Asian American Film Festivals
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Asian American Film Festivals

Frames, Locations, and Performances of Memory

Erin Franziska Högerle

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eBook - ePub

Asian American Film Festivals

Frames, Locations, and Performances of Memory

Erin Franziska Högerle

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Responding to a lack of studies on the film festival's role in the production of cultural memory, this book explores different parameters through which film festivals shape our reception and memories of films. By focusing on two Asian American film festivals, this book analyzes the frames of memory that festivals create for their films, constructed through and circulated by the various festival media. It further establishes that festival locations—both cities and screening venues—play a significant role in shaping our experience of films. Finally, it shows that festivals produce performances which help guide audiences towards certain readings and direct the film's role as a memory object. Bringing together film festival studies and memory studies, 'Asian American Film Festivals' offers a mixed-methods approach with which to explore the film festival phenomenon, thus shedding light on the complex dynamics of frames, locations, and performances shaping the festival's memory practices. It also draws attention to the understudied genre of Asian American film festivals, showing how these festivals actively engage in constructing and performing a minority group's collective identity and memory.

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De Gruyter

1 Introduction: Why Asian America, Film Festivals, and Memory?

Migration is an experience central to our time.1 In the past few years, many Western countries have closed their borders to stop the flow of immigrants and refugees from entering both the European Union and the United States, so that questions of identity, difference, and belonging have once again become pressing and are constantly brought to attention by the media. In their reporting on these events, the media shape our understanding of our own and others’ identities, histories, and cultures. Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s study of globalization and its influence on modern societies,2 Vijay Agnew asserts that these mass-mediated images transcending national and cultural borders also greatly influence the experience of migration (2005c, 31). Russell King and Nancy Wood concur in stating that the media not only fuel, but also shape migration in their transmission of images that perpetuate ideas of wealth and freedom in connection to host countries or portray migrants as “others” and consequently impact their integration into the host society (2001, 1–2).
Because the current waves of migration have encouraged divides within and among the host countries, splitting both political parties and the public, and given right-wing movements the opportunity to gain ground, the factor of memory is brought into sharp focus as narratives of past and present are continuously renegotiated by communities. Memories of past situations of migration, war, and exile are summoned as Western societies question their values and duties. What is more, memories of experiences by the immigrant community are brought to the fore, shaping ideas about the culture left behind, the identity of the new, hybrid micro-culture, and the conception of the host culture. Existing memories are shared, lost memories recovered, new memories created or renegotiated, always mediated, usually in narrative form. Through the migration and travels of people, media, and objects across national and cultural borders, new memories emerge, old memories change, and new memory communities take shape.3
As film festivals that are dedicated to the media output of Asian immigrant and diasporic communities in the United States, Asian American film festivals4 constitute a platform through which memories of migration are mediated, transported, and shaped. This mediation and staging of memories takes place in the festivals’ presentation of both fiction and documentary films that center on migration and life in the diaspora; in their framing of these films through festival publications, websites, and mission statements; in their choices of festival locations, which through their atmosphere, history, and perceived identity shape the moviegoing experience; and in their performances during the screenings that add another narrative layer to these films. This is particularly visible in the opening night events of the 2016 edition of San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF)5 and the 2017 edition of San Francisco-based CAAMFest, during which the two Asian American film festivals screened the feature film The Tiger Hunter (2016): set in 1979, the comedy tells the lighthearted fictional story of Sami Malik, an Indian engineer, who decides to leave his village behind and migrate to the United States in the hope of achieving economic success and winning over his childhood crush, Ruby.
