Keep your eyes on Philly: An interview with Selena Yip, Festival Director of the 2020 Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival
Selena Yip is the Festival Director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF), a “showcase event of Philadelphia Asian American Film and Filmmakers, a non-profit organization founded in 2008 dedicated to supporting and highlighting the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through creative community-focused programs.” Currently the third-largest film festival of its kind in the United States, the organization is volunteer run and features additional programming including “live performances, chef demonstrations, lectures, and educational workshops during the festival and throughout the year.”
On a train ride from New York to Philadelphia, Selena Yip (she/they) graciously made some time to talk with me hot off the heels of November’s 2020 Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) about her reflections as Festival Director, the state of affairs in Philly, and what exciting things we can expect from their team moving forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From the Intercom: What’s the pulse on Philly in this moment in time?
Yip: There’s a lot happening. What I’m tapped into is a lot of people working within immigration. People in my neighborhood are working on a micro level to improve themselves. I think the election year brought out a lot in Philadelphia in good ways and bad ways. It’s opened up our eyes to what needs to get done in our city. My very close friend got tear gassed on the highway back in May and is now looking into his legal options in terms of how we can hold our government accountable for the ways in which they’ve endangered people in the city. I think this whole year from January until now has been a catalyst for us. If you weren’t already a changemaker or a worker, you have started. Everyone sees it very clearly now I think.
From the Intercom: When we first met, you weren’t the Festival Director, but now you are. Inquiring minds want to know how that happened.
Yip: It had been in the works when we had met actually. So I knew that I was moving into that direction back in January or February of 2019. The previous Festival Director, Rob Buscher and I had that conversation sometime in March of last year. I spent the majority of 2019 preparing for that. Our festival is a developing festival so the staff is donating their time and skills, which is very admirable. It’s difficult to find people who are dedicated enough and want to be held accountable to running a festival.
I think I’ve moved up really quickly. Within 3 years I became festival director, and it was a combination of Rob seeing that I could grow in this role and myself having a vision of how the team should be internally. Externally in 2020, I think a lot is in flux, but I have an idea of how folks would interact and create community with each other. I think that was really important when he asked me if I wanted to be Festival Director last year.
From the Intercom: Even with several watershed moments for Asian America in the past couple years, there’s plenty of work to do. From your perspective, where are we making strides, where are we stagnant, and what should we be paying attention to?
Yip: It’s really layered. I want to preface this answer by saying that everyone is at a different point in their journey and this answer is not meant to shame people who are at the beginnings of understanding Asian American media and history–because if you would have talked to me three or four years ago, I would have said, “What Asian American history is there other than The Chinese Exclusion Act?” I think this year with the release of Asian Americans (the documentary series), that will really help people to start to understand our histories better and hopefully do their own research and digging after they have this base understanding.
I think with Asian Americans, it’s such a vast definition. The pan-Asian identity is so diverse. Asia as a continent is so huge. I think that stuff like Crazy Rich Asians and Joy Luck Club— which I’m happy that we have– definitely don’t hit on the diversity that is the Asian diaspora. Even then, when we think of Asian American we don’t think of all the diaspora that goes into what that means as well. I recently learned from an Eddie Huang TV show that there are a lot of Chinese Jamaicans. I would love to learn more about that community. We’re not really understanding how different, but similar, we all are. I think we all share that Asian American label, but underneath all of that there is so much rich culture, history, tradition that I would love to see that come out in art, media, and theater.
From the Intercom: It’s almost like the instant we arrive at the monolith of Asian America, it starts to become less and less useful at opening up the nuances of our communities.
Yip: It’s easy to unite people under one flag, but then we ignore how different all our struggles and stories are. The Asian American label is used to unify us in terms of specific rights, but I think in this day and age, you’re right. If we accept the monolith, we will inevitably leave behind a lot of people. The East Asian narrative is very prominent and it can become pretty problematic especially as East Asians tend to have more privilege in a lot of ways. It’s hard. How can we ask others who don’t identify as Asian American to understand we are not a monolith even if we accept that? Trying to find a balance of calling in our community about the lack of diversity while still trying to uplift is difficult.
Back in May, there were a lot of criticisms of Asian owned businesses in Black neighborhoods. There was a lot of ignoring why that happened and for a long time that was the only place they could have opened up business. With redlining, there were a lot of people who weren’t going to rent to people of color, period. That’s why we have Chinatowns and Japantowns. Moving forward and allowing our history to exist is hard for people. There’s a lack of empathy sometimes trying to get Asian Americans to be woke in some way. I’ve experienced this with my family. I’ve sort of stopped trying to push certain narratives upon them and try to understand where they’re coming from and break down their understanding. I ask why they understand it this way instead of attacking.
From the Intercom: What were the lessons of conducting a virtual festival? What is sustainable and what is not?
Yip: Because this is my first year as Festival Director, it feels like I’m only learning lessons. Everything was going to be new regardless, but everything is newer and with less guidance because we’ve moved to this online world. At the beginning of the year, I took the lead from festivals from the West Coast that had their festivals back in May like CAAMFest and Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and see how we could build upon that.
One thing I really appreciated about this festival was that it really created a camaraderie across the United States that really didn’t exist in the same depth as this year. We always talk about programming, but this year we had Zoom calls about platforms and how to engage viewers and gather audience votes. We were really collaborative in a way that I hope is sustainable because it was really enjoyable. Looking at our numbers this year, they were about the same as an in-person festival. But the difference was the access.
People for the most part really enjoyed Opening and Closing Night live screenings where you had to log in at a certain point. Everything else you could rent out whenever you had time to watch. The people who bought passes and wanted to participate in the festival had much more opportunity to do so this year because they didn’t have to schedule or commute to a physical space. My parents engaged more this year because even though they were stuck at home they could watch whenever they wanted. I was curious and looked in the back end at what they were watching, and they were watching one or two movies a day. Instead of watching a TV show, they would watch our programming instead which is really awesome.
We think a lot about access. Our ticket prices are really low. We comp a lot of tickets to our communities because we really want people to access the films we’re curating. I don’t know for sure that we’re going to continue our online format moving forward, but I know that it has definitely made an impact on the access to our festival. The online component helped eliminate the issues that people had with traveling and childcare and similar things. The numbers are the same, but the people are different this time around.
From the Intercom: Can you speak to PAAF’s plans and operations year round?
Yip: I think our programming team has a lot of ideas. A lot of things come up that we want to do again or differently in the online space. Panels where we’re talking about really exciting information are the types of things we want to continue in 2021. The “Deconstructing Documentary Filmmaking” panel discussed documentaries as a decolonizing construct. We want to continue conversations past the hour we had. We want to have more films monthly, including shorts programs.
From the Intercom: Philly cheesesteak? Overrated or underrated? What’s the Asian American equivalent we need to try?
Yip: Well I would say it’s always good to try one once, always with Cheese Whiz. The Asian American equivalent in Philly right now is bánh mì. Philly is home to a lot of Vietnamese folks. The community is extremely vibrant and they make bomb bánh mì.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort on December 4th, 2020 via Zoom call.
The 2020 Philadelphia Asian Film Festival was held from November 5th to 15th, 2020. You can find their extensive Festival Livestream Recordings here and more about their festival on their official website here. Click here for a virtual brochure from the 2020 festival.