There were no Fu Manchus, Charlie Chans, Dragon Ladies or Suzie Wongs on the bill at last night's opening of the first Washington, D.C., Asian-American Film Festival. There were, instead, the frustrations and compromises of Asian refugees, the reflections of two Asian-American women poets and a Chinese woman's discovery of her ethnic roots.
About 100 people viewed "Bittersweet Survival," "Mitsuye and Nellie" and "China: Land of My Father" at American University as part of a national five-city tour.
Theo Feng, a festival coordinator said, "This festival is intended to inculcate an awareness of Asian Americans." Said Wendy Lim, another coordinator, "It is to showcase Asian-American filmmakers, many of whom are doing films that communicate as historical documentaries but in a very creative way."
"I hope this festival gets to a broader market, otherwise it's just a self-contained media event of Asians talking to Asians and the perceptions of the broader audience won't change," said Sheridan Tatsuno, Washington liaison for the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in America.
What Asian filmmakers and audiences want changed is the unflattering use of stereotyped characters. "Asian-American characters are very shallow," Lim said. "Charlie Chan is constantly quoting Confucius, shuffling around and isn't shown as a complicated person. The characters are generally one-sided -- either very mean, vicious, sly and wicked or very docile -- with nothing conveying the range in between."
Several people commented on the preponderance of documentaries being made and the absence of comedies. "I wish there were more humor," Feng said. "Maybe Asian-American humor hasn't really developed as a model for films."
"In Asian cultures, to be laughed at is an embarrassment," said Tatsuno, who appears in tonight's screening of "Survivors," which is about atomic bomb victims. "Asians want to be taken seriously, not as a joke. The stereotypical roles, the Chinese laundryman, are laughed at. So I think Asians went the other direction and tried to play very serious, mature roles to prove themselves."
Asian filmmakers, according to Tatsuno, present a unique perspective that reflects their culture. "When white or even Anglicized Asian filmmakers interviewed atomic bomb survivors, they were like Marines hitting the beach, yelling, 'Lights, cameras, okay, get over here, now start crying for me,' " Tatsuno said. "They say, 'Let it all hang out, dredge up all the morbid and sensational stuff.' This Hollywood influence was an assault on the survivors' feelings."
But Steve Okazaki, who produced "Survivors," was more "low key," Tatsuno said. "Steve could relate to them culturally and could elicit their feelings," he added. "He didn't try to force the survivors to fill his expectations."
The two-day festival, sponsored by the Gold Mountain Radio Collective and the Organization of Pan Asian American Women, continues tonight at AU's Ward Circle Building.