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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


New York, Asian American International Film Festival, 2020

The 43rd Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) was held from October 1-11 entirely accessible online. In this new format the  43rd AAIFF celebrated Asian – American  and Pacific Islander producers and directors and the stories presented by their films.  AAIFF is the oldest and longest running  Asian American film festival in the United States and as distinct from other festivals offering similar productions, this festival is closely tied to the large  Asian American  communities in the United States. AAIFF presents productions by and about Asians and Asian Americans in a large range of themes. The festival is organized by Asian CineVision (ACV), a media arts nonprofit group  which has been  instrumental in the development and distribution of  films  about the Asian and Asian American experience.  Audiences  from the United States and Canada could stream most of the productions on demand within a 48-hour window. The objective of AAIFF and ACV is to bring Asian American communities together, enhance  civic engagement and change,  and thus empower these communities for political and social action. The selection of films involves close consideration of the actual needs and issues of these communities, as well as their contributions to their groups and countries.

Like other large film festivals and smaller ones with distinct niche audiences, the dramatic  changes imposed by the coronavirus forced AAIFF to reorganize its festival completely without having the benefit of knowing how its audience would react to changes. Yet, as distinct from other festivals, the principals of the festival knew about the Wuhan epidemic virtually from its very beginning from their contacts with Asian Americans communities and associates in China. In the quest for relevant productions for the AAIFF 2020, the programmers could also rely on their close working relation  with larger festivals like Sundance, Tellurite, Toronto, Tribeca and the berlinale, events known for their openness  towards innovative productions that could serve the Asian-American audience here. Communications with  individual programmers from PBS POV and Arte were also helpful. The changed political climate generated  a much stronger emphasis on diversity and the articulation of the voices of minority groups provided a supportive context for the festival. AAIFF has been playing a leading role in supporting Asian American and Asian filmmakers in many crucial sectors by establishing a support network. What also distinguishes AAIFF from most other festivals is the absence of a paid staff. Individuals are hired as independent contractors to meet the needs of the festival, resulting in an increase due to the technical demands of the 2020 new online format. Most contractors  are based in the New York metropolitan region; though some live overseas. Contractors and volunteers amounted to more than 60 people this year. To mention just  a few activities of the festival’s support system:  establishment of a  coalition  of curators, service as fiscal sponsors for directors and  producers,  setting up collaborative programming ventures, facilitation of access to streaming services for its filmmakers, active involvement in college based screenings, participation in co-productions, identification of  distributors,  co-sponsorship of kindred film festivals as well as organization of national tours of current and past films from AAIFF festivals. All these  support services which the AAIFF  and  Asian CineVision  have provided for numerous years have created an outstanding image for the festival  and reinforced its principled position to ascertain  the problems and issues faced by the Asian American communities in North American and the  communities they are tied to overseas.

Correspondingly, though the organizers walked into the void when having to develop a new format, their close working relations with their filmmaking communities and  audiences resulted in an outstanding festival which was only 20% smaller than the 2019 edition despite some corporate sponsors pulling out because they did not know what to expect. Most other festivals dialed back and reduced their  programs much more dramatically. Selling  about 5000 tickets,  the income of the fest was about the same as last year, but AAIFF 20 recorded  about 7000  individuals who signed up for the free Q and A sessions and  more than 40 panels. The involvement of such a large audience was one of the key accomplishments of this year’s digital edition. It is of interest that despite the labor-intensive shift to online streaming, contractors and volunteers did not grow significantly.                              

Festival Gold passes were sold ahead of time for $100.00, granting access to all programs and VIP virtual events and individual tickets were sold for $10.00.  The program included nine feature films, seven long form documentaries, 14 short film blocks, over 16 workshops, special events, numerous Q&A sessions, a Filipino filmmaker roundtable, and  topical conversations on storytelling and anti-racism. Some of the panels, workshops and other events were livestreamed to the general public on Facebook. A unique AAIFF event was a virtual Pop-Up Market with products from small local Asian diasporas businesses and artists affected by the coronavirus. The breath of the program was reflected in an exhaustive selection of 77 recent short films presented in 14 blocks that were organized into thematic groups such as: A Fighting Chance – overcoming obstacles,  Crush or Be Crushed – love stories,  Made in  New York - NY based storytellers, Ones to Watch -  filmmakers under 21,  Parental  Guidance- issues of parenting, and Through Practice – reflections on self-definition through practice.  These shorts were produced or co-produced by filmmakers from 19 countries including but not limited to some major producing countries  like China, Taiwan,  India, Japan, UK, and France but also from lesser known filmmaking nations like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Ethiopia, and Pakistan.

