Film, Interview

INTERVIEW: Boston Asian American Film Festival director Susan Chinsen

The 2020 BAAFF will run virtually 10/21 - 10/25


Similar to other festivals in this past year, the 12th Boston Asian American Film Festival will be hosted virtually. Boston Hassle will be covering some of the screened films, which runs through Wednesday, October 21 to Sunday, October 25. Films will be available to watch online via their website!

I spoke with BAAFF Director Susan Chinsen to get a little insight into the festival and this year’s selected films, all in the context of the city-wide efforts in arts, the year of 2020, and in its contributions to a greater cause for the AAPI community. 

The interview had been condensed and edited for clarity. For context, we first discussed about growing up near Boston. 

BOSTON HASSLE: I guess I’ve always been a Massachusetts native. I was born in the Philippines. My parents went from Vietnam and they somehow took a detour to China and then went to the Philippines where I was born.

SUSAN CHINSEN: Were you in the Philippines for a long time or was it sorta like a pit stop?

BH: It was a pit stop. It was, I think, supposed to be like my fun fact of my life. I was only there for a month or three months. I can’t remember.

SC: See, there’s another case you can write about that people just don’t know about.

BH: That’s true, that’s true. I met my current partner in 2017 and learned about Asian American studies, which I’ve never really considered. I never even thought about the history of it all. I think being able to talk about the festival will also connect all the things that I’m learning currently about, you know, the Asian American communities that are here and also across the nation.

SC: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s funny. I wish I could have gotten more access to Asian American studies, but I was fortunate to have some in college. In developing the festival, I think that was actually a bit of the driving fact: most people don’t have access to Asian American studies and that, in some ways, felt that the [BAAFF] was kinda Asian American Studies 101. You know, really easy-entry, low threshold way of getting access to information about the Asian American experience and the communities that exist within it.

BH: Right. That segues into the first official question that I had. Since it is our first time covering the festival, I was wondering if you could help give a quick description of the festival, maybe its history, and what to expect this year.

SC: Some of us started out as an organization called the Asian American Resource Workshop, which was started in 1979 out of pretty much the civil rights movement. And it’s thought to really amplify and make sure that Asian Americans were visible and were really included as a part of American society. Like fully participating. With that effort, the AARW had been presenting Asian American films ever since the 1980s — the identification of the first Asian American films that came out that were by and for the community. Up until the 2000s, there was much more of a greater wave and push of other film festivals growing and sorta being able to devise with digital production and cameras being more accessible. More people were creating, especially in the Asian American community and in Boston.

Having grown up here and lived in the area, it was sometimes hard to find out about when events were happening or films that I was hearing about on blogs or other websites. Just realizing that I myself was really interested in Asian American films. Primarily, I am not a big reader. I don’t really like to read. I’m smart, but a book was not the first thing I ever turned to. It was more like the remote control or going to a movie or things like that, things on the screen. I just remembered the first time that I had seen an Asian American film as a preteen and feeling the sense of affirmation from it, and feeling like that I wanted more of that, and how empowering that feeling felt that. What I think of as a personal journey– one could speak more on that– but in doing so, I realize how many others out there also lacked access to those films.

I think, in particular, there was one film that presented at the Brattle Theatre called Undoing. The lead actor, Sung Kang, had been in Better Luck Tomorrow and has gone on to be in roles like Han in the Fast and Furious series. And I think there were like 30 of us that were there for the screening and feeling like something was wrong. Like, we had to call you a star here. Many of us knew who he was — why are there only 30 people in the audience? It really became a way to try and mobilize, to create some infrastructure for Boston to know that audiences would know where to go to hear about Asian American films and cinema, like how to get access to them here in Boston.


And then I think the other part, too, was for the filmmakers and distributors to feel confident coming to Boston, knowing that there would actually be an audience here for them if they came. That’s sort of the role that we play. People are really looking to connect specifically to an Asian American audience, and while we focused our attention on Asian-American experiences and stories, we feel like the content is so good that people, even if you’re not even Asian, will still appreciate what it is that we’re presenting. So not by any means exclusive or elitist, but really the perspective is that we are presenting content to build community for people in the greater Boston area.

