Activism and Awareness at the Ithaca Pan-Asian American Film Festival

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Sign to the entrance to the local cinema.

Asian-American directors from across the country sent their material to participate in the third annual Pan-Asian American Film Festival in downtown Ithaca. The event ran from April 20th to the 22nd at Cinemapolis, a local independent movie theater just off the Commons. This year the event is notable for several short-film screenings, followed by question and answer sessions. The topics in focus at the festival range from Asian-American identity to discrimination and to the difficulties of acknowledging intersections of identity within the community.

According to the Pew-Research Center, Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the total American population with the top three largest ethnic groups being Chinese (3.79 million), Filipinos (3.41 million) and Indians (3.18 million). Prevalent issues in the community are lack of diversity in media treatment, including gross generalizations, and a large gap in wealth disparity between rich and poor Asian Americans.

The event is primarily organized by professors and students involved in the Ithaca College Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Many of the volunteers for the event were Ithaca College and Cornell University students as well as interested community members. The information table was covered in pamphlets and merchandise emblazoned with the festival logo, a yellow paper crane, as well as posters, fliers and pins.

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Marquee of Cinemapolis, Green Street Ithaca

Phuong Nguyen, Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, is one of the primary organizers for the event. He has been involved with each iteration of the festival, gathering volunteers through a class he teaches and reaching out to directors and active members of the Asian-American community. In his eyes, festivals like IPAAFF bring much needed attention to an underrepresented community here in the U.S.

“One of the mixed blessings is that this is a small community,” said professor Nguyen, “it makes it easy to reach out and gather notable people but on the other hand there are so few of us, relatively.”

For many of the volunteers and directors, the different intersections of their Asian-American identity drove their involvement in the event. Monica Chen, a member of the marketing and finance committee for the IPAAFF, was excited to participate for the second time.

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Presentation takes place inside the theater.

“When I first got involved I was prompted by Professor Nguyen to sign up,” she said. “But this year I signed up because I wanted to build on the success we had last year.” This year Chen was involved in designing the poster and promoting the event across the Ithaca community.

“The Pan-Asian American element is very important,” noted Chen. “Each year we expand our definition of who is part of this community. It’s like a big family that keeps on growing.”

Nguyen says he is still experimenting with different formats and styles, including performances such as break-dance crews from Ithaca College and Cornell University and a panel on adoption awareness to address as wide a variety of issues that impact the Asian-American community as possible.

“The more popular this becomes the more we can explore deeper and more taboo issues in our community,” said Emily, a volunteer at the event and a junior at Cornell University.

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Student volunteers gather around to prepare for visitors.

Emily shared her experience watching the film Spa Day which was shown on the 21st. “[The film] explored queerness and sexuality, no one talks about this in my community, it’s incredibly taboo. Personally I thought it was very brave of the director to explore this issue.”

Emily and other volunteers shared how the festival has brought them an awareness of underlying issues that even they had failed to notice in their community even at times giving them a visualization of issues they had experienced themselves. As the festival continued, organizers and participants hoped to bring awareness to more issues that affect their community, from economic disparity to social issues and discrimination.

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