From Turkey to Taiwan, from Pakistan to Portland, the Austin Asian American Film Festival has always brought the best of cinema from across the Asian diaspora to Austin screens. So it's no surprise that, even with a global pandemic closing theatres, the organizers are continuing in their mission with a special streaming package they call the AAAFF Online Shorts Festival.
It's not quite what they planned: When the coronavirus pandemic lead to the cancellation of SXSW, the team started discussing options for their own four-day event, originally scheduled to take place this weekend at AFS Cinema. Executive Director Hanna Huang explained, "We thought we would be OK, but when it became pretty obvious we had to make a decision we started to make plan B, C, and D."
What they settled on means two chances to catch the diversity of Asian cinema. First comes this weekend's plethora of shorts, while they're planning to return in person in November with a slate of features. This way, Huang said, "People don't forget about us, and the filmmakers that submitted are still taken care of."
The initial thought was just to reschedule but that was harder than it sounds. "It had to do with availability," Programming Director Jenny Nulf explained: more specifically, when AFS Cinema would reopen. After discussions, they tentatively picked November, but that date wasn't pulled out of thin air. From its sophomore outing back in 2005, through to its 10th iteration in 2017, AAAFF took place in November. However, the fest skipped 2018 – in part to allow time to reorganize but also to allow it to reschedule for 2019 and restart in June, among the bulk of the Asian American film festivals, and with more eligible titles looking for screenings.
Of course, the change in dates and the shifting landscape of distribution inevitably means that the lineup of features first planned for June will change by the November event. So the first step the team took was offering a full refund to all accepted filmmakers of their submission fees (some have taken them up on the offer, Nulf said, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach). "Because the future is so uncertain," Huang said, "we needed to be able to offer that."
On the more immediate front, Huang said that the shorts directors who originally submitted have been very supportive of the shift, with only a handful of withdrawals and a few asking some technical questions about anti-piracy measures. The shorts-only format has actually allowed the festival to add more titles than they would normally screen in-person. Many of these will be fresh to audiences, and even in the case of a film that is programmed elsewhere (for example, "Unspoken," Patrick G. Lee's documentary about queer and trans youth across Asia, which plays this weekend as part Houston's HAAPIFEST) it will be new to AAAFF's audience.
Huang and Nulf agreed that what's important is letting their community – both viewers and filmmakers – know that the festival is still there for them, and they are still curating that distinctive AAAFF experience. The shorts aren't simply playlisted all higgledy-piggledy, but broken into blocks, including a particular celebration of Texas filmmakers and another dedicated to Fathers' Day. Plus, by letting viewers rent the packages via VOD and watch them whenever they want across the festival dates, Huang said, "We're giving a lot of freedom to the audiences, and giving the filmmakers the exposure they need."
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