By: Jacklyn Tran – Ethnic Seattle

February 17, 2016


The history of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival is a long and tumultuous one. It was first founded in 1985 by Kingstreet Media (a production and advocacy group spun-off from the International Examiner newspaper). Around that time Beacon Hill Boys was released, a film set in Seattle’s 1970’s and was considered by some to be the first ever dramatic film about Asian American youth. Beacon Hill Boys, directed by Ken Mochizuki, Bill Blauvelt, and Dean Hayasaka; addressed cultural identity in a way that garnered much recognition for being distinct in its kind, thereby being the perfect anchor for the first SAAFF. For the community, this step was an important one. Asian American representation was nearly nil in the media and anything that did exist spoke to obnoxious stereotypes. The festival went into its second year in 1987 but dropped off before stints ran again from 1994 to 1998, 2003 to 2007, and then into a five year hiatus thereafter.

In 2012, co-founders Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang set to revitalize the festival and did just that in 2013. This weekend, the fourth annual festival is set to run from Friday, February 19 to Sunday, February 21. Located at the Northwest Film Forum in Capitol Hill, SAAFF will showcase works within a variety of genres, ethnicities and experiences by Northwest Asian American filmmakers, as well as others from across the country. The festival continues to share the voice, perspective and history of the fastest growing minority community in King County and beyond.

This year’s opening night will pay homage to a set of films that helped start it all. In the soft opening (Friday, February 19, 4PM) SAAFF takes “A Look Back,” with the 1916, oldest-known Chinese-American movie and one of the first with a female director, Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West followed by Beacon Hill Boys.

Ethnic Seattle sat down with SAAFF Co-Director Martin Tran to discuss more about the history of SAAFF, its importance and why everyone should be attending this year!

saaff group

SAAFF staff at their fundraiser in January at Kona Kitchen. Martin Tran in back with green hat. Photo from SAAFF Facebook page

Ethnic Seattle: How did you first hear about SAAFF?

Martin Tran: A friend of mine told me that the Seattle Asian American Film Festival was being revived after a hiatus. I’ve long had an interest in film, and in supporting the Asian American community in Seattle period. It was a perfect match. So I shot off a blind email and before I knew it I was helping organize the revival of SAAFF.

ES: What was your first experience like?

MT: Wow. It’s hard to describe what my first experience of SAAFF was like. Our team, led by Co-Founders Vanessa Au and Kevin Bang, had never put on a festival before. We were just a group of people who saw a need and worked our hardest to address it. Our first fest was in 2013 and was held at the Wing Luke Museum. At that time we were a much smaller crew so all of us wore multiple hats. On opening night, I was not only working as a projectionist, but a short music video I co-directed with Daniel Strothman was playing right before “A Lot Like You,” our opening night feature. So there was a lot running through my head. Are we going to have tech issues? Will the audience be into my film? Will I hit play at the right time???

But everything went off without a hitch. SAAFF was back! The screening went great, as did the rest of the screenings that weekend. Give or take a few tech issues. :)

ES: In what way did the experience move you?

MT: I grew up on the Eastside, when there was much less diversity than there is now. So pretty much the only Asian Americans I saw around me was my family. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me at school or in my neighborhood. And I definitely didn’t see Asian Americans on TV or the movies. When you don’t see a reflection of your own experience out there in the world except for distorted funhouse reflections, it affects you. And it effects how others see you. In movies we were Long Dong Duk in Sixteen Candles, Short Round in Indiana Jones. We were jokes and servants and sex objects when we were there at all.

So the experience of organizing a festival, showcasing Asian American stories by Asian American artists, to a predominantly Asian American audience at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience? It meant the world.

ES: How long have you been co-director of SAAFF?

MT: I’ve been Co-Director of SAAFF with Vanessa Au since last spring. Kevin Bang, the previous Co-Director followed his dreams to New York, where he works as a consultant on film festivals. We’re crazy proud of him. After he moved away I stepped into the role.

ES: What are you most excited for this year?

MT: The thing I’m most excited for this year is the number of filmmakers who will be attendance; in all we expect close to 40 filmmakers! They’ll be coming from L.A., the bay, N.Y., Vancouver BC and right here in Seattle. Introducing filmmakers to one another, to new audiences, and to our amazing city is why we do what we do. It’s all about building those connections, building this community: as Asian Americans, artists, and activists. […] I feel like we’re reaching a tipping point in Asian American representation in media.

ES: In the world of film, what makes SAAFF uniquely special?

MT: Where else can you go to see Asian American stories being told on a big screen? In this day and age, yes, you can find our stories so much easier than before. But those stories are being watched on YouTube off your phone or Netflix in your living room. They are being consumed in isolation. SAAFF brings the unique, shared experience of seeing a film in theater and sharing films that aren’t being shown anywhere else.

ES: Why should those unfamiliar with SAAFF start attending these events?

MT: There are so many great stories being told, and not all of them are found in multiplexes. SAAFF is the only film festival in Seattle that provides a space for Asian American voices, perspectives and histories. By attending SAAFF, you’re saying that you want to see something different; you want to see something more. It’s a sign of support for these filmmakers and the stories they tell.

ES: How would you describe SAAFF’s place in the community?

MT: SAAFF is rooted in community. We are an all volunteer staff of professionals, students, academics, artists, and activists. We do our best to showcase local filmmakers, and to connect them with each other.

For every film screening, we partner with 1 to 2 community organizations to help us co-present the films. It’s a good chance for SAAFF and these orgs to reach new communities with our work and message.

And we gain so much support from the community. Every year we are supported by local businesses, many of them owned by Asian Americans, like Georgetown Brewing Company, Nue, and Cafe Pettirosso to name just a few. We wouldn’t be here without the support of People of Color run businesses and organizations all over Seattle.

To see the full schedule of this weekend’s SAAFF and to purchase tickets, visit

Martin Tran and Daniel Strothman’s short film, Cinemetropolis, inspired by the music of Blue Scholars and a finalist in the Blue Scholars Short Film competition, made a showing at the newly revived SAAFF in 2013. That year, the SAAFF crew wore many hats to pull off the first annual fest without a hitch! This year marks their fourth annual SAAFF!