Spotlight on the Center for Asian American Media

By Paulette Beete
a crowded vintage-looking theater of mostly Asian-American people

The crowd at CAAMFest 2015 Opening Night, Benson Lee's Seoul Searching, in March 2015. Photo by Jason Jao courtesy of CAAM.

 “I think one of the things that is so damaging in our society is the way that we build barriers against one another and feel that other people’s experiences now threaten ours. And the arts are a unique way to move people beyond their barriers. Public policy cannot do that effectively without there being a kind of cultural pathway first, and the arts have always provided that deeper pathway.” – Stephen Gong, Center for Asian American Media

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) was founded in San Francisco, California, in 1980 to, according to CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong, "address the lack of authentic and true representations of Asians in America because mainstream media really was just comprised of stereotyped images of Asians." Among its founding members were community leaders and activists as well as filmmakers and radio producers, and today CAAM stays true to its DNA as an organization working at the nexus of media arts, community, and heritage. While providing support for public television media by and about Asian Americans, CAAM also presents the NEA-supported CAAMFest, an annual film festival showcasing work by contemporary Asian-American filmmakers, as well as by filmmakers from a range of Asian countries. CAAM's work at the nexus of arts and heritage includes not only the presentation of historic films at CAAMFest, but also the facilitation of projects such as Memories to Light, which collects, preserves, and showcases home movies made by Asian-American families. We spoke to Gong by phone about how the media arts landscape has changed for the Asian American community over the last 30+ years, what he'd like to see for the future, and why receiving an NEA grant is about much more than the money.

NEA: Can you please describe what the Center for Asian American Media does?

STEPHEN GONG: Our job is to fund and produce and present authentic stories about Asian Americans on public television and so that is one of the key activities that we have done over the years. In addition, we also have an annual film festival, CAAMFest, which provides another showcase for an even broader range [of work by Asian Americans] because it’s both narrative work as well as documentary, and we can incorporate works from Asian cinema that represent dialogue about the diaspora of Asians in the Americas. [CAAM Fest] has been going on for 33 years; it’s the largest Asian-American film festival in the U.S. Over the years we’ve also added the distribution of these works to the educational distribution market--schools, colleges, and libraries across the country.

We were founded in an age of these legacy media, the analog media world of broadcast television and of theatrical film distribution, and that has all changed with the advent of social networking as well as the explosion of cable and movies being able to be streamed on any device. So we’re in that space as well. Even though this new landscape is an enormous challenge to everyone who has tried to move from that old way of working, what we find is that, being an organization rooted in ethnic communities, there are some real opportunities here because this splintering of audiences and the fracturing of the normal gatekeepers to mass media distribution really allows deeply engaged communities to find works that really speak to them. It’s like artisanal food: there’s a special niche because people who really value that kind of media can now find you and before, it would have been hard for folks to kind of find our work.

NEA: Can you describe what the perception was of Asian Americans when CAAMFest was founded, in terms of representation in the media arts?

GONG: One of the things that faced all of our filmmakers was that if you wanted to try to work in the entertainment industry and mainstream media they pretty much discounted any sense of there being an Asian-American audience or a market that was worth catering to. If you were an actor your roles were always constrained to being a secondary character, or in fact, being a villain or a victim if the show was set in Chinatown. Your identity was always constrained by your ethnicity in that way. So, indeed, that first flowering was so exciting because it was just about people saying, No, we’re just regular people. We have all kinds of experiences.

You know, one of the things about the Asian-American community is that we’re seen as a model minority in some ways, which is its own kind of terrible constraint. [People think that] all of our mothers are tiger moms and all of the kids do well in math and science and we’re nerds and stuff like that. All stereotypes are somewhat rooted in some kind of reality but the truth is for the Asian immigrant groups education really was the way for upward social mobility. So it’s not a surprise that there was a lot of pressure to get a good education. That’s why our families came here. But it also masked another reality. From the Vietnam Era on, an important part of the Asian-American community are refugees from those conflicts, and their story is very different. For Southeast Asians, they suffer some unique and much more challenging circumstances than immigrant groups do that came over with more of their culture intact and support systems. Part of our work in telling the true documentary stories is to talk about the Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong issues, and that’s very counter to this model minority myth. So that’s part of the authentic stories that we want to tell.

