A Curatorial Vision for a Diverse Audience: An Interview with John C. Woo

John Woo

New York City is such a paradise for film enthusiasts.  According to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, there are more than 300 film festivals happening all year round across the city, providing any kind of films you can think of.  One of them is the Asian American International (AAIFF), which beginning July 23, is back for its 38th year with a broad variety of films by Asian and Asian American directors that reflect the diversity of the Asian community, special events, and outreach programs designed to engage the community.  The festival is known for its selection of art house and political films; so, if you are bored of commercial films or just want to see something different, take a look at the film list.  You won’t be disappointed.

The AAIFF, the longest running Asian-themed film festival in the world, owes its focus and mission to its roots in the Asian American cultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Asian CineVision, the nonprofit media art organization behind the festival, was founded in New York’s Chinatown by media activists Peter Chow, Danny Yung, Thomas Tam and Christine Choy in 1975 to be “dedicated to promoting and preserving Asian and Asian American media expressions”.  40 years on, Asian Americans are still dedicated to media self-expressions, but the form, content, and people involved are constantly evolving with globalization and as new social issues emerge.  They are joined by Asians, many of whom have grown up with a global perspective or have lived outside of their home country, whose experiences and perspectives add to the diversity and complexity of expressions.

Films and film festivals serve as a media to preserve the tiniest traces of humanity and to construct the widest imagination of public sphere, and the AAIFF provides opportunities for conversations with, led by, or relating to the Asian and Asian American communities to happen.

Asian CineVision Executive Director John C. Woo been a long time facilitator of these conversations, starting with the organization as a graphic designer, joining its Board of Directors in 2000, and assuming his current role in 2010.  With the AAIFF opening tonight, we talked to John about the festival and its relationships with the community and its audience.  Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What is your definition of Asian American film?

In a broader sense, the earlier film festivals only showed films that were made by Asian Americans, who are either actors, directors, writers, or producers.  The definition of what we program now is the film by, for, or about Asians.  And even then, there is elasticity and flexibility in what we program.  There are like 20+ Asian-themed film showcases around the country; each film festival has a different curatorial vision because they have a different audience.  We are looked at as the political or art house film festival — that is our curatorial vision.

What is your curatorial process? Is there a theme for selection?

Apart from over 200 submissions each year, we also go to other film festivals or we have curators from other international film festivals telling us, “You need to look at this film.”  We know what our audience expects, and we want the program to tell stories that resonate with our audiences.

People are busy, and people have a lot of different entertainment choices. We really want them to come and watch a movie, engage with the movie and talk about the issues.  So, we want to give our audience the most interactive engagement we can find and to build a discussion on the subject matter.

It seems that you have a lot of documentaries and narratives with social commentaries.

Well, we’re a public non-profit, and so we have our agenda.  Our agenda is specific to our communities, and we understand what the issues are in our individual communities.  We want everybody to understand who they are, to appreciate that their uniqueness comes together in ways that are meaningful and important to Asians in America.  But we have our chick flicks, too.  People like their romantic comedies.  So, we want to provide something for everybody.

How do you engage the different groups of Asian American audiences?

Asian people came to this country for different reasons and deliver different experiences.  So, when we are programming, we know that we can’t put an Asian American film out there and have everybody come and see it.  There is a cross section of Asian Americans that are interested in a certain subject.

We have to market the film to certain communities, because the Chinese want to see Chinese movies, the Philippines want to see Filipino movies, and the Koreans certainly want to see Korean movies.  On the other hand, we also provide the audience with a lot of crossover or transnational productions.  For example, films by Asian Americans but made in Asia.  It’s kind of like Amazon, you know, if you like this film, you may also like that film.

How do you engage non-Asian American audiences?

Only half of our audiences are Asian Americans; the other half are just New York people who love culture and cinema.  They don’t mind subtitled films at all.  After all, films with the best story and creativity are going to succeed.  That’s what we are here for. We are a platform for the films.

Made in NYC is a new program this year, what’s new about it?

We always have a New York Joints program.  But, this time is our first time that these shorts are shown in the theater.  A lot of these films are student films, and we can’t show everything because we have a limited time.  We just don’t have the room for it.  But we try to get as many people as possible to see them because the filmmakers deserve it with their hard work.  We provide them with the opportunity to invite their cast and crew and talk with the audience.  After the film festival, if the filmmakers want, we will distribute these films on our tour program in schools, libraries and museums and our own streaming channel on Vimeo this year, so that these films can meet a broader audience.

