Photo with a vintage-looking aesthetic depicting Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker driving their car and looking thoughtful.

Seattle Asian American Film Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary

by Amanda Ong

This year, Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) celebrates its 10th anniversary with virtual features as well as select in-person screenings at the Stonehouse Café and Northwest Film Forum. As their second year online, SAAFF will feature over 100 short- and feature-length films, documentaries, animated films, drive-through, and in-person movie screenings. The festival is running March 3–13.

“This year is our 10th year, and it’s really awesome that we’ve made it this far,” said SAAFF codirector Ellison Shieh in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “We’ve been growing so much with our community, and we feel really lucky to be able to bring these films to people in the greater Seattle area.”

SAAFF is an entirely volunteer-run organization and nonprofit, fueled by the desire and need to support Asian American creatives and to amplify their works within Seattle-area communities. The breadth of programming reflects how far the festival has come since its start 10 years ago.

“When the festival was first rebooted in 2013 … they didn’t even know if people would show up to the screenings, they didn’t know whether or not the local community had interest in seeing Asian American indie films,” Shieh said. “But they ended up doing really well, and since then, it’s just grown exponentially every year.”

This year’s SAAFF includes experimental films, documentaries, and heartwarming, animated films. Some festival standouts include SAAFF’s centerpiece narrative film, See You Then, which explores a night of reconnection between a transgender commuter programmer and an Asian American performance artist. The festival’s closing night features Free Chol Soo Lee, a documentary recently screened at Sundance Film Festival about a Korean immigrant who was wrongfully imprisoned for a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Shieh has said that Chol Soo Lee’s story reflects Asian American experiences of racism and injustice that are lesser known, or simply unknown. 

“Film festivals are also a great platform for learning from people’s different lived experiences and just seeing other perspectives,” Shieh said who is inspired to bring narratives to the screen that challenge stereotypes. “Everybody has a different experience of the commonly discussed kind of ‘proper foreigner’ sort of feelings that we all have when living [in the United States].” For Shieh, SAAFF is especially important for giving a platform to counter-storytell, particularly when it comes to preconceived notions of Asian American identity. 

One of SAAFF’s featured short programs, “Reflections: Refugee Stories and Legacies,” focuses on refugee stories. “We need to continue uplifting stories and legacies from these communities,” Shieh said. “And they are often not as well known as, you know, the typical Asian American stories of immigration.” As an example, Shieh referenced the more commonly represented Asian American experience of immigration from East Asia for educational or professional opportunities. 

Another documentary feature highlighted this year is Manzanar Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust. The movie coincides with the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 — which authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The documentary discusses Indigenous relationships to Manzanar, where 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned from March 1942 to November 1945, as well as Indigenous and Japanese American women organizing to defend the land and water of the region. 

“Being able to share these films, to curate them, to tell these stories, and to support filmmakers, on their paths … to connect to people through shared stories and histories, and show people that we’re not able to be fit into neat tidy little boxes [is important],” Shieh said. 

One short film that cannot be fit into neat, tidy little boxes, is Malihini. The film was created by filmmaker Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker, a Seattle University senior and film studies major raised on Beacon Hill.

The film was made as their very first college film assignment. “We had to make a short film about who we are and how we exist in relation to different social movements,” Auwae-Dekker said in an interview with the Emerald. “And every time I tried to think of something, I could only think of the fact that I’m Hawaiʻian, and that I love my mother.”

The resulting film, Malihini, features a heartfelt conversation between Auwae-Dekker and their mother about Hawaiʻian identity and mainland United States identity, overlaid on footage of Auwae-Dekker’s drive from their home in Capitol Hill to their mother in Burien. 

Photo with vintage-looking aesthetic depicting Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker hugging their mother.
Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker is a Seattle University film student who was raised on Beacon Hill. “Malihini” is their first film. (Photo: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker)

“[Malihini] came from a whole hour-long conversation I had with my mom,” Auwae-Dekker said. “And in that conversation, I remember admitting to my mom that I was a child of white supremacy, that I would not exist without white supremacy … Being a filmmaker has become this new avenue for me that I needed to be like, ‘I’m not a child of white supremacy. And I exist because my ancestors fell in love with people who look like me. I exist because of love and resilience.’”

Auwae-Dekker describes the film as being about what it means to be and exist as Hawaiʻian on the mainland, and if they are “American.” “Hawaiʻi is an illegally occupied territory; we had been illegally overthrown all those years ago in 1883,” Auwae-Dekker said. “We live in this sort of liminal space of being Hawaiʻian and being disenfranchised, being Indigenous 5,000 miles away, and yet we are American, our islands are owned by the American government … Being Hawaiʻian means that I am a strong believer in sovereignty and land back, and also influences the fact that as a Hawaiʻian, I truly and wholeheartedly believe in loving the land.”

Hawaiʻi further hosts complicated relationships to not just American identity, but Asian identity, as many people immigrated from Asia to Hawaiʻi as indentured servants of white settlers generations ago. Their cultures and identities have presently intermixed with Native Hawaiʻian culture, yet, tensions still remain as Asian Americans have adopted settler colonial attitudes. “My great grandfather immigrated from the Philippines, and that’s a very important part of my family’s history,” Auwae-Dekker said. “And also, there’s a dramatic history of, unfortunately, a lot of Asian Americans in Hawaiʻi going from being oppressed to being settlers and engaging in settler colonialism in ways that are very harmful.”

This comes at a time when SAAFF recently released an apology statement and an explanation of why they will no longer be using the term “AAPI,” or “Asian American Pacific Islander.” The term has been used frequently mostly to refer to the Asian American community. However, it has been brought to light that “AAPI” conflates Asian Americans with Native Hawaiʻians and Pacific Islanders (AA & NH/PI) when Native Hawaiʻians and Pacific Islanders have unique identities and face different issues than Asian Americans. 

Auwae-Dekker acknowledged that multiple film festivals they applied to were marketed as for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but were almost entirely East Asian-led and featured. However, Auwae-Dekker also expressed that SAAFF was the first place they saw that genuinely told Hawaiʻian stories on screen. While Native Hawaiʻian and Asian American identities are distinct, it still is deeply meaningful for Auwae-Dekker to see Malihini at SAAFF.

And while the pandemic has caused the festival to run mostly virtually, it also has allowed SAAF to reach a much wider audience. “It’s been really beautiful to see and experience firsthand,” Shieh said. “The connections that we have with the filmmakers that we have this year and our audiences are uplifting … film festivals like ours, and so many other Asian American film festivals around the country, really are a great connection between audiences and the filmmakers, and help give them more space to share their voices.”

To buy tickets and passes to SAAFF, as well as view their film catalog and schedule, visit the SAAFF 2022 website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: A still from the movie “Malihini” from Seattle director Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. “Malihini” centers a conversation between Auwae-Dekker and their mother about Hawaiʻian identity and mainland United States identity. (Photo: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!