ASIANS IN MOVIES: Vancouver Asian Film Festival founder Barbara Lee takes AIM
by Rick Tae, Skycorner
“There’s a billion of us. There’s somebody that can be cast in that role.”
When asked for an opinion about the current conversation circling the whitewashing of Hollywood, Barbara Lee, founder of VAFF (Vancouver Asian Film Festival), doesn’t mince words. As the festival celebrates its 20th anniversary year this November 3rd to 6th, 2016, she reflects on the changes and, yet, often times inertia of the past decades, seeing talented North American Asians continue to struggle to find a place at the table amidst the film industry elite.
“They’re just not trying hard enough. And for a young kid to see that… it’s very disheartening,” she continues. Growing up in rural Richmond, BC, Canada, with few role models, she collected over a thousand comic books after finding a world that reflected characters that looked like her and they had cool powers like everyone else. With eyes gleaming, she describes remembering getting lost in these fictional worlds with “an outlook where anything was possible and we were all equally powerful.” Now, seeing some of her favourite childhood Asian characters being cast with non-Asian actors in modern media has hit a nerve with Barb, almost like a betrayal of what the comic book world represented to kids looking for an escape into a fantasy where they could feel more powerful. After decades of growing frustration, like water trapped behind a dam built up long enough, she is still awaiting a “final punch-through” to ultimately change the landscape.
The second youngest of five children born to immigrant Chinese farmers, Barb has lived through her fair share of injustices: Her father being taken advantage of in business by other family members, her mother passing away at the youthful age of 59 and her best friend with a speech impediment being tormented in elementary school which resulted in Barb’s first and only fist-fight to end this bullying.
As each decade passed, “there was a lot of tolerance [towards Asian immigrants]”, she says, using a word she dislikes. “Tolerance meaning: I’ll put up with you, but I don’t really accept you. And if I had a choice, and I didn’t need your business, I’d rather not deal with you.” Personal triumphs of finding her own sense of belonging aside, she has observed the subtle differences in Western attitudes towards each wave of Canadian Chinese immigration, in the 70’s, 90’s and now in this decade, and laments that the continued lack of Asians in media still plays a much larger role in social inequality, despite the increasing economic power of these visible minorities.
“Money will not get you on the same social playing field,” she continues, “Media power is what changes attitudes and entrenches genuine acceptance.” In reference to the current trend of wealthier immigrants landing in Vancouver, she observes that “with economic power, money is fleeting, our acceptance is based on something that is external to who we are as an ethnic group, so without a large bank account, we could easily be reduced back down to being just “tolerated”.
“Flaunting money aside, Asians are simply still being erased in media,” she pinpoints.
Herself, having worked as a farmhand, cashier, janitor, teacher and now financial advisor, then additionally learning guitar, writing songs, studying opera and writing screenplays and documentaries, Barb makes no apologies about her determination to produce a stronger Asian media voice, no doubt knowing the value of a hard day’s work.
The Vancouver Asian Film Festival was started in 1995 by Barb and with the help of five likeminded lawyer friends in their 20’s they debuted its first film festival in 1997. It opened with the feature “Shopping for Fangs”, a film by Justin Lin and Quentin Lee; the former filmmaker now known for helming a few installments of the Hollywood blockbuster series “Fast and the Furious”, festival darling “Better Luck Tomorrow”, in addition to Paramount’s upcoming “Star Trek Beyond”.
Although very much a niche film festival, VAFF still does draw thousands of patrons to the theatres each year for their 4-day celebration. With the hierarchy of feature film consumption placing North-American Asian films well behind both Hollywood and Asian films in the marketplace, Barb and her team yearns to grow audience numbers to match the exciting changes in the independent scene with more and more aspiring North-American Asian filmmakers boldly stepping into larger roles of creative control. To Barb’s delight, writing credits, directing credits and producing credits of submitted and programmed films through the years have all seen an increasing range of Asian names, perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of Eastern families towards new technologies and being able to make a living in the media arts.
“We want a place at the table with our voice, an Asian voice, authentic and represented by us.” She presses on, “we could complain from the outside, but I don’t think that’s the way to do it.” Continuing to train people, advocate, pass on expertise, give opportunities and get talent into positions of influence remains VAFF and Barb’s raison d’être. “If we don’t, we let other people tell our stories, tell our history, when we should be telling them ourselves.”
Beyond the independent film circuit, admitting that Hollywood is still the “Fortune 500” place the world goes to do business for movies, Barb does not shy away from recognizing the value of high end film success. For VAFF’s 20th Anniversary, a campaign to put “Asians In Movies” (AIM) will be launched this summer to attract North-American Asian models, actors and other leading male and female faces to submit photos, videos and answers to VAFF’s AIM Campaign questions regarding diversity. 12 candidates across Canada and the U.S. will be chosen for a photoshoot in Vancouver, BC in September and the marketing campaign to blitz Hollywood influentials will world premiere alongside the film festival in November 2016.
“We have a community now. And with 20 years behind us, I’m very proud that VAFF is now one of the anchors for Canadian and American Asians in media.”
For more information, please visit vaff.org