Arts and Entertainment: Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival Celebrates First Hybrid Event

This year's festival featured both in-person events with artists and directors, as well as films streaming online.

Festival director Selena Yip (left) hosts a conversation with filmmakers at one of hte Asian American Film Festival's in-person events. (Alan Lu/PN).

Story by Alan Lu

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) wrapped its last day on Nov. 14, marking the end of the festival’s first hybrid celebration.

his year’s festival featured a range of films and events, including narrative features, documentaries, shorts, panel discussions, and live performances. 

With the pandemic still a reality, Selena Yip, PAAF’s festival director, discussed the meaning behind “Pause/Unpause,” this year’s festival theme.

“The theme referenced not only the online accessibility of our festival and the ability to hit pause and play whenever, but also the way we are going back to normal with our limited in-person events,” she said.

Hosting both in-person and virtual events as part of this year’s festival was both exhilarating and a challenge for Yip. Alongside virtual screenings of 100 films, Yip and other volunteers organized six in-person events. 

“Juggling logistics of in-person events, livestream, and online screenings is very difficult,” she said.

When asked about the pandemic’s impact on the festival, Yip emphasized film festival culture in general and the expectations of film festival organizers are much different now, whether that’s from the audience, the panelists, the performers, or the filmmakers.

She also tried to work against audiences’ expectations that when a festival like PAAFF is accessible from home, it can be just as easy to use as Netflix and Hulu, though that’s rarely the case. 

Jacqui Sadashige, one of PAAFF’s social media marketing managers, stressed that PAAFF is a volunteer-run festival that grew exponentially over the last six years. 

“I think most folks who attended our festival can understand the work that we’ve put into our hybrid festival this year,” Sadashige said, “And hopefully, they appreciate the festival we’ve been able to produce.”

Yip is the only full-time paid staff on PAAFF’s team and therefore at the helm of all of the events, fundraising, and communications leading into the festival. 

“It’s a lot to handle for one person and often leads to me being overwhelmed,” Yip said. “But I am incredibly grateful to have a volunteer team that has been as supportive and helpful as they have been.”

The range of films makes the overall experience worth it for Yip and her staff. 

“It is difficult for me to pick one favorite,” said Yip. “I really enjoyed all of the jury nominated films this year as well as a lot of the short films that we featured.”

To Yip, Wuhan Wuhan is the top contender out of all the movies submitted to this year’s festival. This documentary film depicts  real people working in and affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, where the disease first appeared. 

Yip considers the film important and necessary to combat ignorance and stereotyping, especially since many people may only know of Wuhan through recent news.

Yung Chang, the director of Wuhan Wuhan, remarked that the movie is “a testament to the universality of our collective pandemic experience.”

“No matter what country, no one is immune to disease and we all share the same humanity in our struggle to survive,” Chang said.

As a social issue documentary filmmaker, Chang offered insights into the peak of the pandemic lockdown, aiming at reaching cross-cultural understanding and demonstrating the human side of the virus.

Besides the logistics of the actual festival, Yip also spends the year fundraising and maintaining PAAFF’s finances. As a volunteer-run festival, money is always tight. 

“Corporate sponsorships have been helpful in covering some of the expenses that we have as a festival,” Yip said “But they have never really been able to sustain the growth that we’ve gone through.”

Yip acknowledged concerns over proper compensation for the staff and artists. The volunteer staff work year-round to support each annual festival, but are not compensated. In prior years, Yip herself pulled the festival together without taking a paycheck. 

“Only recently we were able to secure a generous grant from Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF) that funded a salary for my position as festival director this year,” she said.

PAAFF is now taking other actions to make the festival financially sustainable.

“We’re starting to realize that we need to be increasing our ticket values to match the quality event that we are producing for our audiences,” Yip said, adding that she’s expecting the expenses to at least double or triple in the next year.

Artists’ events and performances supplemented virtual streamings of this year’s film contenders. (Alan Lu/PN).

PAAFF also plans to start doing more year-round programming and partnering with some venues around the city to do encore screenings of some of its favorite feature films and short film programs.

PAAFF also partners with different organizations every year, specifically Philly Asian Performing Artists (PAPA) and Asian Arts Initiative (AAI). 

For instance, the PAAFF team hosted an event featuring three artists’ projects projects in AAI’s blackbox theater at 1219 Vine St. during this year’s festival.

“It was very emotional for both artists to see their work reaching audiences and to be able to converse with people about their pieces,” Yip said.

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