Arts & Culture

Centering the Margins: Spotlighting Asian American Communities On-Screen

Tracing the history of Boston sheds light on the pockets of Asian American communities within the city, stretching from East Boston to Dorchester. From Chinatown near South Station to Cambodians carving out space in Quincy and Vietnamese Americans moving into the Fields Corner neighborhood, Asian Americans have made Boston a place to call home, and, in the process, have built their communities through artistry. One way is through the Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF), which sets out to connect Asian American filmmakers with an audience in Boston, most of whom are members of their own diasporic community.

The BAAFF is the brainchild of the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW) which has showcased movies to the Boston audience for the past 40 years. AARW is a “political home for pan-Asian communities in Greater Boston [and is] a member-led organization committed to building grassroots power through political education, creative expression, and issue-based and neighborhood organizing.” Matthew Cho, a Korean-Indian member of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition, reflected on his experience working at AARW and attending the festival. He said being part of AARW helped him “develop a better understanding of what grassroots community organizing entails,” the BAAFF being a prime example. The BAAFF tends to play films that do not receive mainstream attention in order to support and showcase underrepresented artists. The selection is broad and non-homogenous, just like the Asian American experience. The festival showcases immigrant, queer, and dark-skinned Asians who are often not portrayed in popular narratives. Some films showcasing these narratives at BAAFF are Free Chol Soo Lee, Crossings, and In Search of Bengali Harlem

Susan Chinsen, the establishing director of the film festival and a Tufts alumna, reflected on why she felt driven to start the festival. She said during her time on the AARW board from 2000–2007, she saw how the showcased films appealed to a broad audience and made topics about immigration, queerness, and colorism more accessible to talk about, helping her recognize the need for the festival. She explained, “Media has a strong appeal to draw people in, and we should do it annually.” When figuring out the location, she chose her town of Boston because it felt like the big-name artists would skip over it. This led her to play what she called “matchmaker” by creating a festival where Asian American artists and a growing Boston audience could come together in one space. To choose films, the BAAFF researches less acclaimed new films starring Asian Americans, and artists reach out directly to the BAAFF as well.  

The BAAFF attracts a large and broad range of guests, within and outside of the diaspora. Through the BAAFF, traditionally neglected Asian American narratives are shared with others to be seen and understood, especially in a political and racial context. Junior Arnav Patra, who attended the festival, commented on the role In Search of Bengali Harlem played in providing representation. He said, “[I appreciated] hearing language on screen that’s similar to my own… because that’s very rare, especially in the theater, because I think most times when I hear South Asian languages, I can understand it at home or from family.” In Search of  Bengali Harlem is a documentary that follows Aladdin Ullah as he discovers his mixed ethnic heritage over two continents—first in East Harlem where his ancestors found a home in its Hispanic community, and then in South Asia. Ullah created the film with Vivek Bald, an MIT scholar, and discovered much of his own lineage during it. The BAAFF showcases films that are simultaneously political and emotional, as seeing art made about Asian American narratives is so rare. In fact, of the 1,300 highest-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, only 44 had a lead who was of Asian,r Asian American, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander descent. Fourteen of those movies shared the same protagonist—Dwyane the Rock Johson. One of the films, Free Chol Soo Lee, is about a Korean American inmate on death row convicted for murder, who was then freed by the work of Asian American activists. Cho viewed a film about the organizing movements of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the history of organizing in the area, stating it “felt very connected to the conversations I had… at AARW.”

Patra also commented on the importance of representation, especially of those who are often marginalized even within the Asian American community. He said, “In Asian American context, it sometimes feels that South Asian voices play second fiddle. So I think having the BAAFF highlight South Asian and then also South Asian cross-racial solidarity as such, in one of their main showings, was really important to see that there’s a recognition of our community within the broader Asian America [community].”

Tufts’ Asian American Center Director, Aaron Parayno, raffles off BAAFF tickets at no cost to students to encourage them to attend the festival. Parayno said, “I think it’s a good opportunity for students who might not be from the Boston area to interact with folks who… live here… and our communities that have been here for generations.” Parayno continued to talk about the festival’s importance in the realm of representation, stating how rare it is for Asian Americans to be represented in “mainstream” media. He said, “Even when Asian Americans are [represented], it often pushes stereotypes of the model minority myth or Asians being perpetual foreigners.” BAAFF pushes back on these stereotypes, as well as other misconceptions, with narratives including those of queer Asians, Asians with mixed heritage, and powerful female Asian characters.  

However, representation is not the only thing necessary, according to Parayno. He cited media such as Bling Empire and Shahs of Sunset, arguing they reinforce “certain things about our community that aren’t always great, like… the modern minority myth…gossip, [and] classism.” Additionally, he points out how a lot of Asian Americans will look at an Asian Marvel Superhero, or even controversial figures like Bobby Jindal, and think, “We made it, let’s stop here” because representation to them is the end all be all. However, it is important to remember while watching these films that they are just one step on the long journey to racial equity. 

The BAAFF is a great first step though, as Chinsen said, because it makes uncomfortable issues easier to talk about. It opens a door to some of the more serious issues Asian American communities face, while simultaneously building a community around its viewers. The BAAFF will run again in 2023 as a co-project with ArtsEmerson, highlighting its continued commitment to ensuring Asian American film representation thrives in Boston.