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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

WEEKENDER: BAAFF celebrates legacy and joy on 15th anniversary

The festival continues to highlight the art and experiences of Asian Americans.

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The Paramount Theater is pictured in Boston.

The Boston Asian American Film Festival celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, screening its program from Oct. 1222, which showcased shorts, documentaries and narratives, closing with a preview of director Lulu Wang’s upcoming series, “Expats” (2023), starring Nicole Kidman. The Daily spoke with Susan Chinsen, director of BAAFF, to get a greater understanding of the festival and what it hopes to achieve.

Chinsen, a Tufts alum, graduated with a degree in American studies, and it was through her time at Tufts that she first gained exposure to the Asian-American produced media that would come to shape her eventual role at BAAFF.

“I am a Jumbo,” Chinsen said. “It was probably through my time [at Tufts] that I had the most access I had had to Asian American films — documentary and narrative — and through taking courses in Asian American Studies, although at the time there was not yet a minor.”

Chinsen was an active member of the Asian Students Association during her time at Tufts, and following her graduation, Chinsen remained involved in the Asian American community by volunteering at the Asian American Resource Workshop. During her time at the AARW, she noticed that the Workshop’s film screenings drew considerable attention.

“I realized that a lot of people were interested in coming to film screenings that we hosted, that was the most attendance we would typically get for events,” Chinsen said. “I was thinking about, ‘how do you get this number of people to show up for the really important, harder conversations that we try to have in the community?’”

While there are Asian directors who have gained acclaim among Western critics and audiences, achieving international attention for their contributions to cinema (Akira Kurosawa and Wong Kar-Wai are some names that come to mind), BAAFF works to highlight the artistic accomplishments of artists from across the Asian diaspora. The work of Asian directors hailing directly from Asia have been celebrated amongst circles of critics, independent theaters, and museums for decades — but their works could not, and were not made to, capture the experience of American life in a way that could be inclusive of Asians living in the country. 

“I am ethnically Chinese, but my family came via Zimbabwe. I was born there and came to the United States but don't have as strong a connection directly to China,” Chinsen said. “But the idea that Chinese people live all over the world was something that my family definitely represents. … ‘Asian Americans’ is a politically made up term, totally recognizing that, but … trying to create solidarity and power, you know, through something like a term like ‘Asian Americans’ [or] ‘Asian American Pacific Islanders,’ that was something that we could rally around.”

This year’s festival’s selection hovers around ideas and themes of legacy and intergenerational dialogue.

 “Community and legacy, what has been done before us for us, has been a big thing,” Chinsen said. “That’s still a big part of [it,] the push and pull of immigrating and [the hope] for a better future.” 

The documentary “Nurse Unseen”, (2023) directed by Emmy-award winning director Michele Rae Josue, was showcased during the festival. The film explores the history of Filipino nurses in the United States, their critical role in the American and global healthcare system and the legacy of colonialism that has shaped U.S. relations with the Philippines. “Accidental Getaway Driver” (2023), directed by Sing J. Lee, tells the story of a Vietnamese immigrant father who is taken hostage by three ex-convicts. A thrilling and dark narrative, the film is a project borne from partnership between the director and his own father.

However, Chinsen pointed out that BAAFF also hopes that the festival can serve as an opportunity for celebration and joy, particularly through its shorts program “Laugh with BAAFF.” The program includes several comedic shorts such as “Running” (2022), written by actor Danny Pudi from the hit television series “Community” (20092015), starring Pudi as himself as he sets off on a mission to uncover the story of his estranged father and put together the pieces of his father’s life and identity. 

“Film is certainly a great way to talk about really heavy hearted stuff too in a more entertaining fashion,” Chinsen said. “Our programming team really wanted to uplift [comedy].”

The presence of Asian Americans on the big screen has undergone drastic changes, particularly following the lucrative hit “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). What followed were critically acclaimed major motion pictures and independent films such as “The Farewell” (2019), “Past Lives” (2023) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022), the latter of which won the Oscar for Best Picture in March. While the success of such films have certainly served as a catalyst for the increasing diversity we are now observing in Hollywood, there has also been active work behind the scenes that has contributed to this dramatic change.

“The number of Asians in the industry has certainly increased and people have gotten into positions, which are the gatekeepers in the industry, who have sort of been able to open the doors,” Chinsen said. “It has been this next generation that has been able to stand on the shoulders of these giants, to literally be able to have more influence and impact on the industry.”

While the financial success and praise that such films have received are not unwelcome, it is the intrinsic value of the stories themselves that BAAFF also chooses to celebrate.

“When you see a film, it’s a validation of your experience or experiences you’ve witnessed and seen or identify with as an Asian American, or it’s a way in which others who may not be a part of the Asian American community to have access to understanding better the experience of what it means to be Asian American,” Chinsen said.

When asked what she hopes BAAFF audience members will walk away from the festival with, Chinsen referenced “a real satisfaction and enjoyment of knowing that there is a space in Boston that is held every year for these types of voices to be uplifted and shared.”

“It has been here for 15 years. It is not something new,” Chinsen said. “This is something that we will continue to do until it is no longer needed, which would be amazing. But until then, we’re here to make sure that people in Boston have access to these amazing artistic expressions that are being created.”