SAAFF co-directors Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang. • Photo by Tin Minh Chau, TNK Photography
SAAFF co-directors Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang. • Photo by Tin Minh Chau, TNK Photography

It might have been fate that brought Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) co-directors Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang together on the same path. But a closer look at the history of showcasing Asian American cinema in Seattle reveals that they were just taking the initiative to bring back something that was very real for the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community—a screen to tell API stories using API faces and API voices.

The origins of SAAFF began when both Au and Bang realized the community’s previous Asian American film festival, the Northwest Asian American Film Festival (NWAAFF) had come and gone and was not coming back. Started in 2002 by Wes Kim, the NWAAFF ran for five years, concluding in 2007. Another six years had passed before Au and Bang decided to revive the festival.

Bang, currently an interactive producer at T-Mobile USA, described his passion for the last iteration of the film festival, NWAAFF: “I was an undergrad at UW at the time, and I would go to NWAAFF all the time. I was a big fan of what they were offering, showing films that had prominent roles for Asian Americans, because you don’t see it that often. I felt it was important to have a weekend where you could see well-done movies like that.”

Au echoed this sentiment, describing her graduate research on Asian American representation in pop culture as a motivating factor for her to support the availability of Asian American cinema. Au is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Washington and Conference Content Manager at Tableau Software.

“It’s nice to see how we represent ourselves in independent media,” Au said. “I wanted to be able to showcase that, because we don’t show up in mainstream media that often.”

When NWAAFF ended in 2007, Bang waited and watched, hoping that it would reappear. Years passed and Bang saw nothing.

“I got frustrated,” Bang said. “What happened to this film festival? If no one’s doing anything about it and I want it back in Seattle I should probably take it upon myself to organize.”

Au, a graduate student at the time, was also wondering where NWAAFF had gone. A past volunteer for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Au found that Asian American film festivals fill a gap left behind by other local cinema events.

Although the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) features Asian films, the focus is on international Asian work, Au said. Hoping to promote Asian American films and filmmakers, Au contacted NWAAFF’s former director, Wes Kim.

“Seattle went for years without any Asian American film festivals,” Au said. “I knew Wes Kim, so I told him I was interested in picking it up.”

Bang, too, decided to call Kim, in order to get some information on how to start a new festival. It was through Kim that Bang met Au.

“We both talked to Wes and he introduced us and we just picked it up, and started over essentially,” Au said.

Au and Bang began the planning process in 2012 and SAAFF premiered one year later, on January 25, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s International District.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Au said. “We had pretty low expectations. If anybody showed up to watch any of our films, we would be pretty happy,” said Au.

At their delight and surprise, most of the sessions of the festival sold out. The 70-seat Wing Luke theater was packed. Waiting lists for tickets were written and, unfortunately, some eager moviegoers were turned away.

“There was a need for the festival and people were looking for it,” Au said. “When it came back, people came back.”

Au and Bang were able to make SAAFF a success through careful planning and a conscious dedication to the cause, Bang explained.

“We both had the same agenda and the same plan to throw a basic, simple film festival,” Bang said. “The goal wasn’t to make money. The goal was to just have a festival. You don’t know how many people are going to come. We had no money. It was pretty much my credit card and her credit card. But we cared for it. We cared for having a film festival that showed Asian American films.”

The first step in the year-long process of establishing the event was finding a venue. The co-directors settled on a theater located in the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Due to SAAFF’s popularity last year, Bang and Au decided to move the 2014 festival to Columbia City’s Ark Lodge Cinemas, a larger space with two screens and more seating, where 28 of the 100 film submissions will be shown.

The films and filmmakers hail from all over the country. Sourcing these filmmakers was the second step Bang and Au took when organizing last year’s festival.

Bang and Au received 120 submissions for the 2013 festival by reaching out to film schools across the country—25 were selected to be screened.

The films shown at SAAFF belong to a myriad of genres.

“We have a variety of films,” Au said of this year’s festival. “We have a mix of documentaries with some feature length narratives, collections of shorts. We try to represent different ethnicities and intersectional identities.”

In addition to documentaries and shorts, there are romantic comedies, crime thrillers, and a number of what Bang describes simply as “fun movies.”

Bang and Au both described SAAFF as a significant representation of an underrepresented people.

“When I watched TV growing up, the Asian guy is always the nerdy dude, or the guy who can’t speak English, or he’s just weird,” Bang said. “When you see that kind of image, it affects how you perceive yourself. What the community gets when they go to our film festival is for four days you can actually watch movies that are good, that show a fair representation of Asian American folks.”

Au described her motivation to start the festival in a similar tone.

“It’s nice to have this arena where we can actually see ourselves on the big screen, and tell our stories,” Au said. “It’s affirming. We’re usually marginalized or stereotyped or pigeon-holed into these roles that are based on how white people see us, not how we see ourselves. It’s nice to have our own stories told by our own directors and actors.”

Bang and Au have a little more money due to SAAFF’s success in 2013, and a lot more knowledge on how to effectively organize and run the festival. They are working on reaching out to youth volunteers, establishing a name for themselves and running the operations of the festival more efficiently

“I hope that more people find out about [SAAFF] and come,” Au said. “I want to maintain the quality of what we have now.”

Bang, too, hopes for more attendees: “I want people to know the name, and what SAAFF brings to the city. Our city has a significant Asian American population. When you have a population that big, you should have a festival to celebrate those faces. I want it to be stable.”

SAAFF runs from February 6-9. For more information, visit seattleaaff.org.

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