Do you see any fundamental difference between Asian American films and American indie films?

Not really; the most important thing is the story, and the filmmakers have to have the passion to get the story out.  Some of the ideas may develop, but some won’t.  But now you have more opportunities.  If no one buys it, publish it yourself, market it yourself.  The intersection between creativity, technology, and distribution is something you don’t have to worry now.

It’s exciting that AAIFF is back in Flushing.  How long was the hiatus from Flushing?

We were in Flushing in 2001 and 2002, showing films in Flushing Town Hall, because there was no cinema in Flushing and people in Flushing don’t pay to see movies.  We started talking about bringing culture to Flushing a year and half ago.  You know that Flushing is a foodie destination, and the businesses there are seeking bigger audiences too.  By partnering with the local business and communities in Flushing, we are able to build this environment and target who we think need to see these films, and in such way we also build the audience.

What led you to return?

This year we have five nights in Flushing, and they are all going be free.  We curated these films knowing who the Flushing audiences are.  We build them around themes.  For example, the second night in Flushing is organized around health and wellness because we know the health issues in the community, and the last thing they tend to do is go to see a doctor or buy health insurance.  So, we invited nonprofits and industries that are in the health and wellness business to our night to talk with these people about their health.

On Thursday, we have our “Made in Flushing” series that were shot in Flushing.  Flushing used to be a big manufacturing district for the movie industry; so, we decided to do this program in Flushing to get people to know about the district they are living in and bring more opportunity to their community.

What do you expect from such community engagements?

You can’t say what the tangible results are.  You just know that it’s important that you understand that it’s a larger integrated life.  It is not only business, school, work, being the best of the best, but about being a better person.  That means understanding the world around you, and that’s what we’re really selling — and we do it in the form of media.

Tell us about your partnership with MOCA.

MOCA has always been a community partner, and our partnership began way back in Asian American cultural movement.  There was this organization called Basement Workshop funded in 1971 to build a forum for artists.  Asian American Dance Company was born there; Asian American Writers’ Workshop was born there; and Asian Cinevision was also started in the workshop.  The Asian American Resource Center in the Basement Workshop went on to become Chinatown History Project which later went on to become MOCA.  This year we are having four events at MOCA.  Through the partnership, we promote each other’s programs and engage in a bigger audience in the intersections.

Compared to other major film festivals in New York, what is the biggest challenge for AAIFF?

Our biggest challenge is how we pay for it. We have to pay for everything.  But we also have great staff and interns.  With our joint experience, we feel that combining our resources, we can do things cheaper and better. We have to fight for every ticket that we sell.  What we want is for people to come and see a movie and then go talk about the movie, the ideas.  We want them to tell their friends.

Another challenge is that the film industry is globalized.  With the expansion of cinema in China, we have to walk a fine line between the kinds of films that we show.  If we show a Tibetan film, that doesn’t go well with the Chinese audience.  If we show a Taiwanese film that’s critical about China, we have to make a programming choice.  For example, there are a lot of films coming out of Hong Kong because of the youth movement.  They are using the arts as a communication tool, and they are critical of China.  But, we are overseas Chinese, and all we are interested in is the story.  It’s not that we are critical of China.  We are critical about the society and system we live in, and we feel that we can contribute to people’s perspective on that evolving society.

AAIFF 2015 Staff at Launch Party, June 23, 2015

AAIFF 2015 Staff at Launch Party, June 23, 2015

Any film recommendations for the Chinese American audiences?

I don’t have a singular one because all the films are different.  Young Patriot and Factory Boss are both made in China, but they are so different.  Lao Wang is a film made here, but it will resonate with a lot of Chinese people.  The Seat is a beautiful film about a way of life in China.  Love Arcadia is a Chinese American story that takes place in California.  If people love action films, they should see Dragon Blade, which is a commercial Chinese film.  These films are all very different, and people should see them all. But we really want people to engage, come out, see the films.  Bring your friends, tweet about them, Instagram about them, go to the parties, go to Q&As and participate.  Because ultimately we want to change people’s minds one movie at a time.

The 38th Asian American International Film Festival runs from July 23 to August 1.

In addition to attending the festival, you can support AAIFF by contributing to its Kickstarter campaign.

Yipeng Su conducted and edited the interview.  Andrew Shiue edited and contributed to the introduction.

Photo of John C. Woo by Bingying (Emma) Yi
Images courtesy of Asian CineVision