With Anti-Asian Racism on the Rise, a Local Film Festival Seeks to Create a Safe Space

‘We’re not enemies,’ says CAAMFest director Masashi Niwano. 'We have beautiful things we’re making.'

Masashi Niwano knows that there’s nothing like watching a movie in theaters.

But postponing the Center for Asian American Media’s annual film festival seemed like the opposite of what the current moment called for. Anti-Asian discrimination isn’t anything new, but the coronavirus pandemic has incited a resurgence. In just a month after shelter-in-place orders came down across the nation, nearly 1,500 incidents of anti-Asian racism were logged by the reporting center Stop AAPI Hate. Women were harassed twice as much as men. 

“Now more than ever, it’s really important to have programming like CAAMFest in May to not only celebrate Asian American stories,” Niwano, the festival director, says, “but to also create safe spaces where we can all come together, and be bold and proud of who we are as a community.”

That’s why CAAMFest is moving online. In the middle of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, they’ll be celebrating “Heritage at Home” from May 13 to 22 with film screenings, live performances, and interactive programming.

Niwano hopes that CAAMFest’s Bay Area focus will remind online festival-goers of “the beauty and talent we have here.”

“We see all around us restaurants closing, people hurting,” Niwano says. “So much of our program celebrates local filmmakers and local stories.” 

CAAMFest opens with I Will Make You Mine, directed by Lynn Chen and featuring Goh Nakamura, an L.A.-based actor and singer who grew up in the Bay Area. Ruby Ibarra, a San Lorenzo-based Filipina American and trilingual rapper, will give a live performance on May 19. The next day, San Francisco’s own Alice Wu will speak about her new Netflix film, The Half of It. Local director H.P. Mendoza’s film Fruit Fly — a musical about the Castro, stereotypes about Asian women, and a young artist trying to find her biological mother — will close the festival with a sing-a-long.

“A lot of these films we’re presenting are going to show a history of Asian Americans that is complex and diverse,” Niwano says. “They’re all struggling and fighting for equality.”

One documentary, And She Could Be Next, focuses on women of color running for political office. “I hope through all of these films, you see that we’re all on the same page. We all want America to be better,” Niwano says. 

CAAMFest’s “Heritage at Home” is free to attend for anyone, whether you live in the Bay Area or not. In fact, of the first 1,000 RSVPs, many were from the East Coast. Niwano hopes that with CAAMFest’s extensive programming, they can help change the toxic public discourse that’s vilified Asian Americans. 

“We’re not enemies. Asian Americans have been around for a long time. We are American,” Niwano says. “We have beautiful things we’re making.”

CAAMFest: Heritage at Home, May 13 to 22. Free. caamfest.com/2020

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali. 

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