As much as Thanksgiving is about its own namesake and conjures feelings of comfort and abundance, in the age of information it becomes ever more an occasion for historical reckoning, for digging deeper into an unvarnished the past and tearing down the veil of benign ritual that obscures difficult truths. Truly it is about reconciling the comfort and discomfort into a complex and formative experience. With the American psyche becoming necessarily more acutely aware of its cultural spectrum than ever before, more cognizant of diversity at a local and global level, more confronted by the incalculable traumas of our nation-building and the folding of these aspects into a new sense of identity and code of conduct, Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival becomes more emblematic of this process and ahead of the curve of self-reflection. Under the stewardship of Rob Buscher the festival expands itself in thoughtful ways each year while remaining humble and deferential to their mission. In this its 10th year PAAFF screenings were held in venues throughout Philadelphia (I-House, Asian Arts Initiative, Fleisher Art Memorial, Reading Terminal Market) and incorporated live acts of music and theater. PAAFF has also evolved structurally, with much of the programming grouped thematically and otherwise presenting intersectional themes across the span of the entire fest. Therefore this evolving schema embodies diversity at every level, while being timely in its messages.
In fact Fermented, starring Chef Edward Lee, Directed and Edited by Johnathan Cianfrani is as timely a film as I can conjure. Fermentation, the transformative microbial process that has allowed humanity to endure via its preservative properties, is being ravenously embraced by the food world as we clear the haze of post-WWII pasteurization paranoia. Fermentation has never left our world, but in recent years the vast popularization of things like Kimchi, Craft Beer, Kombucha, Dry Aged Meats, Miso, and Cheeses and Pickles innumerable has put the seemingly intimidating and fearful process of “controlled decay” at the forefront of the collective culinary mind. In Fermented, Edward Lee travels the world and highlights some of the torchbearers of fermentation processes, and asks the very simple question… “What is fermentation?” Very quickly we realize that the scientific answer is merely the surface of an intimate, patient and highly tactile bonding of makers and ingredients. We learn just how much of Fermentation is about simply and carefully creating conditions and then ceding control. Presented at the Reading Terminal Market, Fermented is an example of site-specific film presentation, in which the audience is receives information and ideas while immersed in that context. Edward Lee was featured on the fantastic PBS show Mind Of Chef’s season 3 (available on Netflix).
Of all the festival’s surprises, the recently and immaculately restored Piccadilly (1929) by E. A. Dupont was THE revelation, on a formal filmmaking level and as an introduction to a lost treasure of the silver screen. PAAFF presented a mini-retrospective program of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong,1905-1961), a name I had never heard despite her significance as a top-billed actor at a time of virulent prejudice against Asians and Asian Americans in America. Wong is every bit of the actress that her contemporary Louise Brooks became under artful (and European) direction. Her natural dynamic movements, expressive faces and gestures speak volumes. All cinematic technique is used expertly to maximum effect, edited with stunning economy. Tools like rack focus, smooth panning/tracking, rhyme of camera movements, tinting of the print with narrative intent, are used to progress the maturely themed narrative of scorned lovers, professional ambition and sharp class divides in prejudicial times. We call these things “cinematic language” but as demonstrated in this silent masterpiece, such deliberate and linguistic command of the medium would not be seen stateside for at least 15 years.
Incidentally the two most important films you will see this year are by one of the Burns brothers, both shed uncompromising light on dark pools of history with a thoroughness and frankness heretofore unvisited upon their subjects, both cast mirrors against events of our present moment and both are Co-directed by women. PAAFF presented one of these films, The Chinese Exclusion Act, an infuriating, sickening and enlightening excavation of America’s backbone of racism told as elegantly as possible while still boiling the blood. Directors Rick Burns and Li Shin Yu (his long-time editor who co-wrote) explore one of the least known and yet the most impactful narratives of American history, one which has shaped constitutional law and immigration to this day, and one that has been chillingly recalled by the current administration’s repeated and problematic attempts at immigration bans on Muslim Majority nations. The Chinese Exclusion Act is a progression of turn-of-the-century federal legislation that singled out a people (Chinese, but later subsumed other Asian origins) specifically by race and was used as a tool to scapegoat the Chinese as an economic scourge and, in an act of passive genocide, choke the extant population of Chinese in America until they shrank to nothing by denying the possibility of citizenship. The film explores the unique and concentrated vitriol visited upon the Chinese and the rhetoric that resonates to this very day when blame is unjustly thrust upon a minority people in falsehood, fear and hyperbole. If you were ever wondering why every major city has a Chinatown, if you were ever curious why the US has enshrined birthright citizenship, if you ever wanted to know why people think “all Asians are smart” watch this film and learn in part how your nation has formed. In TCES cinematography plays a powerful role. Archival objects, historical documents etc are arranged in spaces and the camera explores them like intimate landscapes with warm firelight dancing. this mood lends undeniable weight to the material.
Shu-de! Follows Baltimore-based beatbox/vocal percussionist Shodekeh as he journeys to the East-Siberian Republic of Tuva as a guest of the International Xoomei (Throat Singing) Festival, in honor of the legendary Tuvan throat singer, Kongar-ool Ondar. Along the way Shodekeh interacts and collaborates with a blend of people and Tuvan musicians, as well as other guests of the festival. Shu-de! flows with Shodekeh’s raw experience and foregrounds his willingness to trust himself into discomfort in the pursuit of collaboration, bridge building and learning. Shodekeh’s interest in Tuvan throat singing, which has developed into an element of his percussive language of breath, is an example of the permeability of cultures and the propulsion of curiosity . The world community of vocal artists is a culture unto itself that crosses vectors and breaks borders innumerably, and in the span of co-creating sounds with people of different ethnic backgrounds it becomes clear that “difference” and “sameness” are not two experiences but a perpetual simultaneity, and we can live inside that vibration. Several of Shodekeh’s collaborations can be seen on youtube, along with Alash Ensemble who are featured largely in the film. He also hosts a workshop series in Baltimore for vocal arts experimentation and presentation called EMBODY.