The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival celebrates nine years

The documentary 'Mele Murals' is coming to PAAFF. (Photo by Evan Loney)

One of the topics du jour among film critics is the question of representation, or the idea that people of different races, religions, and sexual identities deserve to see their stories and experiences reflected in mainstream movies.

Here in Philadelphia, filmmakers of color have sounded a call for representation by putting on their own festivals. Each year, local moviegoers can look forward to a whole slew of events — such as BlackStar, the Latino Film Festival, and Mustard Seed, to name just a few — aimed at giving an on-screen voice to communities that Hollywood has historically marginalized or overlooked.

Building authenticity

Of these events, perhaps the largest and most widely acclaimed is the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF). Founded by Korean-American filmmaker Joe Kim in 2008, PAAFF has since grown into a sprawling celebration that promotes scores of movies, most of them by independent American filmmakers of Asian descent.

“Unfortunately, you look at Hollywood studio films, and most of the portrayals of communities of color are still very much typecast, still very much along the lines of these negative stereotypes,” PAAFF director Rob Buscher says. “We don’t really get a chance to have too much authenticity, and it’s really important, especially for the youth in our community, to be able to see themselves in a positive light and have role models that look like them.”

Buscher, who is a biracial Japanese American, had previously helped start the U.K.’s first Japanese film festival. He points to TV shows like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat as an indication that Asian Americans are making strides in entertainment, but notes that an occasional sitcom or Netflix special is hardly satisfactory for such a large and varied population. 

A space for everyone

While there’s still a long way to go, PAAFF is playing no small role in getting there. Last year, it overtook New York to become the largest Asian-American film festival on the East Coast.

“I would be thrilled if we ever get to the point where we no longer need a festival like this, because at the end of the day our goal is to really break into the mainstream,” Buscher says.

This year, the festival will kick off on November 10 with a screening of The Tiger Hunter, a new comedy about an Indian immigrant who finds himself out of work in 1970s Chicago. Star Danny Pudi (known for his role as Abed on Community) and director Lena Khan will be in attendance for a Q&A.   

Over the following week and a half, PAAFF will show more than 50 titles, including seven free programs of short films, at different venues around the city. (Most of the screenings will happen at International House or Asian Arts Initiative at 1219 Vine Street. Check out the full schedule for ticketing info.) Things will come to a close on November 20 with a screening of Mele Murals, a documentary about Native Hawaiian graffiti artists trying to reclaim their culture through hip hop. One of the profiled artists will do a live mural painting during the event.

“I always stress that you don’t have to be Asian to come to the Asian American film festival,” Buscher says. “It’s really a space for everyone to learn and enjoy the culture.”

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival is coming up November 10-20, 2016, with events at International House (3701 Chestnut Street) and Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine Street). Here’s the trailer for this year’s Festival. For more information, visit the Festival online.