Masashi Niwano might be the youngest director of any film festival in the Bay Area, and that’s saying something. It’s no great shakes for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, though, which handed the helm to Chi-hui Yang a decade ago when he was in his mid-20s. That worked out pretty darn well, with the festival consistently attracting top-drawer films and the twenty-something crowds that every arts organization craves. Niwano took the reins last summer after a four-year stint as Executive Director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival, but it was more of a reunion than a new hire. A Bay Area native, he interned with the SFIAAFF in 2002 while pursuing his undergrad film degree from San Francisco State, and eventually joined the theater operations staff. Niwano’s narrative short, Falling Stars, screened at the 2006 SFIAAF and other fests. We sat down with him a week or so ago at the festival’s Ninth Street Independent Film Center offices.
SF360: What’s the source of your film love?
Masashi Niwano: When I was growing up, in Campbell, California—I’m a South Bay boy—my father and mother worked really long hours. Similar to a lot of Asian American families, they didn’t trust anyone to babysit us; they preferred that we were home alone. Instead of getting us a babysitter, my mother just let me go to the video store and rent whatever I wanted. Every night, I remember watching about five films when I was around eight years old, and most of them were horror films. That’s where it started.
SF360: Was there any defining moment or movie that set you on this path?
Niwano: I can’t think of any defining film but definitely when I started going through middle school, and then going into high school, I became a film buff. I got a video camera and started making short films. I went to film school after that. I guess I have to thank my parents for working late hours.
SF360: Is it an advantage for a festival director to also be a filmmaker?
Niwano: I think it’s really helpful if you are yourself a filmmaker. You can look at a film festival as the producer of the fest, but you also have to take into consideration the filmmakers’ point of view and how they are approaching film festivals. So I think my experience being a filmmaker has helped us because when we’re picking out films, or talking to the press, I feel I have a grasp of different sides of the story. It’s hard because I can’t really submit to my own festival. That gets a little awkward.
SF360: Do you think being a filmmaker is more helpful in the selection process or in terms of communicating to audiences?
Niwano: I think more [with] programming. For us, it’s not always what has the highest production value or what is the most competent cinematic storytelling. It’s really about the uniqueness and the forward thinking of a film. So it helps to know the films that I’m making and my friends are making, You kind of have a sense when you’re looking at 600 submissions, ‘Wow, these people are making so much more amazing stuff.’ I kind of get a little bit of a gauge of where I’m at as a filmmaker, and I get inspired to see all these filmmakers making stuff that is just years and years ahead of myself.
SF360: As someone who interned and worked at the festival prior to taking the director post, what do you love about this festival? In three sentences, if you can.
Niwano: When I started as an intern I was not even 20, and within a month I fell in love with Asian American cinema. I was an archival intern. That meant I had to look at press kits from every Asian American film that happened before me. That inspired me to the point where I knew I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to showcasing and creating Asian American cinema. That was like six sentences.
SF360: No problem. But what do you love about this festival?
Niwano: I’ve worked for many other festivals, and I think that the spirit, the community engagement and the forward thinking of the programming is what separates us. We have a very diverse attendee base, and because of that our programming is diverse and unique.
SF360: I expect you’d see fewer raised eyebrows here, after four or five years in Austin, about showing an Indian or Iranian film or a film with a Bosnian-Palestinian-Jordanian character (The Imperialists Are Still Alive!).
Niwano: I lived my whole life in the Bay Area, and when I moved to Austin I quickly realized how amazing and how thriving the Asian American community in the Bay Area is. When I was screening films in Austin, I felt at times like I’d have to re-explain Asian American cinema and start at step one. Whereas when I’m here, I feel like the audience is a little bit more educated with Asian American cinema and they’re more excited about challenging and diverse types of films. And that’s what makes me excited on a programmatic level. Being in the Bay Area, I feel like Asian American cinema has to be more than Asian American representation at this point. It also has to be a solid film. It has to have some strong storytelling element that’s going to get a crowd.
SF360: Not to mention that Bay Area moviegoers are generally wiling to be provoked.