And with the intent that, by showing you the content, we are going against the grain of the mainstream narrative of Asian Americans as being model minorities — always successful and no issues or problems. And that they’re a monolithic kind of East Asian representation. Like that’s what Asian Americans should be and are. And you know, we try and encompass the diversity of what Asian Americans and being Asian in America entails in places of intersection — the queer community or dealing with mental health, domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, immigration status, like a lot of different things that have a role in an identity that people connect to as being part of the Asian American experience.

I think that’s one part of it. And then by seeing that in adoption. Let people see their stories like onscreen and feel a validation, and that space helps take out the isolation. Given that we’re in a pandemic, it’s really important, because how are we building community or continuing to maintain our community? And I feel like art is definitely one of those ways in which we can do it. And we’re really thankful for our partnership with arts. Even though we can’t see it in the actual physical theater, [what we’ve done] has its pros and cons.

BH: Thank you for that. That was an amazing history of it.

SC: That definitely covers the community perspective of it. But also in our presentation of the content, it’s for people who are interested in wanting to understand more about the Asian American experience, like  for people who are trying to do the work about educating themselves and not having to put like more work on people of color. So many filmmakers have already taken on that burden and passion in wanting to share their stories and perspectives. And so I think the film festival makes it a much easier way and a very organic opportunity for anyone to be able to come and learn and understand more about a particular topic or experience.

BH: Yeah, I agree. I do feel like maybe in earlier cinema and maybe the portrayal of the Asian American experience, it could have been divided in like two ways, like you would have maybe the stereotypical Asian American role that doesn’t pertain to all all Asian Americans and then you would have ones where, you’re right, they’ve already had the burden of being the immigrant or being something with so much trauma. I know last year, you guys showcased Lucky Grandma, which I thought was such an interesting take on a story that’s usually populated by older white men. For this year, I noticed that some of the movies are relevant to what’s happening in the country. Was there a goal for this year that might’ve been different than the previous years in terms of selecting the movies?

SC: In many ways, I think it’s hard not to curate in a vacuum. We have a particular process that, I don’t know if it’s similar to other festivals. We approach it from very much a community stand point of, “What is important for our community and what are the topics that are most relevant?” You know, [things] that need to be brought up and shared and how we can portray that. When the pandemic was really starting to hit hard in April and May, that was around the time when our screening committee really starts getting into evaluating the films that we have. It came up a lot about, you know, “Are we even going to be able to have a festival?”


I think this is a comment about the actual process and the people that participate in it. The festival, in some ways, is being a little bit like a life raft, or an oasis maybe– I’m searching for the right word. But it is the sort of space that was giving people comfort and direction to channel some of the anxiety that we were all having and facing in this health crisis. And also in the sense of feeling like you were being targeted because of the way we look, because of where our ancestors may have come from, that we will be doubly attacked in many ways. People are finding comfort and seeing how so many of these films spoke to them as individual people and feeling like the messages that were coming through were things we needed to hear, like how to help us get through this time.

There was a tremendous amount of well-done content, but I think we really wanted to focus on was the space in which we’re living right now, [where it’s] troubled. The feedback we would always get was that people were so appreciative of having this space and a place to come. It was just so empowering to see such great stories and the quality of work and the diversity of information, your answers being portrayed.

Our theme in particular was one that we headed off to last year in which we still felt was extremely relevant. And we’re actually thinking about, “Well, maybe this is just going to be like our theme, you know, for the future is just rising together.” [BH note: you can see the words in this year’s logo] We really are thinking about our role not just as a diverse group of Asians living in America, but our relationship to other communities of color and other struggles — civil rights and justice issues that we are facing in North America. How do we support other campaigns and movements and how can others work with us to do the same?

BH: Thank you. I was able to see Keep Saray Home and one of the messages I got from it was that the things that we read about that’s happening in this country is also happening close by. And I felt like that was such an important message to take away. I think we’re so fortunate to live in Boston in some ways and not so fortunate in other ways. But I think that was like a reminder, to me at least, that these things are happening all over the country. And even if we see more things that are just all over the news in different places, it could happen here as well. So I think that sense of community really spoke to me and I think it will speak to others when they see the films here.

SC: I hope so. AARW is one of the participants and producers of that film. Kevin [Lam] is one of the featured activists and he’s on staff at AARW. That’s what the film festival’s been about. One of the things we do on a regular basis, sorta where our foundational roots are, is that we do these trainings about topics that reflect the experience of the community. There are actual organizations and people who live with and deal with these issues, but it’s 365 days a year, and you may just be coming to this screening for this two-hour period. We often try and pair screens with actual community organizations and activists who are actually doing the work in the community. People can actually recognize that there is a local connection to what makes these stories relevant.