CODED  BIAS Shalinni Kantayya, US

Prompted by a MIT researcher focusing on facial recognition who realized that the sophisticated technologies used were not able to recognize her Afro-American image and that they failed  more frequently to accurately process female than male face images, this documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, opened for the first time to a  larger audience. The film explored the facial recognition technologies used in  the United States and developed by corporate interests as well as university research labs.  Much attention has been paid to identification technologies as widely applied by  China, which was stigmatized  for related human rights violations.  But according to the Carnegie  Endowment’s   Artificial  Intelligence  Global Surveillance Index  all  countries in the G-20 group have deployed AI enabled surveillance technology, including facial recognition programs. Until  Kantayya’s  extensive visual documentation was introduced to a wider public, little attention was paid by the informed public to the fact that proprietary facial recognition systems have been created  in the USA and are widely used by private and public agencies.

It took  MIT scientist Joy Buolamwini, a PhD candidate,  numerous experiments to establish that there is a gender and mostly  racial bias embed in the algorithm established  for these systems by the coders and she suggests that this bias reflects the preconceptions the coders share. They tend to be mostly male and share the ethnic and egocentric culture of the  Artificial Intelligence industries they work for. This includes virtually all  major US corporations that collect personal date from users of their services. CODED BIAS  presents evidence from British law enforcement units showing that the accuracy rate of their identifications ranges from 2 to 8 percent. In  this country more than 100 million individuals  have uploaded their images to facial identification platforms without having any control over how these images are used and  for what purpose. The same holds for personal socio-demographic data about their lives.  As the systematic data collection from any electronic device shows, these data areis commercialized, as are the images from identification platforms. The individuals who give up their images, and unwittingly their personal data, cannot check their use or ascertain if their visual and statistical data are accurate. Buolamwini could  verify her image identification and found it defective. But such testing is not available for others. Regulations setting up control systems and giving a modicum of power to consumers   cannot  be established. After all, corporate interests and allied congressional support would fiercely oppose it  because  such new roles would permit access to private and public data banks and  turn the data collection business upside down.  As Kantayya shows through a  Congressional hearing her documentary caused,  there are no regulations  restraining the rapidly expanding identification business nor are there any attempts  underway to protect the US public  like the protective policies which are firmly established in European Union countries. In the US, the advances  in the electronic face identification technologies have gone far beyond the knowledge base of  elected and appointed officials and their ability to act, a condition that also holds in many other advanced knowledge technology sectors.

The debut documentary ASWANG  by Alyx Ayn Arumpac, a 2019 co-production by Philippine, France, Norway, Germany, and Qatar  was among the best productions selected for the festival. It is an outstanding film that  depicts the nightmarish slums of Manila  where legitimated extralegal killing of many residents takes place. ASWANG  meets the mark of  professional excellence  from virtually all perspectives. To name but a few: the original context in which  the official  Filipino war on drugs is embedded, the captivating narrative themes, superb nighttime cinematography by Tanya  Haurylchyk, information enhanced by judicious editing, painfully realistic visual presentations respecting the images depicted,  portrayals of the direct and indirect victims of the official war on drugs, and focus on the victims’ experience rather than official justifications of the slaughter. In 2016  president Duterte assumed power with a platform declaring that whoever takes drugs or is involved with its trade will be killed. To date it is estimated by observers that about 1,000 individuals are slain each month totaling at least 31, 232 killings so far. ASWANG  shows in many episodes and brief segments a society  that is deconstructed from the top down; primarily impacting with impunity the lower classes and impoverished. As actual and prospective victims articulate, fear is persuasive and inevitable, money serves as the basis for justice, the poor get killed, and the rich go to air-conditioned jails.  Among the episodes covered are the work of a funeral parlor operator collecting  dead bodies  from the streets with other “nightcrawlers” and storing them. Often, they cannot be identified, and despaired women are look in vain for their missing husbands and children. Innocent people are killed and if cops are involved evidence is invented afterwards, as witnesses claim. The street urchins suggest that the victims were “ripe” for getting killed by the police because they knew too much. Journalists discovered that individuals are captured and  extorted for ransom by  police officers who hide them in their stations  behind closed of walls in secret jails. They are  only released for cash. When the press  frees them, the victims are afraid to talk and officers who imprisoned them promptly rearrest them after creating fake  drug arrest records and ship them to real jails. Though the journalist recorded everything they do not have the power to intervene. Police  in uniforms or undercover carry out killing focused on the lower-class who cannot defend themselves. As witnesses claim, groups benefiting from president Duterte’s rule enjoy the perverted financial justice system and profit from the drug trade while remaining untouched.

