By Brian Hu
Film festivals are as much about places as they are about films. Places depicted onscreen, but also the sidewalks that take you to the theaters, the storefronts that invigorate the city block, the neighborhood parks, the trolleys, the rain-soaked pavement and the footprints made by kids, seniors, dogs, and filmgoers alike. As festival veterans know, you can’t schedule films back-to-back without considering how long it takes to get from one screening to another. There’s a commute by foot, subway, or taxi. There are old friends to run into, culinary distractions, buses that one inevitably misses. Places are what make a festival a festival. Films, when programmed meaningfully, make places more interesting. The reverse is true as well.
At CAAMFest, I typically don’t stray beyond the two Japantown venues, the Sundance Kabuki and the New People. The historic Castro Theatre is a drive away and the Pacific Film Archive Theater in Berkeley is in a whole other area code. There’s a lot of commotion in Japantown – people-watching, ramen-eating – especially back when the festival would program a weekend of live music and outdoor events in its public square. And for the film junkie, there are simply too many auditoriums there, making the area essential for maximizing daily screenings.
But this year, the films I most wanted to see were at the PFA in Berkeley. That’s a 1.5 hour metro ride each way. Nevertheless, I decided to endure the combination of long walks and rapid transit transfers. The PFA is my old stomping grounds, the museum’s auditorium where I saw my first films by Charles Burnett, Alain Resnais, and Wong Kar-wai. As a college student, I used to intern at its library to get free tickets. Not going to lie: it was also the lure of nostalgia, that sepia glaze over places from one’s cinematic coming-of-age.
In fact, I did the commute twice this year. On consecutive afternoons, I strolled Telegraph, Shattuck, and Bancroft. Once was with Susan Chinsen of the Boston Asian American Film Festival. We scarfed down a Top Dog before a screening. The second afternoon was for myself. A lot had changed since I last called the area my home ten years ago. Blondie’s and Fat Slice were still there, but there was construction at my old Daily Californian office tower and new restaurants and teashops found homes around the Berkeley campus, especially on the quickly gentrifying downtown. Many of the new spots featured Chinese-language signs. The city’s ethnic presence was no longer limited to the old “Asian Ghetto”.
I’m not going to lament the end of an era or sigh over the good old days, which in Berkeley is inevitably some complaint over the apoliticization of the student body as it becomes more Asian. The home of the Free Speech Movement has always been a contested site with the Asian body a center of dissent, from the anti-Vietnam movement, to Third World politics, to the historic establishment of Asian American Studies. The times they are a-changin’ but those changes are tracked differently, narrated along different historical trajectories, depending on who you asked and where you looked. Walking along the Berkeley streets, seeing the students and the boba shops, I saw how those changes could be inscribed in the places themselves, and not just in the official campus histories or in the fading memories of residents and alumni.
This became evident to me on my long walk back to the BART station after my Saturday afternoon screening of Rea Tajiri’s latest documentary Lordville. The experimental video is inspired by the house Tajiri recently bought in the town of Lordville, by the Delaware River along the New York and Pennsylvania border. After moving there, Tajiri, one of the legends of Asian American cinema, started to catch wind of a town haunted by Native Americans evicted, land passed as a nation grew, and marriages, memories, and floods that sculpted the terrain and the way it’s been remembered. It’s an experiential tour-de-force, a camera roaming through the forest, water bubbling loudly on a soundtrack. Memories, geological studies, landscapes, and objects of the past are overlapped in a way that probes our curiosity and emphasizes the strangeness that is our relationship to the places on which we live. And it started with a house.
I walked by two of my former apartments before and after the screening. They looked similar but different. One looked older. The other, newer. What etchings were smoothed over by this latest coat of paint? I can barely remember the hue of the old shell.
I peeked around the new upscale apartment buildings around downtown, former homes to the Shotgun Players and the Fine Arts Theatre, opened by none other than Pauline Kael, and later passed on to porn auteurs the Mitchell Brothers, and then Bombay Cinemas, which specialized in Bollywood films. The Fine Arts was unceremoniously demolished after a brief stint while owned by developers who attempted to transform it into a retail/apartment/restaurant complex while collecting tax breaks for arts programming that it didn’t care to directly invest in. Well, some of that is probably hearsay. At least it’s what we whispered to each other in those waning days of the Fine Arts around 2002.
On the BART back to the CAAMFest home base in San Francisco, I overheard a conversation between two old friends who just fortuitously ran into each other that afternoon. They chatted about how high housing costs had become, not just in San Francisco, but also in Berkeley and Oakland. The rising rents alienated them from the neighborhoods in which they used to live and in which they presumably became friends. They’ll have different memories of the East Bay than those who live in their same apartments now. The sea of whispered memories and regrets across eras will reverberate into a cacophony of overlapping hauntings, not unlike the rumbling river in Lordville.
Emerging out the BART station and into San Francisco’s Civic Center, I heard a different world. Its own echoing ghosts, I’m sure. Leaving Berkeley, I left behind a land- and sound-scape unique to a place, and uniquely filtered through my own memories of it and my own viewing of Rea Tajiri’s film. And then I stepped back into the CAAMFest beast. Filmmakers and noodles abounded — and beckoned. The sun had set and the festival party was just beginning.