Now that we’re virtual, if there were no restrictions, why wouldn’t you just go watch all these films at the New York Festival or San Francisco or Philadelphia? Why Boston, and why is that important? Geographically and locally, we have a very different take, from our politics to our communities and neighborhoods, but unless you live here, you don’t really understand the nuances of it. We’re taking the films that are on a national tour and bringing them to Boston, but trying to use the lens of a Bostonian to interpret and figure out, “What are those sort of actual local connections?”


BH: Yeah, I think that’s a very good point. I think there’s something nuanced about like being a Bostonian and also being able to see these films. I’m glad you brought that up. In terms of seeing, were there any films that stood out for you when you were looking through this year’s submissions? Or maybe not even just the submissions and lineup, but maybe in a general moviegoer perspective: any common themes or things that were unique in terms of filmmaking?

SC: You kinda already noticed that this year’s festival is just really relevant to what’s going on right now. There’s certain aspects of our opening night film [Definition Please], which covers a South Asian family living in the suburbs, but also their history, like dealing with mental health and how they do and don’t speak about it. There’s this idea of what is happening with the Southeast Asian community and refugees and how policies are impacting people. 76 Days is this crazy film [about the coronavirus]. We think about terms like Kung Flu and China Virus and how [Americans] distance themselves from it.

Here in Massachusetts, you have the most number of hospitals per capita of any state in the country. You have so many hospitals, and as much as these spikes stay in the green and yellow, we’re heading back into red again. We’re not handling the situation. It’s still a problem. We’ve been blaming with “facts” like, “This was China’s problem, they came from China, they did this.” Then the reality is if you watch 76 Days, you feel like it humanizes so much about the front line and how people there were trying to deal with it. For me, it felt like it just created so much more understanding and compassion in humanity.

[Wuhan] figured out a way that they could actually shut down their emergency trauma center for all these COVID patients. By the end of the film, it was dark, nobody needed it anymore. We’re not in that place here in the state. The closing film [A Thousand Cuts] was a huge one. I feel like that was a huge request from our screening committee about how in the Philippines, you know, you’re looking at the story, you’re talking about this one journalist in the Philippines and the president has an issue with her. So he’s just like trying to get rid of her, like, “Whatever, no big deal,” but then you watch it and you follow the story line. And there’s just way too many– like, way too many– parallels to what we have seen happen here in the United States. The application of it, and — we are being warned as Americans. You need to pay attention to what happened overseas because these are just the trial grounds for testing out how things work. That whole idea about fake news started here in the Philippines. You see a whole country getting brainwashed by the president taking over news. There’s a whole campaign against freedom of the press and [we’re] seeing that exact same stuff happening here.

And it’s working! There are some really hard warnings in that film that we, as Americans, need to be much more diligent about what we are paying attention to and what we’re letting go by and not go by us, especially when it pertains to our news sources and where information comes from. So that was just so crazy. Everyone’s calling, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s just like that celebrity that Trump had trying to promote him.”

BH: Yeah. I saw the summary and I was like, I bet it’s just going to be so spot on to what’s happening now. And I imagine it must’ve been a deliberate choice to have that as the closing film as the election approaches.

SC: Yeah. Another reason for that was actually the filmmaker [Ramona S. Diaz]. The filmmaker graduated from Emerson College. And so that was a big connection that we wanted to celebrate and honor, especially because of their relationship with Arts Emerson, our main venue partner. So we thought that trying to celebrate that would be really ideal, especially because the film was just so good. It really stood out to us.

BH: That’s awesome. I know we kinda touched upon the virtual online aspect of it. For a lot of these films and probably films in years before, I would imagine the audience reaction is such an important part of the screening process, especially for these types of [personal stories]. Would you agree that like having that would be a missing part?

SC: Definitely. We were trying to see  how we could do this and recreate things. Right now, people can use our hashtag. We also have an audience ballot for each of our screenings, which we would welcome comments and feedback and we can at least funnel it back to the filmmakers. For our spotlight zones, like our opening clues and our film, we are doing those ones live. And at the time when the Q&A starts, you will actually be going at that point live, and there’ll probably be a link where you can click on it and watch it in real time.