A young boy aged about seven, Jomari is the guide to the dreadful poverty ridden slums where most of the killings take place and ASWANG is filmed.  His mother is in jail and he fends for himself whilst helping her mother. His best friend was killed by the cops, who are labeled by Jomari as The Enemy as taught by his mother. He introduces the viewer to his friends who still find joy in  playing cheerfully  despite the miserable surroundings they inhabit or the garbage they sort for a  living.  He disappears for long stretches of the film, spending time in a youth center. Screen time is filled with exhausting images of arrests and imprisonment in packed jails, full of mostly young men, presumably tied to the drug trade. The audience views young boys playing and apparently living in a  decrepit cemetery  observing how corpses are squeezed into concrete cubicles because the cemetery has run out of space. Our mind juxtaposes these scenes with a brief film sequence in the film recording a group of religious fanatics bloodily self-flagellating while walking down a  street.  ASWANG is a powerful and compelling indictment of a ruling class in a capitalist society formed in part by its  conservative western catholic background. This society with  feudal and bureaucratic  overtones is run by a power structure protecting the overlords, suspending the law and victimizing the underclass . Its president Duterte is  courted by the United States and China though the  officially sanctified massive human rights violations and slaughter of people in Duterte’s  Philippines  have been widely covered in the international press.  In the documentary there is periodically a subdued poetic low-key voice over about ASWANG as an evil shapeshifting spirit.  According to the folklore, this fear inducing  destructive  monster is only visible at night to impoverished,  abandoned, and homeless people  but not  experienced by the rich, a perfect metaphor for the conditions in the Philippines. 

MONSOON, Hong Khaou, 2019, UK

Not in command of his language because he left Vietnam as a child with his parents heading as refugees to England by boat, Kit returns to Vietnam as an adult to scatter his parent’s ashes. He visits his old neighborhoods and relatives, experiencing a sense of alienation and barely recognizing his old home. He  senses profound cultural displacement when travelling in Vietnam, though on the surface he fits well into  that modern society. With the help of his cousin Lee, whose business in Ho Chi Minh City is supported Kit’s family, he reconstructs his Vietnamese family past including  the conflicts caused by the war and  their escape from Vietnam.  More elements from the past are introduced by Kit’s romance with an Afro-American cloth designer living in Ho Chi Minh City whose father is a Vietnam veteran.  Through a student, he is introduced to the perspectives of the younger generation but also the traditional mores of her family.  MONSOON persuasively depicts cultural dislocation, the problems of finding  identity while existing between contrasting  value systems, and the fading power of memories attached to the past. All actors deliver compelling performances in this attractive  and thoughtful production with Henry Golding starring as Kit perfectly matching his sensitive role.

Compared to the other serious issue oriented other films reviewed here, the Japanese 2019 production  A BELOVED WIFE directed by  Shin Adachi is  a charming and funny depiction of the interpersonal dynamics of a failing marriage. Using his own novel Adachi portrays a couple in a semi-biographical fashion. The wife Chika abstains  from a close relationship, including sex, with her husband  Gota because he is a loser;  a screen writer whose work is barely published. Supported by his wife while he  pursues the chase for success which he cannot deliver, he remains forever  a failure in her  world.  There is no intimacy between them. She takes care of the income and the household; he takes care of their young daughter and writes. There is constant bickering  and heated verbal confrontations between them but Gota does not dare to contradict Chika when she verbally castrates him. She drinks excessively and Gota is obsessed by the absence of sex, having constant fantasies about how to get it from her. As the dominant figure, she degrades him constantly in face to face interactions but also denigrates him when talking to her friends. He is defensive but maintains consistently that his script will result in a film despite Chika’s expectation of another rejection. The satirical caricature  Adachi provides in  A BELOVED WIFE is exaggerated but appealing because the private and public performance enacted by the disjointed  couple have many elements that remind viewers of themselves and couples they know.  Staying together probably  meets some neurotic needs Chika and Gota share. The film is attractive because of the persuasive acting and finely tuned script that call audience’s attention to the contrasting diversity of marital relationships.



Claus Mueller

New York, NY




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