READ: Part 3 of Colorlines’ Reported Comic About CAAMFest, an Important Asian-American Film Festival

By Written by Channing Kennedy. Illustrated by Minnie Phan Mar 28, 2016

If you’ve been following our series you know that Colorlines asked Oakland-based writer and arts advocate Channing Kennedy to cover the The Center for Asian American Media’s signature festival, CAAMFest 2016. He proposed making it a comic and teamed up with Oakland illustrator and comic artist Minnie Phan. She and Kennedy covered so much of the festival, they divided their report-back into three parts. This is Part 3. (To ease eye-strain and still use what Kennedy says is standard font size for comics, we pasted the text at the bottom. Because, old school.) —Eds.


Colorlines at CAAMFest 2016, Part 3 Script

It’s the last weekend of CAAMFest! We weren’t able to experience all of it, but we’ve seen:
– five documentaries
– four narrative features
– two shorts programs
– two panels
– and before every screening, Justin Lin’s head telling the air to the left of to the camera lens to check out a corporate sponsor’s website.*

* This probably doesn’t bother anyone who’s seen the pre-roll fewer than 13 times.

Film: "Breathin’: The Eddie Zheng Story" 

For both of us, this was our favorite film of the festival. At age 16, fewer than four years after arriving in the U.S. from China, Eddie Zheng and three friends used guns to break into the home of a neighborhood shop-owner, locking his children in a bathroom and eventually ripping her clothes off. The film wastes no time in showing Zheng, now in his 40s, sitting on his childhood bed, revisiting his court testimony for the first time since speaking it. The acts he describes are unforgivable. 

And it’s this baseline, this full disclosure, that lets us see every inch that Zheng has built back up: being tried as an adult with court-assigned defense, entering prison with limited English skills, discovering the prison library, spending 11 months in solitary confinement for circulating a petition for an ethnic-studies curriculum. And then, after 19 years and 12 rejected parole requests, he gets out—and goes immediately into an immigration detention facility, because his visa has expired and the law has changed. And through it all, he fights for the right of all people to learn their histories.

"Breathin’" could have settled for “inspirational”: guy goes to jail, turns his life around, cue credits. Instead, it holds all players accountable, for everything. We hear Zheng’s mother admit to claiming that he was off at college instead of serving time in prison. We see her refuse to apologize for not asking her father to pay for an attorney. We see his sister say that they thought jail “might be good for him.” And we spend time with the voice of victims: One of the shop-owner’s children lays out every reason to keep him in prison forever, to deport him, to “let him make a new life anywhere but here.” 

We also see Zheng open his heart for rooms full of men both before and after getting his freedom. We watch him works a bullhorn at rallies, demanding Asian solidarity with the African-American community. We see his girlfriend teasingly objectify his biceps. We get to see Zheng be funny, loving, distant, terrifying, and scared. We see him be a son and a father. As Zheng’s former cell mate asks, “If Eddie isn’t reformed, who is?” And this is a movie about how reformation is not an erasure of the past. Eddie Zheng, as rendered on screen by director Ben Wang and a decade’s worth of filming, may be the most fully human Asian man on a U.S. movie screen in recent memory.

Postscript: during the movie, we both wondered who was letting their toddler wander around the theater. But we both figured it out when she trundled up to Zheng’s giant face on the screen and yelled “Daddy!”

Film: "Painted Nails"

This screening was framed as a political summit of sorts; in addition to the directors and subject, the audience also included two San Francisco city officials and the mayor of Oakland. I went in to this screening expecting to have my heart broken. And I did… but not how I’d anticipated. 

"This is… a tough documentary for me to talk about," said Minnie.

"My mother, who fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1989, has worked in a nail salon for 13 years, putting five children through college in the process. I hoped to learn something about her struggles and victories through San Francisco nail salon owner Van Hoang, whom we watch become a political force in the fight to regulate the cosmetics industry. 

The ‘Asian’ music that swelled up over the opening titles was my first hint that this movie wasn’t aimed at me. The co-directors, Erica Jordan and Dianne Griffin, said during the Q+A that they set out first to do a film about the Black and Latina women who spend money on their nails, and it shows in how Hoang’s life is presented. The filmmakers chide her from behind the camera for not inviting them to her first-ever City Hall appearance, then ask her why she doesn’t use more expensive (but equally unregulated) “natural” products. They then ‘explain’ to Hoang, who is pregnant with her second child for most of the film and who speaks openly about her two miscarriages, about how toxic the chemicals are. There is zero interrogation of the systemic racism that led to the near-complete deregulation of an industry mostly worked in by poor Asian women, nor is there any questioning of San Francisco’s policy solution that requires salons to make renovations while doing little to keep the worst chemicals out or prices down. 

Hoang’s English is subtitled throughout, and, in a final insult, “pho” is translated as “pho noodle soup.”

But at the heart of this film is its subject, Hoang, who is fearlessly, endlessly open about her life —her joys, her fears for her young daughter and son, how she works and eats among the fumes every day, how important it is to her for her story to be told. One of the greatest moments of the entire festival, for me, was the chance to speak with Hoang in my bad Vietnamese for a few minutes in the hallway and to tell her about my own mother and father, and to thank her, sincerely, for everything. I will always be grateful to CAAMFest for that."

Shorts: Muslim Youth Voices

These quickly made, gorgeously produced shorts were created in CAAM’s weeklong Muslim Youth Voices workshops in Somali communities in Minneapolis and Philadelphia, with the guidance of filmmaker Musa Syeed. This is some of the festival’s most innovative cross-community work—an expansion, rather than a contraction, of who should benefit from CAAM’s platform and influence. And, admirable organizational missions aside:

"I loved this program," said Channing. "Scenes that will stay with me long after the festival: a zombie with hijab and braces, transformed by sugary school lunch (‘Food For Thought,’ dir. Rizky Chandra); a young woman reciting her poem ‘If I Were A Black Man’ (‘Imagination,’ dir. Roodo Abdikadir); two kids using a time machine that looks a lot like a microwave, then introducing themselves as ‘You! From the future!’ ‘And Ted! … uh, from the future!’ (‘Friends In Time,’ dirs. Gallant Abidin and Niedal Jalil)

As Minneapolis spoken-word artist Sisco said during the Q+A, ‘While we were filming, people from the neighborhood would come up and ask us what happened because we don’t get cameras in our neighborhood unless something bad happened.; When’s the last time you saw a Muslim kid on TV just being a goofball?’"

Image: a young woman in hijab walking away from TV said, “You know what? I don’t even need you. I can share my own story.” (“Screened,” dir. Iqbal Maxamed).

It’s tempting to write that among this circle of friends, we’ll find “the next Justin Lin.” But this raises the question, “Don’t we already have a Justin Lin?” To put it another way: What is the end goal of CAAMFest and of ethnic media? Is it to find new individual superstars, so they can be burdened with representing their entire community-in-demographics-only to White audiences, while (somehow) also staying true to their own visions? Is it diversity—to find a new round of stories with “universal appeal,” or to assign people to speak up in the edit room after the footage is shot? To see new faces reading from old scripts? Is it to chase after that ideally blank slate, to begin the work fresh as though history never happened?

CAAMFest seems to be pursuing all these. But programs like Muslim Youth Voices show that the real goal may be simply to let every unheard voice tell its own story, and to let them be icons or individuals as they see fit.In other words, to make the movie by filming.

Thanks for reading our coverage of CAAMFEST2016!