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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass Boston students participate in the Boston Asian American Film Festival


Film is both a global and local art form, singular and communal. Students at UMass Boston who are enrolled in AMST/ASAMST/CINE 315L: Asian American Cinema had an exciting opportunity to learn this personally as observers of the Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF), held virtually through October 21-25, 2020. Professor Denise Khor of the American Studies Department, a member of the BAAFF screening committee, arranged for her students to participate in a Q&A roundtable event with three filmmakers over Zoom. Students asked their questions directly to the creators of three independent short films in the ‘Beneath The Surface’ shorts program at the festival, a collection of “films that challenge the idea that things may not always be what they seem,” in the words of Festival Manager Ellen Kaye. Festival Director, Susan Chinsen, was also in attendance at the roundtable event. This roundtable Q&A was recorded and used by the BAAFF as part of the festival events. 

Participation in the film festival is one of many exciting aspects of this hands-on, innovative course that was designed with support from the Mellon Foundation. The festival falls within broader course objectives to learn about the multifaceted field of Asian-American film production and to engage with the local independent film community in Boston. The Q&A discussion itself was a practice in the type of analytical thinking and communication that is central to humanities inquiry. 

In preparation for their exciting discussion with the filmmakers, students spent the class meeting before the roundtable “creating a script,” according to Professor Khor. In a live document, they shared their analyses of three BAAFF participating short films that they had watched for class:  Atomic Café by Akira Boch and Tadashi Nakamura, Stranger by Chen Yang, and Dirty Business by Yutao Chen. Students brainstormed questions to ask the filmmakers and then chose their best ones.

On the day of the event, students came prepared for a captivating conversation. Students Valerie, Ali, and Kira asked Nakamura about his film Atomic Café, addressing the setting of the film in J-Town, Los Angeles, and the importance of the punk scene for Japanese Americans. In response, Nakaumura focused on the ways his film addresses gentrification and the pressures put on Japanese Americans to assimilate following World War II. “The punk scene was against that and the mainstream culture. It was a place for people that the community might be embarrassed about or might not want to admit exists,” he said.

Students Eunyoung, Jack, and Alsarah asked Yang about her film Stranger, with questions centered around the experience of being an international student in the United States and the feeling of loneliness that permeates the film. “I wanted to tackle how life is hard for Chinese students studying in America, particularly art students,” she said.  Yang integrates into her film the struggles of loneliness and anxiety she felt about not finding a meaningful job after college.

Students MyNgoc, Carly, and Amanda asked Chen about his short documentary, Dirty Business, with questions regarding the filming locations of California and Vietnam, and the negative side to recycling. Chen explained that he started the project with the intention of documenting the unseen workforce in California’s economy and a desire to build a bridge between the domestic and international. “We want to make sure we elaborate upon the complexity of the economic impact and bring awareness to the globalized issue of plastics waste and recycling,” he said. 

To end their conversation, the filmmakers were asked to share any advice they had for the students moving forward. Nakamura called this a scary but exciting time. “There’s so much potential for real change right now. Voice your opinions and take advantage of this time,” he said. Chen added to that by addressing the change he’s seeing in filmmaking and storytelling. “A general trend is that big publications have focused more on personal projects. If your story carries universal emotions and characters, it’s worth saying. Reflect on your journey and find your own voices,” he said. Lastly, Yang closed with a reflection on growth. “I think this is a good time for you to adapt to change and use your time at home to grow. As filmmakers, all we can do is write and practice our skills,” she said.

Students will use the experiential learning they did for this festival and apply it to their collaborative final project, an ambitious assignment where they will take their knowledge of Asian American films and propose their own festival around a particular theme, which includes creating programs, blog posts, and advertising material for their intended audience. At the end of the course, students will present their proposed film festival to a panel of judges, which will include professional film festival directors and programmers.
What BAAFF and the course at large demonstrate is that the ability to think critically and express oneself clearly and artistically is an effort that is both personal and collaborative. Through the hard work of the students in Asian American Cinema, three independent filmmakers, Professor Khor, and the organizers of BAAFF, a unique, active-learning experience was born. This is done in ways that document a global narrative, and most importantly for this class, in ways that draw on the experience of Asian-Americans in the art of filmmaking.