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Susan Chinsen: …what is going to help advance awareness and understanding of the Asian American community. We’re doing this both for general audience members who don’t know anything about the Asian American community but may be interested in it or maybe are just looking for a good film to watch. They’ll still be able to find that at the film festival.
Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Susan Chinsen. She is the Establishing Director of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, and welcome to the program. When you first walked in the door today I said “Now, what does that mean, `establishing’?” Is that like founding? What does that mean, “establishing”?
Susan Chinsen: The Boston Asian American Film Festival is actually a program of the Asian American Resource Workshop, which was established in ’79, and ever since the early ’80s they’ve been involved in presenting Asian American films on and off through week programming festivals, but it hasn’t always been very consistent, and my effort through the festival has been to ensure that something happens on a consistent basis every year, and that’s sort of been where I sort of decided “establishing” was the right word to use for that.
Anita Walker: So tell me what qualifies a film to be a part of this festival.
Susan Chinsen: Sure. That’s a good question, because we actually get that asked by a lot of filmmakers as well. We consider films that address the Asian American community identity and issues related to the community, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be created by Asian Americans– that’s not the deciding factor– but really focus on central arcs and themes related to the community or present Asian Americans in light that is reflective of who the community is, sort of a realistic presentation.
Anita Walker: Give us some examples of ones that you’ve loved that have come through the festival.
Susan Chinsen: Sure. Let’s see. There is this one. “Shanghai Calling” was probably one of my favorite narratives, where it was an expat Chinese American who went back to Shanghai to establish a law firm there, so you’re talking about an Asian American going back to China to work, and it was sort of the fact that his guide was a white American woman, and her Chinese was better than his, and he was relying on her, and it was a great sort of interactive love story. It pointed out him being a romantic lead character, for instance, which you don’t typically see in a lot of mainstream film, and I really enjoyed that. It sort of combined a lot of the fun aspects. And then more recently we actually hosted a documentary filmmaker, Kenneth Ang. His film was “My Life in China,” which was a documentary about his father going back to China, and it really portrayed him in a realistic light. It was not the typical immigration story, but it was something that I think many immigrants could relate to in the fact that you come to America looking for better opportunities, in particular for the next generation, and he really got his father to be able to express that, and it was actually done in Chinese and in Toisanese as well, and it sort of expressed a lot of things that you don’t hear that generation talk about.
Anita Walker: Who are the filmmakers that submit to your festival? Are they local? Are they from all over the world?
Susan Chinsen: They do come potentially from all over the world but mostly the New York and Los Angeles area. Some of them are transplants from Boston. We do try and have a preference for folks with connections to Boston given the fact that we are the Boston Asian American Film Festival. We realized that that was certainly a need that was missing.
Anita Walker: So how do you cultivate that Boston filmmaker?
Susan Chinsen: We do a spring program called Shortwaves, which we invite– and it’s an open call for novice student filmmakers to submit a short film for free, and we do a public showcase of that in the spring and sort of trying to encourage people to share their work with us, a lot of student organizations and programs across the Boston area to sort of meet in one place during May, Heritage Month, but we also reach out to other organizations like the Center for Asian American Media. They host the largest Asian American film festival in San Francisco, so we usually start our scouting efforts out there in March every year and then kind of look and see what we can kind of like talk to filmmakers while we’re out there and bring it back to Boston.
Anita Walker: So obviously this is a great opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers and established filmmakers who want to really get some attention on this content, but what does it mean to the Asian American community here in Boston to have this film festival here?
Susan Chinsen: Oh man, that’s something that I think I didn’t quite really understand when we first started. I think I did this sort of a bit selfishly in the beginning because it was something that I wanted and needed and felt like I wasn’t having access to the types of films that I wanted to see, but over the past few years I’ve realized with the people who have attended come up to me and just really thank me and thank the volunteers and the staff for the time that it takes to in a sense create this space that it’s fairly unique. I think in today’s time you can go on YouTube, you can do on-demand, you can call up any movie you want if you’re willing to pay the price or find it for free in most cases too, but really through the film festival it created a unique space that sort of allowed filmmakers and audience members to actually meet in an intimate space. Our screenings are about 200 or less seats, so it’s not like these huge, gigantic, huge theatrical presentations, so it’s pretty neat that you actually have a more intimate conversation around topics.
Anita Walker: And are you finding all generations of Asian Americans in the area from young to new immigrants to people who’ve been here a long time having interesting conversations?
