To grow up in the United States—a child of a war, a refugee adrift—is to live with a series of question marks that bloom like black roses in a midnight garden: question marks that, like Russian dolls, only open up to reveal more question marks, which themselves only open up to reveal more question marks, and so on and so forth—each an endless regression like an Escher painting of strangers walking up the down staircase, opening doors and going nowhere.
But wrap your mind around this paradox: To grow up in the United States—a foreigner—is to not even know that these question marks hover above you, but to know that everybody sees something that makes you different and everybody (everybody but you) has a readymade answer to that question.
To put it in plainer language, it means that there is always a moment when a wild-eyed veteran buttonholes you and asks for absolution for the terrible things he did. Or it means to suffer through the endless movies—some art, some trash—that turn the Southeast Asian into a cardboard cut-out, a mere shadow-puppet, for the blood-lust fantasies of a popcorn audience whose only desire is to stuff their faces with napalm nightmares.
Thank God I no longer have to live that way. Thank God the next generation of Southeast Asian immigrants don’t have to either. And Thank God that the general public doesn’t have to labor under the illusions that trap us within the crawl space of stereotype. Why?
In the past decade, we have seen a renaissance of artistic production by Southeast Asians that addresses our condition outside of the confines of mass-market big-ticket rat-a-tat-tat film. And for the first time, a film festival dedicated to Southeast Asians has made its appearance at a major city and a major venue. San Francisco—that city by the Bay that links East with West–will play host to the first ever film festival of cinematic artists. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will seek to dispel that question mark hovering over their collective heads on their own terms.
The South East Asian Film Festival–happening between November 20-22, 2015–commemorates the 40 year anniversary of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. The choice of venue is auspicious; the curation, innovative. You see, for the first time this event brings together artists from a region now more generally known as Southeast Asia—and positions them as part of a story-telling diaspora that has something to say about the after-images of a war long gone but, still, lived in the body, the spirit, the mind.
The kind of curation is incredibly special, because the way their art is framed makes all the difference. Let me explain: Before you might have had a bunch of white guys (and yes, they were all predominantly male and all predominantly white) getting together with vague notions of mayhem and testosterone, producing some kind of Kubrick shoot-em-up about savages in a jungle who all look alike.
Now, you have an intellectual infrastructure of cultural insiders who bring to the same landscape a different point of view: artists, curators, professors, intellectuals—a coterie of great minds drawn from the very people who were once puppets of the flickering cinema. These great minds now are finally thinking, and thinking wonderfully, about what it means to produce high level cinema as real flesh and blood citizens of the world, not figments of imagination. And no, in their eyes, we all don’t look alike, even if we are still lumped all together under the rubric of war.
Anchoring the show are great artists in the prime of their careers–artists like Apichapong Weerasethakul who has won no less than TWO Cannes Film Festival prizes for TWO different films. His current effort, Cemetery of Splendour, explores a mysterious sleeping sickness afflicting soldiers in a clinic. The clinic is built upon a mythic ancient site—a place of hidden questions.
Lesser known artists from lesser known countries are represented, too. The newcomer Mattie Do contributes Chanthaly—the first Laotian horror flick— that tells the story of a young girl, raised by an overprotective father, who is sequestered at home in the country’s capital. The story is one of haunting: a story of a mother sending a message from the afterlife and a girl suddenly forced to act upon the questions that arise from the reemergence of a specter.
There are many movies moving across genres—from horror to drama to documentary—and all of these cutting edge cinematic artists have something special to say. Why? Because they bring to the table distinctive voices that don’t fall into the cookie-cutter trap of a wannabe veteran living out celluloid dreams of Viagra manhood. I think this is ultimately the genius of this watershed event—this heralding of a new era that looks back on an old one: a mythic ancient burial ground in the clinic of the mind. After all, the festival commemorates the 40th anniversary of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia where so many lives were lost. And perhaps it will exorcise some ghosts and put some lingering questions to rest.
So, if you are in San Francisco on November 20-22, 2015—or if you know someone in San Francisco during that period—I highly recommend this event. To learn more, check out the website: www.i-seafilmfest.com