When the Oscars announced its slate of 2016 nominees last month, it was business as usual.
Almost everyone in the major categories was white. What makes this year different was the backlash, famously tagged as #OscarSoWhite. Both the popular outcry and the support of some high profile stars brought attention to the Oscars themselves, and, more importantly, to the structural racism of the Hollywood film industry.
But this one award show is the tip of the iceberg when considering the lack of roles, scripts, and directing opportunities for people of color. Hollywood’s failure to recognize the broad range of human experience and roles people of color play in film is the precise reason the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) exists.
A recent study by the University of Southern California vividly illustrates the need for alternative film outlets. Of the top 700 films produced between 2007 and 2014, only one was directed by an Asian woman, and she was listed as a co-director.
Lack of representation and recognition aren’t the only problems. We’re only getting a tiny sliver of the world on our screens, when there is an astonishingly rich and diverse array of stories that we never get to hear or see in mainstream filmmaking.
I’d urge you to see more than one film at SAAFF, which opens next Friday on Feb. 19. What is so amazing about the diverse line-up of films is that it provides a wide range of Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences that make it nearly impossible to buy into stereotypes. This year, SAAFF features films about Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll (“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten“), queer family histories (“It Runs in the Family“), South Asian immigration (“For Here or To Go” – this screening is free!) and more. By viewing several in a row, you get a sense of the complexity of the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — and then there’s the genres and narratives you usually don’t usually see us in:
“Top Spin,” the festival’s opening night film, is directed by two women and follows three teenage Olympic hopefuls for the U.S. table tennis team.
“In Football We Trust” shows the highly competitive world of high school football in Utah, and the machinery that produces star Pacific Islander football players.
We so rarely get to see Asians or Pacific Islanders as athletes, and, make no mistake, these are all elite athletes. The subjects of these documentaries vary widely in terms of ethnicity, gender identity and economic class, but we can also see the similarities of their struggles to fulfill the dreams of their parents. For all of these athletes, their success would justify the sacrifices their families made to immigrate to the U.S.
The question is whether or not their single-minded drive to the top is worth it.
“Advantageous” is something incredibly rare. A film written, directed, and starring Asian American women. More than that, it’s a beautifully shot, brainy, science-fiction drama about body-swapping in a future not so different than our current one.
If you are a horror film fan, “Crush the Skull” will be one of the best films you see this year. It’s definitely not for the kids, with lots of low-budget, gruesome, violence. The tension builds around four thieves looking for a quick robbery. They get trapped in an isolated vacation home where they find and rescue a woman who’s been held captive for weeks by a sadistic serial killer. This cross between a heist film and “A Cabin in The Woods“ gives a nod to directors like Sam Raimi, by mixing humor with dread to create something new.
Both of these films respond to the absence of Asian Americans in mainstream film by taking on two of the most popular genres: sci-fi and horror. While never overtly about race, watching these incredibly well acted and directed films forces the audience to ask why we so rarely see Asians in starring roles.
Why are we relegated to information officers or sex bots (sci-fi) or the first wave of victims (horror) rather than being the heroes? These films help us imagine what a more egalitarian and representative movie industry might look like.
Go ahead and boycott the Oscars, but if you really want to challenge #OscarSoWhite, seek out independent films and festivals. Hollywood may change at a glacial pace, but at the Northwest Film Forum next weekend, the future is already here.
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival takes place from Friday, Feb. 19 through Sunday, Feb. 21 at Northwest Film Forum in Capitol Hill. Tickets and a full schedule are available at www.seattleaaff.org/2016.