Asian American Film Festival in Chicago

Greetings from Chicago

Tim Hugh, one man bandleader of the Chicago Asian American Film Festival

This is Tim Hugh and his dog Helga in his kitchen in Chicago. Tim has run the only Asian American Indie Film Fest (i.e. no “imports”) for 12 of the 17 years that it’s been in existence. In this picture, he’s a one man bandleader- running it solo, something I can relate to as a solo musician. I’m in town to promote my film “Daylight Savings” which premiered at SXSW this year, and will be the opening night film this year. Joining me at the screening will be Michael Aki who plays my cousin in the film. I met Mike at this very festival in 2010 when he was showing his films Sunsets that he directed with Eric Nakamura, and his Film Noir tribute “Strangers”

I asked Tim a bunch of questions:

Goh: Why is this festival important?

Tim: It’s one of the only festivals that shows only Asian American films; produced, directed and/or about the Asian American experience. In the midwest more so than the coastal states, you’re constantly asked that stupid question “Where are you from?”… so it’s important to help define what being Asian and American is.

I’m a fourth generation Chinese American. In the midwest, it’s usually under the assumption that you’re just “Asian”… and not “Asian American.” When I see Causasian people I don’t ask them “are you from Poland? are you European?” I just see them for who they are, not what they look like.

Goh: How did you get involved in the festival?

Tim: I was just a fan of the band Seam, and Sooyoung Park, Ben Kim and Billy Shin started the festival in 1995 after they released the Ear of the Dragon CD, which was the first Asian American Rock Compliation. I’d always go and watch everything I could. I’d never seen films like this before; Asian American characters that spoke like me; the actors weren’t forced to speak with a bad accent. I could relate to these images and characters that I was seeing at this festival.

I became obsessed and would watch everything I could, whether it be a feature, documentary, or shorts program. I just wanted to see as much as I could, because I knew I’d never get a chance to see these movies again. Plus, being able to meet the directors and hear them speak about their films was one of the coolest things for me. I remember hanging out with Justin Lin, back when he was just a shorts director.

They noticed me being there year after year, and began to recognize me. Eventually, they would ask me to do little things like hand out program booklets, take tickets, watch the table, and take pictures during the Q&A’s. Basically, I became a volunteer. I remember standing there back in the day giving out Giant Robot magazines!

Goh: So you “inherited the festival?”

Tim: Yeah, pretty much. Billy and Sooyoung both moved away at the same time for jobs, so they asked me if I could help out Ben Kim, the other founder of the festival. Then Ben moved away too, so I was the only left by default. I was basically the last person left standing.

Goh: So you basically are looking for a young version of you to help you out?

Tim: Ha! That would be nice.

Goh: Any final thoughts?

Tim: I think it’s important to provide the audience with these narrative films and documentaries that they’d ordinarily not be able to see, but also to to give the filmmakers and films an outlet and a vehicle for their films to be seen. I think the film festivals are an important resource for students, educators, and community organizations to learn about issues through the films and filmmakers. The images on the screen help to define who we are as Asian Americans, not just “Asians.”

Goh: You’ve been doing this for a long time. How have things changed?

Tim: During the late 90′s there was what we called a “Yellow Power Movement” happening in Chicago. It seemed like young people from the East and West Coasts where all moving here, not only because of bands like Seam, and the Chicago indie rock scene that was happening at the time, but also the spoken word group “I was Born With Two Tongues” was breaking here. This all happened as our festival was growing. It felt like a great time to be Asian American in Chicago. The support system was much better.

Goh: Why is that?

Tim: I think there was more cohesion. Everyone was really proud and supportive of what other people were doing. Eventually, we had even started the Asian American Artists Collective in Chicago, that brought in more people from different disciplines to work together and share ideas.

Goh: You don’t feel that anymore?

Tim: It’s just different. Everything seems to be more fragmented, and segmented. It’s possible I’m just getting older too, but maybe I just don’t see communities supporting each other as much.

Goh: Maybe it’s because facebook scatters people. Destroys the attention span.

Tim: It makes them feel connected without actually have to interact with actual people. Maybe it’s a comment on society- not that it’s a bad thing, people just seem to interact and support each other differently now.

Hell, you’ve been coming to support our festival even before you were involved in movies.

Goh: I was interested in your festival because it had such a strong music background, and I also liked that you do things differently. You’re fighting the good fight.

Tim: Thanks.

If you or someone you love is near Chicago, please come and check it out for yourself! Here’s the lineup for 2012. Don’t forget to check out “Animal Style” an awesome Skateboard-centric shorts program curated by GR’s own Martin Wong.