Now that we have the experience of [the television series] Fresh Off the Boat and we have Asian-American actors who are much more seen in mainstream television, I do think we have progressed. And I do think our work in these last 35 years has helped create that in some ways. It is quite clear that we are becoming a country where no single kind of group has the majority, but instead we are a diverse and pluralistic society. And I think that’s going to be healthy and better for the country.

NEA: Who goes to CAAMFest?

GONG: We have over 200 filmmakers and creative people and guests each year at the festival and they come from all over the country and all over the world. As China and India have progressed so rapidly in economic terms that their creative communities are more global in their aspirations and in their perspective, we actually have a lot of creative people from Asia who are creating works more for an international market and that’s something that you just would not have seen when we were created because China was closed as a society to us. A lot of our filmmakers are independent filmmakers in the Asian-American context so that’s another strain. And then in terms of who comes, the San Francisco Bay Area has one of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the country so our audience is about 60 percent Asian American. But also 40 percent non-Asian American, which would suggest that we try to reach out to people who are interested in viewing excellent films that may introduce them to new cultures and to these authentic depictions of different ideas and expressions. And that’s not the province of any one group. So as our mission statement says, our creative community wants to make film for everyone and not just for our own communities.

NEA: What do you want the filmmakers and audience members who participate to take away from the festival?

GONG: I think the biggest myth that we want to work against is that there’s a necessity for a melting pot where one leaves behind those unique attributes of your own ethnicities and cultures. Instead, there’s just this wonderful profusion of people being able to express who they are. All of us sharing and appreciating that in one another, that’s really the strength of America. Above all it is the fact that difference can be celebrated and that’s what makes us strong, that we’re a country that celebrates that. The arts are that unique way to allow us to see these what’s universal in that sense that we each are individuals with our own rich stories.

NEA: Looking at the landscape of the media arts in the context of Asian-American stories, what do you think is missing? What types of films are you still waiting to see?

GONG: I think our contemporary society and our country is still struggling with what diversity means and what difference means. One thing I fear is that we oftentimes think of identity as these fixed images…even though what’s interesting about the Asian-American community is just how incredibly diverse it is because it really encompasses not just different nationalities and ethnicities but completely different languages, completely different histories. And even as I’m Chinese American, that is only one of the identities that I hold. So the stories that I think we’re looking for are ones of multiple identities and how we move, how we function, how we relate to one another. Also in terms of gender and sexuality we have a reckoning to come, and I look forward to more expressions by Asian-American creative people about those experiences as being also part of the Asian-American experience, telling your story as being queer or transgendered and being rural and being conservative even.

NEA: Can you talk about the importance of the NEA’s funding to CAAM’s projects?

GONG: You know it cannot be understated. Certainly the money is really important. Money can translate into creative people’s time, and so we need that to do these projects or to pay the cost of digitizing or to pay for a theater rental. So the support from NEA is vital for that. Secondly, the imprimatur of the NEA is vital and important. The whole idea that peer panels are still the key to being recommended for support is so important. And we hold that as one of the primary ways that we can test and know that we’re doing good work. The audience, of course, is one way, but the NEA process, that’s your peers. It’s your people who care the most about the creative community and the art form. And when they say you’re doing excellent work that really means a tremendous amount. Third, I think the whole notion that the NEA represents all of the American people and that’s part of the imprimatur just cannot be overstated. It’s sad that we’re still in such a politically divided time. I think one of the things that is so damaging in our society is the way that we build barriers against one another and feel that other people’s experiences now threaten ours. And the arts are a unique way to move people beyond their barriers. Public policy cannot do that effectively without there being a kind of cultural pathway first, and the arts have always provided that deeper pathway. The NEA support means that all of us, the American people, believe that’s important. So having a robust NEA is vital to our progress as a culture.

NEA: Fill in the blank: The arts matter because…

GONG: The arts matter because they are the singularly most important way we express our humanity. 

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