Niwano: I think that’s what I really love about this festival, that you can really push the envelope and start dialogue. At times in Austin when I was going to different communities, and also talking to press, I felt like I had to start with the preconceived notion that Asian American cinema is limited. That it was Chinese, Japanese, one or two Indian films. I had to start there. The great thing about Austin is that they are open to different types of programming, but at the same time I did feel like if I went beyond that, if I took a curve to the left, they would be confused and I would be questioned by different committee members or the general public. Whereas here I think we can do things that are formally challenging and engage different types of audiences. The Bay Area is amazing because they want to have that conversation, and if they feel like community A doesn’t fit with community B, it doesn’t end there. It’s a conversation.
SF360: In terms of trends in Asian cinema, what’s hot and what’s on the cusp?
Niwano: First off, South Asia has a really thriving film industry. Bollywood has hit a mark that’s very interesting in the cinematic landscape. There’s a lot more independent films coming out now, a lot more different types of stories being told, and there’s a diverse collection of films that are getting seen now coming out of India and South Asia. It’s a very interesting time because there are producers now investing in indie films in India. How does that change the cinematic landscape in Asia? I think that’s definitely something to look out for. We have a panel on the Indian film industry (Stepping Forward, Looking Back, 3:00 pm March 12 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas), and we have some specialists coming to talk about that, what are the changes and is indie film really going to change the Indian film industry.
SF360: What’s bubbling in Asian American cinema?
Niwno: A lot of Asian American filmmakers are going overseas and making films and having international co-productions. We have a lot of films this year, documentaries and narratives, where the films are shot in Asia or overseas somewhere but it’s a whole Asian American crew, and it’s an Asian American director. It’s an interesting point because I think we’re talking about different communities being engaged now. Asian American filmmakers are engaging not only our communities within America but are seeing how these stories and films translate overseas, and they’re finding different markets to sustain their careers. It opens the question of what is Asian American cinema. If it’s a film that’s shot all overseas and deals with issues that are happening over there, is that an Asian American film?
SF360: Can you give us some examples in the festival?
Niwano: We have a documentary called Made In India about Indian surrogacy by a New York filmmaker who went to India to shoot this film. Clash (Bay Rong), which is our centerpiece film, was shot all in Vietnam. And we have Saigon Electric, which is a world premiere and was also shot in Vietnam. Both of those films have Asian American cast and crew.
SF360: How about singling out a few of the South Asian indies?
Niwano: The Taqwacores is a very fascinating film. It’s about punk Muslims in America but most of the cast are South Asian. We have Raavanan, which is an amazing Indian film. We have a focus on Gurinder Chadha, so we’re screening her newest film, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife. For our South Asia focus we’re screening 19 films, and we wanted to hit as many different trends that we’re seeing and pay homage to a lot of people who got us to where we are today.
SF360: What should SF360.org’s readership of filmmakers and filmgoers know?
Niwano: One of the key things that I really wanted to do when I jumped on board was to add some of my interests—cinematic interests and also, as a filmmaker, why I go to film festivals—into this fest. So we added a retrospective on horror cinema from Southeast Asia, that’s something that I love, and we also have seven panels and three conversations onstage. Last year we had two; this year we have 10 interactive ways to converse and engage with filmmakers and artists of different types. And that’s something that’s very important to me. We have industry panels; we have pop culture panels. I really wanted to have a forum, a festival, to showcase not only filmmakers but mediamakers, comedians, comic book writers, any type of art possible and throw it in our festival. We do have this opportunity to bring people together and to celebrate art and media. So that’s the thing that I would like people to know, that we wanted to engage local filmmakers and filmgoers who are interested in Asian American cinema by offering them more panels, more ways to engage.
SF360: In a less traditional and less passive way, I gather.
Niwano: The way we’re conceptualizing panels this year is a little different. It’s not all panelists on stage, people in the audience and then Q&A at the end. Some of our panel locations are capacity [of] 80, smaller set-ups where an industry guest, a filmmaker [or] an artist can talk to people one on one. For us, it was how do we re-conceptualize panels to make it more exciting and make it more relevant to how people absorb media at this point in our lives.
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