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HIFF40 Recap: A Multitude of Cinema Through the Immigrant Lens

Peering into an unfamiliar moment, without influencing its procession is a rare privilege. This space, often explored in immigrant-made films, is a powerful one recognized by both HIFF and The Vilcek Foundation, who together formed the New American Perspectives program (NAP).
NAP is a slate of impactful films created solely by immigrant filmmakers. The collaboration has a history dating back to 2007 when it was called the American Immigrant Filmmakers Program. The concept was conceived by a natural synergy between the visions of both HIFF and Vilcek, particularly in their emphases on recognizing and supporting immigrants’ contributions to the arts. 
In a recent phone interview, Vilcek Foundation Communications Manager Elizabeth Boylan expressed her excitement in partnering with HIFF. 
“I think that one of the things that is really rewarding for us about working with HIFF is the really broad diversity of artists whose work is represented, from filmmakers that are working with major studios to independent filmmakers,” Boylan said. “I think the programs that HIFF supports with native filmmakers from Hawaii and with students from Hawaii is really exciting in terms of creating a platform and using the festival as a platform to elevate voices in the arts that need to be heard.”
Heading this year’s NAP lineup was MINARI directed by Lee Isaac Chung, and starring Steven Yeun, who garnered the Halekulani Maverick Award at this year’s festival. MINARI seemed to be a quintessential fit for the NAP category, as the story revolves around a Korean immigrant family moving from California to a 50-acre farm in Arkansas. The film held its Hawaii premiere on opening night of HIFF, to a socially distanced theater audience. 
In a real treat for HIFF online viewers, Artistic Director Anderson Le welcomed both Chung and Yeun to a live Zoom session, prior to the screening of MINARI. The discussion covered aspects such as how Chung’s real life experiences were channeled into the film, as well as the process through which Yeun identified with his character Jacob, even after having initial doubts of his suitability for the role. An empathetic moment came when Yeun shared his experience of watching the film alongside his father at Sundance, and how it seemed to deepen their relationship. Moments later, Chung recollected his strikingly similar experience of watching the film alongside his own father who was also a Korean immigrant. The film appeared to provide each father with a feeling that their son now understood their struggle on a deeper level.  
Also an interesting watch was New Zealand director Roseanne Liang’s conversation with Le on her action-horror genre mashup SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, which had three HIFF screenings including a Drive-in showing at Windward Mall. In a discussion covering topics such as Liang’s earlier works and her beginnings in filmmaking, she shared a touching story of her two older sisters encouraging her to pursue her own interests rather than going to medical school “just because.” Liang also expressed the need for a stronger Kiwi Asian presence in the New Zealand film industry. 
Films MOGUL MOWGLI, FIRST VOTE, DEATH OF NINTENDO, and 76 DAYS all held online screenings as well as insightful Q&A sessions with each film’s respective director. In a Zoom conversation between HIFF Director of Programming Anna Page and Bassam Tariq, director of MOGUL MOWGLI, Tariq shared how a conversation at his New York butchery with lead actor Riz Ahmed exposed commonalities in their filmmaking endeavors, which led to their collaboration. 
In a Q&A session with Valerie Castillo Martinez, screenwriter and producer of DEATH OF NINTENDO, she spoke about translating her passion for storytelling and journaling into screenwriting. She also touched on how her childhood connection with director Raya Martin led to their eventual collaboration, and their complementing personalities on set. 
Yi Chen’s timely documentary FIRST VOTE followed Asian-American voters from both sides of the spectrum. The film is an interesting look at how Asian-Americans were voting prior to this year’s election. 
Hao Wu’s 76 DAYS is a bold look into a Wuhan hospital during the city’s first 76 days of lock-down. Wu’s documentary provides a raw real-time look at hospital workers fighting to provide beds for the infected who pile against the building entrance, desperately seeking treatment for themselves and family. 
Through HIFF and Vilcek’s ongoing commitment of presenting the freshening perspectives of immigrant filmmakers, we slowly realize the similarities we share across all cultures.
“I think what’s also really particularly exciting about film is that you’re seeing the world through another person’s eyes,” Boylan said. “So the choices that a director makes and that a cinematographer makes and that an author makes in crafting a film lets you see the world from another person’s perspective.”
As part of the New American Perspectives program at #HIFF40, the Vilcek Foundation and HIFF presented a panel discussion with featured filmmakers: Valerie Castillo-Martinez, Yi Chen, Roseanne Liang, Bassam Tariq, and Hao Wu. Watch the entire panel discussion over at HIFF’s Facebook page. 

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