SFIAAFF Doc Competition Juror, Brian Hu, offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to serve on a festival jury. As someone who’s hoping to be summoned for Jury Duty one day, I appreciate this glimpse into the inner-workings of their decision making process, and his reflections on some of their deliberations.
He considers the impact previewing films on DVD vs in the theater with the Director and a live audience–something I’ve often wondered about. And I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as they “began to draw lines between different films, mapping out common themes, and in doing so, mapping out the terrain of Asian American cinema circa 2012.”
Thanks to you, Brian Hu, for this wonderful write-up. And to your co-Jurors, Momo Chang and Vincent Pan, for their thoughtful consideration and reflection on all of our films!
Congrats to Eliaichi Kimaro and the other winners Mina T. Son and Patrick Wang, both of whom were big winners at SFIAFF 2011!
I, Brian Hu, was an SFIAAFF juror, and here are my confessions. There were mafia ties, disappearing witnesses, scandal-mongering news re-enactments, and nepotism at the highest levels.
No wait, that’s the plot of GIVE UP TOMORROW, one of our favorite films in the competition! Sorry to disappoint, but the jury process was completely cordial. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t exciting. Here’s why.
Along with Momo Chang and Vincent Pan, I had the honor of serving on the documentary jury at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Documentaries have for decades now been one of Asian American cinema’s strong suits, so the experience promised to be thrilling in its selections and difficult in narrowing down to one winner. It was both.
Furthermore, all three of us come from different backgrounds. Momo is a journalist, Vincent an activist, and I a film junkie. Journalism, activism, and aesthetics are all critical components of documentary as we know it today, especially within Asian American cinema, and from the get-go, we were all eager to see how these different vectors would collide.
For instance, it became immediately clear that there would be documentaries that were about extraordinary subjects (important and under-explored figures and events in Asian American communities), but which were not that impressively put together, and vice versa. There was also the issue of “Asian American” as a subject itself; would a brilliantly-made film be less worthy of the award if it was not so clearly “Asian American”? Generously, the SFIAAFF team let us define the priorities however we wished, but of course that only made the task all the more difficult.
Also adding to the challenge was the great diversity of styles and documentary voices in the crop of eight films. Some were traditional talking-heads documentaries (MRS. JUDO), others were fly-on-the-wall verite (LOVE CRIMES IN KABUL), some personal video essays (A LOT LIKE YOU), and others a combination of them all. Some seemed to be made for TV, some for classrooms, and some for the film festival circuit. In comparison, the narrative competition is easier to judge because “the audience” and “the medium” are usually fairly set. But documentary can go in any number of directions and be evaluated in any number of ways.
I wonder if the fact that we watched some docs on a TV via DVD player, and some in the movie theater, affected the viewing and judging process. Certainly they make for different spectatorial experiences (anything that plays at San Francisco’s majestic Castro Theatre is going to get extra points subconsciously). Having a director there to give her/his perspective could alter the experience as well. And of course, laughing/crying with an audience of hundreds leaves a deep impression that lingers into the jury room. (Actually, our jury room was the dee-lish Indian restaurant Dosa. I wonder if that affected things as well.)
After three days of immersion in the best of Asian American documentary, and mere minutes after watching the eighth and last film, we jumped right into deliberations. Luckily, we each had the same top three films, and we agreed that should any of those three win, we’d be perfectly pleased. The three films were wildly different in subject, purpose, and style. At this point, we had to weight the priorities. We thought about where Asian American documentary has been and where it was going. We considered storytelling and image. We discussed themes like identity, gender, nation, and justice.
Suddenly, the process took on a life of its own. We began to draw lines between different films, mapping out common themes, and in doing so, mapping out the terrain of Asian American cinema circa 2012. In hindsight, I think we could have come to our decision in 30 minutes. It took two hours because it was so much fun. We wanted to talk about all the films, not just our top three. You could say it’s because we wanted to give all eight films a chance, but honestly, I just loved going around the table and dishing our thoughts and collectively achieving something. It was a tribute to the deepness and breadth of SFIAAFF’s programming, and a testament to the quality of all the documentaries and their ability to incite discussion.
And in the end, we picked a winner. It was, I was later told, not the most obvious choice, but a fitting one nevertheless. But for us behind the scenes, it was a clear winner and if you’d heard our conversations, you would see how there was really no other choice. Eliaichi Kimaro’s A LOT LIKE YOU kept us talking, fascinating us with its style and subject. It is a courageous, heartfelt film that transformed simple identity politics into an actual politics. It crosses oceans and generations to arrive at fascinating observations about tradition and culture. A wonderful debut, and a perfect cap to the festival and to our jury experience. Here’s our official jury statement:
A LOT LIKE YOU takes us on a personal journey into the most vulnerable corners of a family history spanning generations and continents. This layered documentary starts with a familiar exploration of mixed-race identity as the narrator searches for her roots, but brings the discussion to surprising levels of personal and political self-awareness. Fresh and inspired, tender and uncommonly smart, A LOT LIKE YOU triumphs as an exemplary work of first-person documentary for the 21st century.