Asian-American cinema jewels present alternative views
The DisOrient Asian American Film Festival was founded on W.E.B. DuBois’ standard, “for us, by us, or about us.”
Its films this year premiere at the Bijou Arts Cinema from April 23 to 25 and range from light-hearted comedies, such as “Why Am I Doing This?,” presented by the University’s Asian Pacific American Student Union, to the festival’s feature documentary, S. Leo Chiang’s “A Village Called Versailles.” Filmmakers from Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond convene at the DisOrient Film Festival to celebrate the rich and varied experiences of Asian-Americans.
“I wanted to take this visage that we all rightfully associated with a truly monstrous and brutal dictatorship and flip it around and make it one of real innocence and sympathy,” said director Patrick Epino of his film Mr. Sadman, which is the festival’s opening film.
The fictional film chronicles the escapades of Mounir, a Saddam Hussein body double who, after an encounter with a would-be assassin’s knife, finds his face scarred and himself jobless. Mounir moves to L.A. in search of opportunity, only to find that the real Saddam has invaded Kuwait, rendering Mounir a “wanted person” by the FBI. Epino said the film goes beyond the Asian-American immigrant conversation.
“I simply wanted to explore an extreme version of that experience in which things may not always wrap up as nicely as one might think,” he said. “That having a particular ‘American’ existence can have its pitfalls.” Epino conceived the film a few years before America’s second Iraqi encounter, so there wasn’t any direct connection between Saddam’s actual displacement and the storyline or themes.
Rather, Epino wanted to portray the dictator with scathing irony.
“It was more about the image than the persona, hence using a Saddam double,” Epino said. “Take one of the most ‘un-American’ faces and make him as American in his experiences as possible.”
Another facet of the film that emphasizes the character’s struggles is Mounir’s silence. In fact, he doesn’t have a single line.
“I wanted to try and emphasize the idea that he was just an image — almost a commodified product,” Epino said. Mounir’s naïveté lands him in an endless battle with American cultural norms in Mr. Bean-like fashion.
“Mr. Sadman is, in fact, at its core, a film about America — certain social phenomena and modernity, alienation and how we try to create or recreate meaning,” Epino said. “So maybe some viewers can relate to him.”
The centerpiece film for the festival is S. Leo Chiang’s documentary “A Village Called Versailles.”
The film tells the little-known story of a Vietnamese-American community that was nearly wiped out following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The film presents a unique situation in which a community that had previously kept to itself was forced to raise its voice in constern
ation against a government that had excluded it from the broader city-wide conversation. “This is definitely a very, very unique situation because of Katrina and because the community is the way it is — very tightly knit, previously very isolated geographically and civically or culturally,” Chiang said.
In addition to having to rebuild the community from the ground up, Versailles Mayor Nagin decided to open Chef Menteur Landfill. The landfill was to be a repository for toxic waste and sat less than two miles away from Versailles. Community elders that had been silent since their arrival as refugees began to crowd around charismatic leaders like Father Vien Nguyen, protesting and asserting their previously neglected rights.
For political refugees like many of the Versailles residents, adjusting to American culture, let alone attempting to establish themselves as legitimate Vietnamese-American citizens is a trying effort.
“They want to hold on to what they have, and they want to invent this new identity for themselves that’s not so much the American identity as a lot of the Americans would like to have it, but it’s a new multicultural Vietnamese-American,” Chiang said.
The political activism hasn’t relented, however, and as of December 2008, Rep. Joseph Cao, a Vietnamese-American and activist of Versailles has been representing the greater New Orleans area in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“There’s definitely more working together between the different groups, and also, the city is now really taking the Vietnamese-American community seriously both politically and in terms of their civic opinions,” Chiang said.
Both Epino and Chiang will be in attendance at the festival, and Chiang will be hosting a workshop on social justice and filmmaking on Friday.
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