But I think our intent is that we will also broadcast it live to YouTube and that people on YouTube will be able to watch the Q&A, interact in the YouTube chat with each other, and also post questions there, which we then can potentially be cutting and pasting into our Zoom room where we’re having the actual panel. Most of the films, except for opening night, are happening for at least a 24-hour period or longer. If you happen to, say, watch the film that is premiering at 7:00 PM on Friday, but you end up watching it at 11:00 AM on Saturday, you end up watching it at your own time. And in case that you’re still interested in hearing and seeing the Q&A, there’ll be a link that can bring you to that.

BH: That’s a great way of doing it. I’m not sure how it was before, but I think that it gives a great option for people who want to be able to kinda see and visualize what other people are saying. So I think that YouTube option is really cool and I can’t wait to see how it goes live.

SC: Yeah, me too. The one pro in this is that there are a lot of people who will never raise their hand in an auditorium full of people. This way, it sorta lowers the threshold for them because people feel like they can participate.

BH: That’s a great idea. So after closing night on Sunday, what happens after the festival? What happens to the organization, the committee, and the films that were screened?

SC: Well, we’ll get expired from the servers [laughs]. At least the hosting one. Feedback we were hearing and personally experienced about being overconsumed and having screen fatigue and just bringing yourself to the computer screen again could be really trying. And we didn’t want to put so much demand on people in such a short amount of time to have to consume so much content. What we actually ended up doing is not schedule our shorts program.

Typically during the festival, we would mix it up between like narrative documentary and short spots, so that you’d have one each day, almost. Because we were trying to create more space and air around each program, people would have more time to feel like you’re not being so crushed. If you want to consume everything, I would recommend prioritizing the feature content between the 21st and the 25th. And that we extended all of our short content to be available through November 1st. So you’d have an extra week to be able to watch the shorts there as well. That would not have been possible if we were in a real theater.

BH: That’s interesting.

SC: And we also are showing a lot more shorts. Typically, you know, within a four day festival, we usually spotlight anywhere from 21, 28. This year, we have 50.

BH: Wow. Oh my gosh. It’s almost double.

SC: Yeah. When you were asking about the local connection, I want to call [out a] short film called Becoming Eddie. It’s based on the writer, who is a professor at Emerson college. He teaches in the comedic arts department as well as the visual media arts as well. When he was much younger, he idolized Eddie Murphy and recited his standup and everything [even though] he was probably way too young to be doing it. And so it inspires him to write this script about this character who has created a young Korean American boy utilizing this standup comedian and then ends up making a birthday wish where he could be “Eddie Meyers,” the comedian.

He wakes up the next day. And every word that comes out of his mouth sounds like Eddie Meyers. The director of that short film is Lilan Bowden, who plays Andi Mack’s mom on Disney. And they just got a deal, actually, to try and develop it as a series.

BH: Oh, that’s amazing.

SC: Yeah. There’s all these exciting new things that are coming out for some of these films. Like, 76 Days had just came out at Toronto [International Film Festival] and MTV Documentary picked them up for distribution.

BH: That is awesome. Susan, thank you so much for your time. I have just one last question, which is a general question, and I know you’ve talked about this with the purpose of the festival. For this year, is there anything that you want readers to take away when they watch a film, and I guess anything that they should know when they’re coming into the film?

SC: The consideration of what makes this different than watching Netflix or anything else. And I would want people to know, or to consider, that there was a tremendous amount of personal effort from people in the Boston area that went into getting that film to them. There’s a very particular territorial standard and application, and that is fairly rigorous. But also the selection process and that represents hours of work from a lot of volunteers to make this happen, and the filmmakers themselves — it’s crazy partnership. There’s so many people I’m thankful for: the volunteer staff that we have, the filmmakers, our sponsors.

I was really super nervous about whether we were going to get the support we needed to make this happen. And especially being so uncertain about whether or not we’re going to get numbers, people being able to participate in an online virtual area. I think it was such a validation to know that they were still giving their support and the work that we had been doing, because it was the stories that they had trusted us, that we were going to be delivering art and access to creative stories and content that needed to be heard by people in Boston. There’s just so much of that realm of the film and how it got to you. And as you’re watching, [remembering that] it had an extensive process in some ways that is very connected around the Asian American experience and community.

The Boston Asian American Film Festival runs virtually from 10/21 through 10/25 – click here for schedule and ticket info, and watch this space for our continuing coverage!

Right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.

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