In the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown at the Radisson Miyako Hotel, a roomful of filmmakers and community activists celebrated the 25th anniversary of a not-for-profit organization that funds, exhibits, and distributes Asian Pacific American film.
The National Asian American Telecommunications Association or NAATA has much to celebrate: It has literally changed the face of public television by presenting hundreds of programs that have reached millions of viewers nationwide. It is the largest distributor of Asian American media in the world with over 200 titles making their way into schools, libraries, museums, and community screening rooms. They host the world’s biggest Asian American film festival with an audience of 25,000 that watches over 125 movies each year. Notable directors such as Ang Lee, M. Night Shyamalan, Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Steven Okazaki, and Wayne Wang have all shown their early work at NAATA festivals.
The event also marked the unveiling of a new name: The Center for Asian American Media.
“We’ve outlived our name,” explains Eddie Wong, executive director. “I think in the 1980s, when the word ‘telecommunications’ meant satellite broadcast, it meant a new era for communications. Today telecommunications means cell phones, PDAs; it just doesn’t mean the same thing anymore, so we decided to go with a streamlined name that actually goes with what we do.”
Ever at the forefront, the Center’s birth can be traced back to 1980 at the University of California at Berkeley where Asian American media-makers, activists, and non-profit representatives gathered to discuss the state of Asian American media at the National Conference of Asian Pacific Producers in Public Broadcasting.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea; the time was right and when the time is right, people come in there [and] they set their egos aside. There’s a lot of healthy thinking,” says Felicia Lowe, filmmaker and co-founder. “A collective sense of saying, ‘Let’s put our energies together; let’s not compete but let’s make something better’ and that’s what really formed the growth and creativity and the beginning of NAATA.”
The Center was formed to combat the lack of representation that many of those original conference-goers saw at the time in nationwide programming. In mainstream media, Asian American images ranged from overplayed stereotypes or worse, to actors in “yellow-face”—Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi), The Good Earth (Paul Muni as Want Lung), or John Wayne as a yellow-faced Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. Ultimately, it seemed like no one knew what Asian Americans really looked like and what kinds of stories they had to tell.
The founders of the Center for Asian American Media felt a great need to recast the Asian American image of “perpetual foreigner,” so it crafted a mission to present stories that convey the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience to the broadest audience possible.
Twenty-five years later, many of the award-winning founders and friends of the Center were in attendance at the anniversary celebration, among them Loni Ding, who has produced over 250 broadcasts including Ancestors in the Americas, a PBS series that explores the history and legacy of Asian Americans, and Spencer Nakasako, best known for his films dealing with Southeast Asian refugee youth—A.K.A. Don Bonus (1995) and Refugee (2003).
Master of Ceremonies Nguyen Qui Duc, host of KQED public radio’s national program “Pacific Time,” kept things lively as filmmakers, board members, and staff from various media groups, including the Asian American Journalists Association and Independent Television Service, mingled. Greg Chew, the San Francisco Film Commissioner, showed up to say a few words rounding out the strong show of community support.
The Center for Asian American Media is a member of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, which began in 1983 when it moved into 346 Ninth Street with the Film Arts Foundation, the Bay Area’s leading membership organization of independent filmmakers. Frameline, long at the forefront of LGBT media, joined in 1991, followed by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1995. Together this consortium of media-makers decided to buy the building at 145 Ninth Street (two blocks from its original location.)
The Center for Asian American Media is definitely here to stay, and with 25 years of perspective, its members and staff can’t help commenting on its remarkable contributions to the Asian American media landscape.
“I think the big change is the number of films that are being made,” says Wong. “[The number] increases every year, and that’s just a reflection [of the work the Center is doing]. The work is really getting good and getting diverse.”
The Center funds and presents films, documentaries, shorts, and experimental works, although it wasn’t always as diverse. “As one of the earlier pioneers in the business, I think many of us felt this really deep desire to create a basic library,” says Lowe. “A basic fundamental history starting with things we didn’t have in terms of how we got here and who we are. To see the kinds of works that are available now, such as comedy and drama and narratives, is so different. It’s an outgrowth of being able to laugh at ourselves and have the confidence to be able to talk about who we are with humor versus the earnestness we felt was required at that time to set that basic library of standards.”
The Center also gives between $30,0000 and $50,000 seed money each year to independent filmmakers. All told, they’ve given a total of $3 million.
“I think that over the last 25 years there is a greater appreciation for Asian Amer-ican history and stories of the Japanese American internment have gone deep in the schools,” says Wong. “So I think there has been progress made at the same time there’s many more Asian ethnicities in the US now than before, and those stories are just beginning to be told—stories of the Mien people, the Hmong, and the Cambodians. So there’s a lot more to do.”
As the lights at the Miyako Hotel went dim, the crowd watched a selection of film clips from filmmakers who have benefited from the Center, starting with the touching and gritty Who I Became by Mike Siv, which first aired on the PBS series “Matters of Race” in fall 2003. The film tells the story of a young Khmer American man, Pounloeu Chea—his years living on the streets, his trouble with the law, his pregnant girlfriend, and finally, his transformation into becoming a father. Other notable films were The Grace Lee Project by Grace Lee, Halving the Bones by Ruth Ozeki Counsbury, and My America …or Honk if You Love Buddha by Renee Tajima-Pena.
After that, it was lights on and time for cake and champagne.
“It’s great, but I feel old,” laughed Wayne Wang. “That means I’m way over 25!”