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Asian American Film Festival in Eugene Celebrates 15 Years


The Eugene-based DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon is celebrating their 15th anniversary.

DisOrient program director Susan Hirata said the volunteer-run festival was started by filmmaker Jason Mak. While at the University of California Los Angeles, Mak created a film about his family—who ran a Chinese restaurant in Eugene—and screened it at many festivals around the country. But Mak struggled to show it locally.

“When he came back to Eugene, there was nowhere that he could show his film,” said Hirata. “There wasn't a place in Eugene that would show a film like that.”

Credit DisOrient
2019 DisOrient audience at one of the film screenings.

Roughly 1,500 people attend the annual festival. According to Hirata, it is the only Asian American film festival in Oregon, and the only one between San Francisco and Seattle.

“There's a difference between an Asian American film festival, and say, an international film festival,” said Hirata. “So like in Portland, they have an international film festival that shows a lot of films from Asia, which is different than films about Asian Americans.”

She said DisOrient is proud to bring these films to Oregon—and specifically Eugene—where the Asian population is about 5%.

“I think that our audience is probably the most diverse film audience that I see throughout the year in Eugene,” said Hirata.

Hirata said many Asian Americans attend the festival, but the screenings are not just for Asian Americans.

Credit DisOrient
2019 DisOrient film festival panel discussion with the filmmakers.

“These stories are American stories,” said Hirata. “They just happen to have Asian Americans in them.”

Because of that, Hirata said DisOrient may have even more of an importance than larger Asian American film festivals.

“These stories don't often get heard,” said Hirata. “These narratives aren't out there as widely spread. And also in a state that has seen more of a resurgence in white supremacy and things like that, I think it's even more important that we're showing a broader narrative around who is American.”

Through short and feature-length documentaries and fictional films, Hirata said these stories “allow people to see the humanity in others.” Themes in the films include family, activism, community, identity, and a sense of belonging.

For example, the opening film Chinatown Rising is about activists in the 1960s-1970s, working in a community to address injustice. Hirata said the film includes footage taken by Asian American activist Harry Chuck in the mid-1960s, as well as recent recordings taken by the activist’s son, Josh Chuck, over the past few years.

“[The father and son] found all his footage in the garage that he had not put together in a film, said Hirata. “And instead of throwing it away, his son realized the value of the footage. It shows the history of that time from the perspective of someone who was an Asian American activist at that time. So that footage is different, say from the police footage of that time or the local news station footage at that time.”

Hirata said the father and son filmmaking duo plan to attend the screening on March 13, and will have a Q and A after the film.

Credit DisOrient
2019 DisOrient film festival audience.

In recent years, more Asian American films—like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell—have become hits on the big screen. But Hirata said the film festival is trying to expand the narrative of films so they can provide a more complete interpretation of what is it means to be Asian American.

“When you only have one story, then that becomes the narrative that has to represent all Asian Americans, because it's the only one people have heard,” said Hirata. “So right now, we aren't all rich and live in Singapore in very expensive mansions. That’s not the whole narrative of Asian Americans.”

With the presence of on-demand streaming services, Hirata said it is important for people gathering to experience films as a community.

“I think there's still a value in people coming together in a theater and watching a film together and listening to a story together,” said Hirata. “It matters to actually show up and physically come together and listen to a story, because it's a shared experience.”

The DisOrient festival will screen films March 10-17. For those interested in volunteering at the festival, you can sign up on their website.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.
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