I helped program the international titles at the inaugural San Diego Asian Film Festival in 2000, so the festival has a special place in my heart. Plus, I grew up with a Chinese grandfather who loved movies. I have grown to love the festival even more more since Brian Hu came onboard as artistic director and took SDAFF in a bold new direction in terms of programming.
As the festival is set to launch, I wanted to take the opportunity to speak with Alex Villafuerte, who took over the role of PacArts executive director in February of this year. Villa Fuerte is Filipino American and moved to Paradise Hills from Oahu at a young age. He calls himself a "proud Morse Tiger alumni" and went on to attend both Southwestern College and San Diego State University.
"I got my major in economics and then have been deeply rooted in community work ever since with San Diego Pride, with the Asian Business Association of San Diego and now Pacific Arts Movement," Villafuerte said. "So I'm excited to do community work and continue to do that through PacArts."
The festival's opening night film is "Quiz Lady" starring Awkwafina, Sandra Oh and Will Ferrell. It is directed by Jessica Yu, who provides two underrepresented communities behind the camera — Asian Americans and women.
And representing different communities is a key goal for both PacArts and SDAFF.
"I think the ability to tell our stories," Villafuerte said. "I think during the Pandemic, we really talked about people not knowing us and not understanding our humanity. And I think PacArts, and this film festival specifically does a really good job of telling our story in different ways through documentaries, through horror, through comedy. And so it's just a really good way to start conversations. And (as executive director) I wanted to make sure that we can continue doing that here in San Diego."
One of the highlights at this year's festival for me, is a recently rediscovered 1914 silent film called "The Oath of the Sword." It is the first silent film SDAFF will screen and is the oldest-known film by an Asian American production company. The screening will feature live musical accompaniment by Mathew Rakers, followed by a discussion with film historian Denise Khor, who rediscovered the film.
In the program notes Brian Hu wrote: " We can reimagine the beginnings of Asian American cinema, not as Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, or dragon ladies and 'The Good Earth.' Blazing the way for Sessue Hayakawa and Marion Wong to come is a film that asserted that Asians in America can be dashing, flawed, insecure, angry, and romantic, and that proved that independent studios like the Japanese American Film Company were producing dramas as sweeping as any other."
Villafuerte is as appreciative of Hu's meticulous and exciting programming as I am.
"Brian is a goldmine, and I never want to lose him," Villafuerte said. "And this year is quite the diverse lineup of films. We've got rom coms, horror, action. Brian and the programming team do a really great job of making sure there's a robust tapestry of films that we can look at and it's important."
While the feature films at SDAFF get most of the attention, Villafuerte wanted to make sure to highlight the shorts programs.
"There are a series of shorts, Queer Matters, and it sort of ties my community work from San Diego Pride to the Asian community and to see that intersection really grow," Villafuerte said.
He is also passionately committed to PacArts' Reel Voices educational program that prepares a new generation of filmmakers.
"What I want to continue to grow as the executive director, is our education programs," Villafuerte explained. "Our youth program, Reel Voices, is where we take high school age youth and teach them the art of documentary filmmaking everywhere, from editing to using the equipment to storyboarding and then packaging that so that they premiere at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. And it ensures that we have youth voices at our film festival, which is a big lift. And I want to make sure that we can continue to eliminate those barriers for youth in our region, to be able to touch a very expensive camera to see if that's something that they want to do and not have that be such a thing that only a few can partake in. And so really eliminating those barriers and reaching to as many youth as possible in our region to see if this is what they want to do. We want to make sure that we can inspire the next generation of filmmakers."
With an embarrassment of riches yet again at the festival, Villafuerte has this suggestion to attendees.
"What I challenge a lot of the guests to do, especially if they've got a full access pass, is to go outside of their comfort zone," Villafuerte said. "They may like rom-coms, they may like Korean dramas, but try to watch something that you may not automatically watch and see how that moves you. See how that changes you and see if you like it. It's a great opportunity to experiment and explore new films."
I heartily second that advice. A film festival should be an adventure, so explore.
I will have a list of film recommendation tomorrow on Cinema Junkie.