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Eugene film festival spotlights Asian American and Pacific Islander stories

Audience member Anil Oommen, left, speaks with filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem and peace activist Christine Ahn about their latest movie "Crossings," which showcased at the DisOrient Film Festival preview night, Feb. 24, 2023.
John Childers
Audience member Anil Oommen, left, speaks with filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem and peace activist Christine Ahn about their latest movie "Crossings," which showcased at the DisOrient Film Festival preview night, Feb. 24, 2023.

In 2006, Oregon filmmaker Jason Mak established the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival in Eugene so they could spotlight Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and stories.

This weekend, the festival returns to the Art House Theater with a roster of new independent films, all celebrating AAPI experiences.

The slate of movies this year are all centered around the theme “We Generation.” Programming director Susan Hirata came up with the slogan after thinking about how Asian communities are affected by generations past and future.

“And if we can think in terms of a ‘we generation,’ that maybe we can embrace our past and at the same time we can think in ways that build a better future for those who come after us,” she said.

The festival will showcase more than 90 films this year, ranging from shorts to documentaries. Of those films, 58 were directed by women.

Film lovers can attend the festival in person or virtually.

Hirata curated the festival to focus on films that cover a wide range of topics, but all have one thing in common: they are all created by and for the AAPI community, which she says, often don’t get told enough onscreen.

As an indie film fan herself, Hirata first started attending DisOrient as an audience member every year since its inception.

“These are films that are not made by big studios,” she said. “They’re made by small independent filmmakers who have a story that they want to tell. There’s a sincerity to them that’s impactful.”

DisOrient leans heavily into social justice issues, which Hirata says gives filmmakers and film lovers an opportunity to have hard discussions about race and using film as a springboard into the conversation.

“You’re hearing the story, you’re seeing it played out on the screen, that immersive quality really brings out empathy in relating to the characters on the screen and the storytelling, which is really impactful,” said Hirata.

DisOrient executive director Pamela Quan also attended the inaugural 2006 festival and still looks forward to the annual offerings.

“I’m excited at the variety,” Quan said. “We have Chinese American, Japanese American, Vietnamese American, Korean American, Cambodian, and South Asian. We have queer, we have military, we have family-friendly, we have culture history, a lot of intergenerational stories.”

Three films will anchor this year’s festival. Opening night will be this Friday and will feature the documentary “Finding Her Beat,” by directors Keri Pickett and Dawn Mikkelson. The festival’s centerpiece film is “80 Years Later,” by Celine Parreñas Shimizu. Finally the festival will close out with “Land of Gold” by Nardeep Khurmi.

The festival organizers believe DisOrient is especially important now, at a time when conversations about AAPI representation in the media and anti-Asian hate crimes are coming to the forefront.

According to a 2021 study done by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders made up only 6%of speaking roles across 1,300 Hollywood films that came out between 2007 and 2019.

In 2021, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reported that Anti-Asian bias crimes and incidents went up 300%.

Quan believes part of the reason for the uptick in crimes is due to the lack of proper AAPI representation.

“You have to ask yourself, why are people feeling the permission to victimize an elderly Asian American out of the blue? Where are those feelings coming from?” she said. “The power of media images and the power of the lack of representation is part of the problem, and the limited amount of stories we get to tell.”

But Quan acknowledges there has been progress in Hollywood.

This year’s Academy Awards saw an unprecedented four Asian actors get nominated in their respective categories, which many are seeing as a milestone for Asian representation in Hollywood.

That said, Hirata is quick to point out — there’s still much to be done.

“There are so many things now that divide our communities, divide our country. It’s really important and impactful when we really lean into the kinds of things that bring us together. I know our festival does it, so I hope that people participate so that they get that sense of coming together rather than being fractured.”
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Steven Tonthat