.

Supported by a sparse, beautiful soundtrack, director Megumi Nishikura’s camera frequently produces images of contemporary Seattle and the Minidoka concentration camp itself that are simultaneously understated and overwhelming, familiar and haunting.

Much like in “Period Girl,” near the climax of “Minidoka” we get a personal story that is delivered with such matter-of-factness and authenticity, it almost takes a second to realize that, upon hearing it, you almost take a minute to register that you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. As the protagonist hears the story, he makes a key observation. As much as we might think we know the story of the camps, the truth of the matter is that it is not a story, it’s many stories. Each and every person, and their friends and family, were affected in ways that will ripple through generations. The story in particular and the film in general are a sad, poignant reminder that the camps and their lessons are as relevant as ever.

The 14-minute film precedes “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066,” which screens May 18 at the Roxie Theater at 4:40 p.m.

“Flo’s Bus” photo courtesy of CAAM

‘Flo’s Bus’
Unlike the other two shorts, “Flo’s Bus” doesn’t feature a contemporary figure or historical event of national or international renown. But in some ways, it has the most to say about today’s Japanese America. The film focuses on a quarterly bus trips 77-year-old Flo Matsuda has organized quarterly bus trips for her Hawai‘i-born Nikkei friends for the last 15 years.

A sort of community center on wheels, the bus that transports a group of longtime gambling buddies from Los Angeles to Vegas is a site for preserving culture and keeping connections alive. Early in the doc, we learn that Flo is planning to cease organizing these trips and the question of how her friends will take the news creates considerable suspense. Though almost everyone in the film was born in Hawai‘i and currently resides in the greater Los Angeles area, I’d be willing to wager that not a single American Nikkei that watches “Flo’s Bus” will come away without feeling a pang of recognition. In documenting the what may be the bus’ last voyage, Dean Ishida has created a charming and an important artifact of contemporary Japanese American life.

The 20-minute film precedes “Finding the Virgo,” which screens May 18 at the Roxie Theater at 7 p.m.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, $14 general or $13 “student/senior/disabled,” visit

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