Choy founded the festival with Hong Kong director Tsui Hark

Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) founder, Christine Choy, has encouraged the UK to start a similar festival.

The AAIFF is an annual festival held in New York that celebrates Asian and Asian American cinema and showcases the best films from this category. Now in its 39th year in the running, the festival uses film and media as a tool for social progression and to encourage diversity in independent cinema. The festival brings together Asian and American filmmakers and media artists that span across a diverse range of styles and genres.

AAIFF 2016 kicked off last week and has already shown a number of incredible films. Resonate had a chat with the AAIFF founder Christine Choy to discuss how important the festival is to the East Asian community.

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Choy said that when she started the project, there was a severe lack of Asian American filmmakers in the US. As a result, Choy applied for a grant to the New York State Council on the Arts and received $12,000 to make 4 films.

“It was in the early 1970’s, when I first realised that there were NO Asian/Asian American filmmakers in the US.”

Choy then used the money to create one of her films – ‘From Spikes to Spindles’ – a 45 minute documentary about the history of Chinese immigrants who built the Transnational Rail-road from the West Coast. The film explored how the Chinese immigrants, “were discriminated by the Irish Workingman’s Association who were responsible to build the railroad from the East Cost.” The film was important to voice and expose the severity of the issue.

“In Wyoming, a number of Chinese workers were killed and in 1965, the quota for Asian immigration into the US was increased, with many coming from Hong Kong to work in the garment factories in New York.”

Highlighting these issues through film, with the help of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark (Once Upon time in China) Choy was inspired to come up with the idea for an international Asian American film festival.

“[Tsui Hark] just graduated from a film school in Austin Tx, took a bus came to NY and was looking for job. So we collaborated the film as well as came up with the idea for an International Asian American film Festival. The other person was Peter Chow. In addition, we also created ACV, Asian Cine Vision , an non-profit organisation to acquire grants for the festival and film work shop.”

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Despite some of the difficulties facing Choy and her team at the time, the event was largely successful. “I think during the early stage, the festival was truly important but since that was pre-digital era, to find a location with 35mm and 16mm projection was very difficult. It was very popular event. ”

“Soon many institutions and groups started their own festivals, such as Korean American Film Festival, South Asian festival, etc. New York city began it’s gentrification and the cost went up and the funding was never enough to cover. Corporate sponsors needed and the content became rather “Self Censored”.Obviously this change not only affected small festival but it became a reality for all the festival. The organisation needs administrative staff, artist are not the one selecting films!”

With regards to AAIFF today, Choy feels that the festival faces “tremendous competition today; many major film festivals do not allow you to apply any other festivals.” Nonetheless, she also feels that the UK should start one a similar one too.

“The UK should start a festival, the challenge that you will face will be similar to the one here. Winning awards from big festivals is more important than a smaller on for the film makers. The UK government should be obliged to finance such event after all the UK did colonise many Asian countries.”

The key to running a successful film festival, according to Choy, is having a good team,

“One most important thing is to have a dedicated staff with little egos. Most of issues are internal conflicts such as personality, differences of taste in film and booking venues where the people can attend without a long travel etc.”

For those who wish to start a festival, Choy advises that they attend other festivals and to build a community wit ha clear and distinct vision,

“The way to find good films is to attend other festivals, word of mouth and encouraging young film makers to submit their works. But over all, a good festival needs a true vision, different from all others and a very knowledgeable programmer and new way of PR work. Finally, including big names on a board of directors is a plus because it adds legitimacy to the organisation.”

Whilst the UK certainly has a few East Asian film festivals such as the Chinese Visual Festival and London Korean Film Festival, it lacks a united film festival on the scale of AAIFF, that brings together filmmakers from China, Korea, Japan and the rest of East Asia. Perhaps British filmmakers should look at the AAIFF for inspiration and heed Choy’s advice, as a BAIFF platform would elevate East Asian representation by encouraging East Asian filmmakers to showcase their work to an international audience.