On November 3, 2016, SDAFF’s artistic director, Brian Hu, introduced the festival’s opening night film as a story about the “community and resilience of immigrants to the United States.”6 In the Q&A that followed the screening, B. Hu took up the point of migration once more, expressing his ability to relate to the film on a personal level because his parents had emigrated from Taiwan in the same year as the fictional story took place and opening up about his family’s experiences as immigrants in the United States. The film’s main actress, Karen David, similarly drew on her personal experiences in reference to the film, stating that she had remembered her parents’ migration from India to the U.K. as well as the hardships and sacrifices they had endured in the past as she was reading the script.
On March 9, 2017, CAAMFest’s film festival director, Masashi Niwano, similarly introduced The Tiger Hunter as a “powerful” story of immigration and the American Dream, depicting an immigrant community fighting for its place in the United States. In the subsequent Q&A, director Lena Khan explained that the film was partially based on the true immigration stories of her parents and her friends’ families. A friend, for example, had told her about his father’s experience of coming to the U.S. and sharing a single suit for interviews with his multiple roommates – a story that was integrated into the film and constituted a particularly comical and memorable scene. In turn, the film’s main actor, Danny Pudi, recalled how his parents had migrated to Chicago in the 1970s, asserting that The Tiger Hunter was “truly my family’s story.” As the Q&A was opened to the audience, a guest further expressed how much the story had “resonated” with him, based on his own father’s immigration to the United States and search for work as an engineer.
These two scenes from SDAFF and CAAMFest are exemplary of how Asian American film festivals transform events into spaces of shared remembering, staging a film as a trigger for memory and serving as ground for the activation of its memory potential. What is more, they show how films projected onto the screen may be framed and therefore experienced as ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ in their portrayals of stories and histories of migration as well as how certain motifs – in the case of The Tiger Hunter, the themes of the hardworking, yet disadvantaged immigrant; his exposure to the dog-eat-dog world of business; and the strength of community and friendship – may be reinforced through pre- and post-screening events. Thus, the festivals shape audience memories of the film, the moviegoing experience, and the festival event, drawing our attention to certain narratives or perspectives and encouraging us to connect the story to our own histories and biographies.
SDAFF and CAAMFest’s opening night events further constituted instances in which analogies were drawn between past events and present experiences, as the festivals made use of a story of migration in order to address the political climate following President Trump’s election and inauguration, acknowledge the struggles faced by minorities in the United States, and create solidarity and feelings of community among audience members: At CAAMFest, actor Rizwan Manji compared the experiences of screening The Tiger Hunter prior to and after the presidential election of 2016, stating that the film – in its portrayal of the hardships faced by immigrants and their fight for a place in society – had acquired a “deeper meaning” in 2017 and that its screenings had become “more emotional.” At SDAFF, Lena Khan and actor Parvesh Cheena added to this point, emphasizing that community was not only an important theme in the film, but also an important topic in the present, particularly with regard to the discrimination faced by Asian Americans within the U.S. entertainment industry. In their statements, Khan and Cheena thus picked up the theme of community previously addressed by B. Hu in his introduction to the film, where he commented on the festival’s stand against all kinds of discrimination currently taking place in the U.S. and referred to the need for community among immigrants.
What these two scenes hint at is that festivals such as CAAMFest and SDAFF produce a multitude of narrative contexts for their films, some carefully staged in festival texts or scripted speeches, others spontaneously and unintentionally produced during live interviews or Q&As with guests on stage. These narrative contexts influence the way we remember both the films and the film festival events and encourage community building. Through their publications, choice of locations, and live performances, film festivals create a framework in which audience expectations are set and, in the case of minority festivals such as CAAMFest and SDAFF, a specific environment for the construction of minority identity and collective memory is nurtured.

