The Seattle Asian American Film Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary

by Amanda Ong


This year, the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) celebrates its 10th anniversary with virtual features as well as in-person screenings at the Stonehouse Café and the Northwest Film Forum. For its second year online, SAAFF will offer more than 100 short and feature films, documentaries, animated films, drive-in and in-person film screenings. The festival runs from March 3 to 13.

“This year is our 10th year, and it’s really great that we’ve come this far,” SAAFF co-director Ellison Shieh said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “We’ve grown so much with our community and feel so blessed to be able to bring these films to people in the greater Seattle area.”

SAAFF is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization fueled by the desire and need to support Asian American creatives and amplify their works within Seattle-area communities. The breadth of the lineup reflects how far the festival has come since its launch 10 years ago.

“When the festival was restarted in 2013…they didn’t even know if people would show up for screenings, they didn’t know if the local community was interested in seeing independent Asian American films or not,” Shieh said. . “But they ended up doing really well, and since then it’s grown exponentially every year.”

This year’s SAAFF includes experimental films, documentaries and heartwarming animated films. Some standouts at the festival include SAAFF’s central narrative film, See you later, which explores a night of reconnection between a transgender suburban programmer and an Asian American performance artist. The closing night of the festival presents Free Chol Soo Lee, a documentary recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival about a Korean immigrant wrongfully imprisoned for a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Shieh said Chol Soo Lee’s story reflects lesser-known or simply unknown Asian American experiences of racism and injustice.

Film festivals are also a great platform to learn from people’s different experiences and just see other perspectives,” said Shieh, who is inspired to bring stories to the screen that challenge stereotypes. “Everyone has a different experience of the kind of ‘real stranger’ feelings we all have when we live. [in the United States].” For Shieh, SAAFF is particularly important in giving a platform to counter-history, especially when it comes to preconceived notions of Asian American identity.

One of SAAFF’s short programs, ‘Reflections: Refugee Stories and Legacies’, focuses on refugee stories. “We must continue to elevate the stories and legacies of these communities,” Shieh said. “And they’re often not as well-known as, you know, typical Asian American immigration stories.” As an example, Shieh referred to the more commonly depicted Asian American immigration experience from East Asia for educational or professional opportunities.

Another feature documentary highlighted this year is Diverted Manzanar: When water turns to dust. The film coincides with the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 – which authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The documentary discusses Native relations with Manzanar, where 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned from March 1942 to November 1945, as well as Native American and Japanese women organizing to defend the region’s land and water.

“Being able to share these films, curate them, tell these stories and support the filmmakers, on their journey…connecting to people through stories and shared histories, and showing people that we can’t fit in tidy little boxes [is important]”Shieh said.

A short film that cannot be stored in neat little boxes is Malihini. The film was created by filmmaker Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker, a Seattle University senior and film studies major raised at Beacon Hill.

The film was made as their very first college film assignment. “We had to make a short film about who we are and how we exist in relation to different social movements,” Auwae-Dekker said in an interview with the emerald. “And every time I tried to think of something, all I could think about was that I’m Hawaiian and I love my mom.”

The resulting movie, Malihinifeatures a heartfelt conversation between Auwae-Dekker and their mother about Hawaiian identity and continental United States identity, superimposed over footage of Auwae-Dekker’s journey from their Capitol Hill home to their mother in Burien.

Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker is a Seattle University film student who grew up in Beacon Hill. “Malihini” is their first film. (Photo: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker)

“[Malihini] came from a whole hour-long conversation I had with my mom,” Auwae-Dekker said. “And in that conversation, I remember admitting to my mom that I was a child of white supremacy, that I wouldn’t exist without white supremacy…Being a filmmaker became this new avenue for me that I had to to be like, ‘I’ am not a child of white supremacy. And I exist because my ancestors fell in love with people who look like me. I exist because of love and resilience.”

Auwae-Dekker describes the film as being about what it means to be and exist as Hawaiians on the mainland, and whether they are “American”. “Hawaii is illegally occupied territory; we were illegally overthrown all those years ago in 1883,” Auwae-Dekker said. “We live in this kind of liminal space of being Hawaiian and being disenfranchised, being Native 5,000 miles away, and yet we’re American, our islands belong to the US government… Being Hawaiian means that I am a strong believer in sovereignty and returning the land, and also influences that as a Hawaiian, I truly and wholeheartedly believe in loving the land.

Hawaiʻi further harbors complicated relationships not only with American identity, but also with Asian identity, as many people immigrated from Asia to Hawaiʻi as indentured servants of white settlers generations ago. Their cultures and identities have currently intermingled with Native Hawaiian culture, but tensions remain as Asian Americans have adopted colonial attitudes. “My great-grandfather immigrated from the Philippines, and that’s a very important part of my family history,” Auwae-Dekker said. “And also, there is a dramatic history of, unfortunately, many Asian Americans in Hawaiʻi who went from being oppressed to being settlers and engaging in settler colonialism in a way that was very damaging. .”

This comes at a time when SAAFF recently issued a statement of apology and an explanation of why they will no longer use the term ‘AAPI’ or ‘Asian American Pacific Islander’. The term has been frequently used primarily to refer to the Asian American community. However, it has come to light that “AAPI” confuses Asian Americans with Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AA&NH/PI) when Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have unique identities and are face different issues than Asian Americans.

Auwae-Dekker acknowledged that several film festivals they applied to were marketed as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but were almost entirely directed and shown in East Asia. However, Auwae-Dekker also said SAAFF was the first place they saw that truly told Hawaiian stories on screen. While Native Hawaiian and Asian American identities are distinct, it is still deeply meaningful for Auwae-Dekker to see Malihini at SAAFF.

And while the pandemic has caused the festival to take place mostly virtually, it has also allowed SAAF to reach a much wider audience. “It was really beautiful to see and experience firsthand,” Shieh said. “The connections we have with the filmmakers we have this year and our audiences are uplifting…film festivals like ours, and so many other Asian American film festivals across the country, are truly a great connection between the audiences and filmmakers, and help give them more space to share their voices.

To purchase tickets and passes for SAAFF, as well as to view their film catalog and schedule, visit the SAAFF 2022 website.


Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.

📸 Featured Image: A still from the film “Malihini” by Seattle director Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. “Malihini” is at the center of a conversation between Auwae-Dekker and their mother about Hawaiian identity and continental United States identity. (Photo: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker)

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