By JEN RETTER ’16
From Nov. 13-23, the sixth annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) will continue its tradition of bringing together filmmakers, film enthusiasts, and sponsors to celebrate prominent Asian American cinema.
Robert Buscher, an adjunct professor at Arcadia and an expert on Asian American film, serves as programming director for the event. Amidst his preparations for PAAFF, Buscher took the time to provide the Arcadia community with a closer look at the festival.
Q: What’s your connection to Arcadia?
Robert Buscher: I am an adjunct professor who teaches “US259: Japanese Cinema & Anime,” a course that examines the history of modern Japan as seen through film. The curriculum, which I developed myself, spans some 150 years from the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868) to current day, and focuses on cultural and social movements as they are represented in motion pictures. This is my third semester teaching with Arcadia, and I hope to help expand Arcadia’s program to include further Asian and Asian American visual culture courses in the future.
Q: What was your role in the organization of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival?
RB: My title is programming director, which in a nutshell means that I am responsible for selecting the films that will be shown in our festival. This year we received nearly 200 submissions, from which we have selected only 13 features and 26 shorts. Since we are a very small, volunteer-based organization, we all share a number of organizational duties such as guest relations, print shipping and logistics, marketing, and design (among others).
Q: How would you describe the film festival to those who have never attended?
RB: Our festival differs from many other Asian film festivals in the sense that our focus is specifically on films made by or about the Asian American community. The goal of our festival is to give widespread exposure to filmmakers who would otherwise not be seen in mainstream cinema. As a community that accounts for over 18 million (and growing) Americans, Asian Americans receive alarmingly little representation in mainstream film and television. Oftentimes the Asian faces we do see in mainstream media are merely character archetypes that reinforce negative cultural stereotypes. [PAAFF] programs films that challenge the notion of typecasting, exhibiting Asian Americans in a wide range of genres with roles ranging from first generation immigrants to fourth generation Americans who don’t even speak their great grandparents’ languages. We are fortunate to have HBO as our presenting sponsor and Comcast NBC10 as our premier sponsor, which has allowed many of our previous festival alumni to secure distribution deals that they may not have otherwise been able to.
Q: What does the festival have to offer to students?
RB: First, I will mention that [PAAFF] offers the least expensive student tickets out of any film festival based in Philadelphia at $6. For that same price, our opening night (Thursday, Nov. 14), closing night (Sunday, Nov. 17), and festival finale (Nov. 23) screenings all include a fully catered reception after the film.
Something else we do that is unheard of in Philadelphia is all four of our shorts’ programs are absolutely free. Having watched every film in the festival, I can honestly say that the best and most innovative work in the entire program are the shorts, so I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of this opportunity.
Finally, I would like to mention the panel discussion on Saturday, Nov. 16, titled, “Mainstreaming Diversity in Film & TV,” which is free and open to the public. This panel features several of the directors from films being shown at our festival, along with Kelly Edwards, vice president of talent development, HBO, and Richard Lui, MSNBC newscaster, as moderator. We also offer tons of great raffle prizes at each of our screenings, which all attendees are eligible for with the price of admission.
Q: For those who are interested in film or event-planning: What is it like to program a film festival?
RB: In two words: extremely tiring. Joking aside, film curation is one of the most rewarding types of event planning that I have worked in. There is nothing quite like seeing a packed house at a screening that the filmmaker is present for. It is also an extremely time-consuming process that unfortunately does not pay very well, so most people—myself included—will do film programming as a freelance or part-time gig while working another main job. Aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot by programming though, since you are constantly being exposed to new and different types of film techniques, especially at a submissions-based festival such as ours.
Q: Does PAAFF offer any opportunities for aspiring filmmakers?
RB: Although we don’t have the means to provide grant funding or similar opportunities to aspiring filmmakers, we do work very closely with many organizations who do. Being a volunteer-based organization, we rely on our volunteer support staff to host our festival. Many of our volunteers have gone on to work in the industry based on the connections they made while volunteering at our festival. While there are no guarantees, it certainly can’t hurt your chances. Ultimately, it is true of all industries, but particularly entertainment: It all comes down to who you know. The best way to get to know people in this business is to go out and meet people, and I cannot think of a better opportunity to do so than at a film festival.
From Nov. 13-17, the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival will be held at the Ibrahim Theater at the International House. From Nov. 22-23, the “Festival Finale Weekend” (free documentaries and short films) will be located at the Asian Arts Initiative.