1.1 Premises

In its discussion of Asian American film and film festivals, this book asserts that film is a central medium used to store and represent memory, greatly influencing the way we imagine the past and therefore understand the present. Starting out from the idea that migration or travel is the “condition” for memory (Creet 2011, 9; see also Erll 2011b),7 it is interested in how memory travels, emphasizing the media-specific form of memory, but also in where and to whom it travels, underlining the widespread dissemination of cinematic memory as well as its transculturality. Finally, it is interested in how cinematic memory is framed and performed, pointing to the significance of social contexts in which memory is produced and accessed as well as examining the specific situation of reception at film festivals. Three premises together form the foundation of this research: the mediality of cultural memory, its transculturality, and the conviction that the ‘social life’ surrounding cultural practices of memory is worth studying.

Premise 1: The Mediality of Memory

This study assumes that cultural memory is always mediated. In order for cultural memory to come into being, it needs to be stored in and accessed through a medium.8 Jan Assmann has pointed out that “[e]xternal objects as carriers of memory play a role already on the level of personal memory” (2010, 111). He states that our memory is “in constant interaction not only with other human memories but also with ‘things,’” declaring that “the term ‘memory’ is not a metaphor but a metonym based on material contact between a remembering mind and a reminding object” (111). As the memory capacity of our minds is limited, external storage devices are needed. However, media technologies and material objects do not only function as personal archives, but also serve as an “interface […] between the individual and the collective dimension of remembering,” enabling memories to move outside the human body and cover great distances, to cross both space and time (Erll 2011a, 113). Moreover, the media-specific form shapes the memory: as Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney assert, “there is no cultural memory prior to mediation”; in fact, “there is no mediation without remediation: all representations of the past draw on available media technologies, on existent media products, on patterns of representation and medial aesthetics” (2009, 4). Joanne Garde-Hansen further emphasizes that we not only make sense of the past “through media discourses, forms, technologies and practices,” but that the multitude of mediated narratives and images present in our minds interact with each other, forming new connections and memories (2011, 6). The mediality of memory9 is an important premise for the conception of film as a memory medium. Making use of a spectrum of narrative and aesthetic tools, film is able to store, stage, and circulate memory as well as trigger existing memories in audiences.
Within both film studies and memory studies, the intimate ties between film and memory have been widely discussed. Amresh Sinha and Terence McSweeney argue that the invention of film has made it possible to “effectively capture and [through projection] replicate time,” as the medium has the ability to “create a replica of a moment from the past and store it for later ‘use’” (2011b, 3). In Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky similarly considers film as the “means to take an impression of time” and repeat it through projection onto the screen, maintaining that, through its invention of cinema, humanity obtained a “matrix for actual time” (1989, 62). Laura Mulvey further asserts that “[o]n celluloid, personal and collective memories are prolonged and preserved, extending and expanding the ‘twilight zone,’10 merging individual memory with recorded history” (2005, 25). Film thus allows the spectator to “dip almost at will into moments of cinematic time, both within a given film and in the mass of films that make up cinema’s history” (McNeill 2010, 3). In contrast to photography, film has been largely theorized as showing rather than stopping time. As Russell J.A. Kilbourn points out:
Whereas the (analog) photograph is always a representation of something past, over and done, film, in its iconicity, is ‘life’; photography, in its indexicality, is ‘death’ […] film in a fundamental sense is always ‘animation’: whether in terms of the apparent mobility of the object onscreen or of the camera or frame itself. (2010, 29)
Next to these observations on the media specificity of film and its connections to time, past, and memory, several scholars have also pointed to the significance of film for cultural memory. In their introduction to Film und kulturelle Erinnerung: Plurimediale Konstellationen, Astrid Erll and Stephanie Wodianka state that cultural memory is a “leading theme” of film and that film is a “leading medium” for memory culture (2008, 1; own translation). Paul Grainge concurs in pointing out that “cinema has become central to the mediation of memory in modern cultural life” (2003b, 1). Kilbourn further claims that film is so fundamental to memory that we tend to forget “what it was like to remember in a world before cinema” (2010, 9).
There are various ways in which films may engage with memory. Kilbourn conceives of memory films as a genre of films that “do not simply represent memory but […] employ memory as the basis of a cinematic aesthetic” (2010, 6). Anders Bergstrom establishes that memory films “dramatize” cinema’s role in the formation of memories, “visualiz[ing] philosophical concepts of temporality and identity” (2013, 210). They thus “‘show how we inhabit time, how we move in it, in this form which carries us away, picks us up and enlarges us’” (Gilles Deleuze qtd. in Bergstrom 2013, 209). Whereas Erll and Wodianka equally point to the diversity of films that center on memory, they believe that memory films do not constitute a film genre, but rather a social and cultural phenomenon that emerges from an individual film’s reception contexts (2008, 7). In Memory in Culture, Erll adds to this definition of the memory film, differentiating between memory-reflexive films, which center on “concepts of memory,” and which visualize and critically reflect acts of remembering, and memory-productive films, which lead to the “powerful global dissemination of images of the past” (2011a, 137). Discussing the manner in which films may engage with memory, Erll emphasizes that such films carry in them only a “potential for mnemonic effects” – a potential that “has to be realized within situative, social and institutional frameworks” (2011a, 137–138). A diverse range of films may then be identified as memory films, from historical films that capture a moment of the past to romances, westerns, and science fiction films that represent a national or cultural community’s identity and expose its values and to nostalgia films that cite the mode, aesthetics, or...

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