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Cementing and Defining Legacies at CAAMFest 2016

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The 34th annual CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) was held in San Francisco and Oakland from March 10-20. Though attendees may have left with different impressions following the full program of screenings, panels, and events, I believe the common thread linking the attendees’ experiences was CAAMFest’s exploration of the power of legacy.

Tyrus kicked off the festival in a packed Castro Theater. The audience was visibly absorbed by the moving documentary about Tyrus Wong, a Chinese American artist who overcame numerous obstacles in pursuit of his passion. Despite circumstances that separated him from his mother at age 9 and the racism he endured as a Chinese American, Wong persevered for his art. Whether it be paintings for Hallmark cards, storyboarding for a feature film, or even building an elaborate kite to grace the sky, he applied his artistic vision relentlessly and it was only recently that he’s being celebrated for his lifetime of work.

The 105-year-old Wong, who was in attendance, received a standing ovation following the film’s conclusion. During the Q&A, an audience member shared that he inspired her to live to 105 – which was appropriately met with a round of applause – and that the younger generation should look to Wong for inspiration when pursuing passions in life, despite all odds.

Legacy-defining continued with a presentation made by Pixar animator/director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle on the making of the Academy Award-nominated short film, “Sanjay’s Super Team.” Together in one of the smaller theaters of the Alamo Drafthouse, we watched the seven-minute storytelling feast for the eyes come alive with well-timed comedy and beautifully animated action sequences, accompanied by a thrilling Mychael Danna-composed score.

During the Q&A after the screening, Patel and Grindle explained how the film was developed, how the story changed overtime, and how different influences were incorporated into the animation’s appearance. John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, had told Patel to “just tell your story,” and the story that came to him was about what it’s like to grow up as the child of Asian immigrants, a narrative that is rarely seen in mainstream media. Even Patel’s father was touched by the film, as shown in a video recorded during a private screening at Pixar. Moved by this, an audience member requested an encore and we wound up watching “Sanjay’s Super Team” a second time around.

Muslim Youth Voices, an organization dedicated to celebrating and telling stories from the Muslim community, hosted a screening of student productions made by Muslim kids from Philadelphia and Minneapolis. Under the guidance of filmmaker Musa Syeed, the young filmmakers dug into the depths of their developing creative sides and brought forth a wide array of short films. From mind control brownies controlling a high school girl, to a short documentary on a spoken word poet, these kids embraced their Muslim identities and were empowered to tell their own unique stories rather than resign to the negative stereotyping of mainstream media.

If I wasn’t convinced before of the theme of legacy at the festival, the screenings I saw on the last day at the New People Cinema certainly did the job. I saw two documentaries, a short and a feature, which were part of the Pacific Showcase from the Pacific Islanders in Communications. John Antonelli’s Roots of ‘Ulu talks about how the ‘ulu (breadfruit) is being revived as a significant food in the Hawaiian culture, while Matt Yamashita’s Sons of Halawa follows the last native Hawaiian of Halawa as he searches for a successor to carry on the teachings of his ancestors. Both were about upholding legacies in people’s consciousness to keep them from disappearing altogether, informed especially from a culture that has withstood colonialism in its past.

Finally, to round out the theme of legacy found in CAAMFest’s programming, I also saw the theme realized in the people who make the festival possible. As an intern for CAAM, I helped with checking in and out volunteers and got to witness everyone who generously gave their time to volunteer. As hard-working as the staff is, this festival wouldn’t succeed without the enthusiasm and desire from these members of the community, some of whom have volunteered for decades. While each volunteer is given a voucher ticket at the end of each shift, there were several who will let it be known that perks are not why they keep returning each year. Rather, it’s the love they have for the festival that drives them to get involved. The volunteers are ultimately extensions of the festival’s constantly growing legacy.

Whether found in a thought-provoking documentary or in the smiling face of a long-time volunteer, CAAMFest was all about solidifying legacies for the younger and future generations to look to for inspiration and drive.

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Cover photo via CAAM/Austin Blackwell
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Written on April 5, 2016 by
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