Susan Chinsen: We are. I think especially around that film “My Life in China” we saw a lot of that, and Ken to this day still is participating and doing screenings across the country but even coming back to Boston whenever he’s called upon, so if there are folks out there that are interested in seeing it or having him come speak he puts the time in, and he’s willing to share his work. It’s been a life passion of his to get his work out, and he’s definitely up for the challenge.
Anita Walker: We have lots of film festivals in Massachusetts. We are just rich in film festivals. What does it take to put on a film festival? I don’t think anyone has any idea. They just think “How wonderful. I get to go see these great films and documentaries.” But there’s a lot of work behind it.
Susan Chinsen: There are, and I think especially for many of the festivals in town we’re all sort of run by volunteer people with passions, and it is a lot of effort, and I think that’s one of the things that we’re not– at least for the Boston Asian American Film Festival– we call ourselves BAAFF– we think of ourselves as a family in that you sort of participate in this because we’re all working towards the same mission, and we keep that in mind as we do the work. We’re not doing it for sort of the artistic film critique type of audience but really the public and sort of what is going to help advance awareness and understanding of the Asian American community. I think we keep in mind in programming and directing that we’re doing this both for general audience members who don’t know anything about the Asian American community but may be interested in it or maybe are just looking for a good film to watch. They’ll still be able to find that at the film festival, but I think we’re also looking at trying to build community and specifically within the Asian American community as a place to come and feel connected and to sort of gain a sense of pride in a sense that your story, your heritage, your experiences are valued, and they’re up on the big screen.
Anita Walker: Why do you think that the film festival is really such a powerful tool for community-building as you’ve described? What is it about film?
Susan Chinsen: Yeah, no, I mean, that’s actually one of the driving factors for why I have put so much time into making sure that it’s been established now. <laughs> I really realize when I was working on the board of the Asian American Resource Workshop their mission is mostly around social justice work, but I realized that the highest-attended events that we were having at the time– this was pre-YouTube– were around film screenings and that people were much more likely to come and experience a topic through film. I felt like the threshold was much lower. After watching a film, 60 to 90 minutes, everyone was kind of coming away with a certain starting point to be able to have a conversation, and being able to leverage that I thought was such an amazing leverage to be able to really have an impact in how people think about the community and things around them and interacting at that level, so that’s really been the heart of it.
Anita Walker: Film is such an accessible artform. It’s somehow sort of mainstream. It’s not ever considered elite. It’s not feeling separate like a lot of other types of artforms that people have to sort of feel like “I don’t know if I know enough to go to an opera. I don’t know if I know enough to understand what’s in an art museum.” But films, it’s the movies.
Susan Chinsen: No, I think you hit it on the head there, and I think that very much sort of typifies sort of the class that I feel like I sit in. I came from a low-income immigrant family in an affluent neighborhood, but I did feel like watching television was sort of really my window into the world into understanding, and it was actually through a film I had seen on PBS, WGBH here locally, that made a big difference for me, and that sort of I feel like planted the seed where I saw like “I want to see more stuff like that” and trying to sort of search for that as a continuation through my life.
Anita Walker: Those of us who watch the Oscars every year– for the last several years it’s been a real disappointment in terms of the lack of diversity in either films that were nominated or actors that were nominated. Do you think film festivals like this will help move the needle at all in terms of the diversity that we see in sort of mainstream or feature films?
Susan Chinsen: Yes, I certainly think so, and there’s certainly I think a movement towards that given recent conversations and trending hashtags that have been happening that there is. The fact that the film festival brings not just communities together but also filmmakers together to sort of know that they have a support network, an audience base that supports them and the work that they are doing– typically the filmmakers that we bring in are mindful of that. They’re working in a very challenging setting. One film in particular that we’ve recently screened is called “East of Hollywood,” and it was a production crew from around here, but they really wanted to get together and focus on looking at what their experiences have been like working in Hollywood and what it’s like going into auditions and the expectations that the people on the other side of the table and the casting folks have been looking for and what challenges come with that, and so they’ve been really working to try and sort of change the dynamic and make much more visible issues around that.
Anita Walker: So you have now established that the film festival happens every year. When?
Susan Chinsen: At the end of October.
Anita Walker: In relation to Halloween somehow.
Susan Chinsen: Yes.
Anita Walker: So not always the same date but right…
Susan Chinsen: Yeah, it’s usually either the last weekend or the second-to-last weekend depending when Halloween is. We try to avoid the conflict.
Anita Walker: <laughs> That date.
Susan Chinsen: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Well, Susan Chinsen, thank you very, very much for joining us, Establishing Director of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, another creative mind out loud.
Susan Chinsen: Anita, thank you so much for having me.
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