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Screening the Asian-American Experience

Film Festival Celebrates 10 Years

'Bittersweet Roots: The Chinese in California's Heartland' and 'For the Sake of the Children' | Credit: Courtesy

Home entertainment options in the world according to Netflix and its kin have threatened to turn cinema into a hermetic, home-bound experience, diminishing the communal art of public screenings. But the film-loving empire continues to strike back and prevail, even in Santa Barbara. Aside from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s year-round activities and a rich theater landscape (including the Hitchcock Cinema & Public House’s art film-ish bookings), the summer brings free, public Friday-night screenings in the Courthouse’s Sunken Gardens, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures.

And then there are best-kept semi-secrets, such as the Asian-American Film Series, presently celebrating its milestone 10th season, beginning Friday, July 5, at the historic Alhecama Theatre. Presented by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), the series — like the annual Asian-American Neighborhood Festival in the fall — is run by SBTHP’s Asian American History Committee (AAHC). 

Fittingly, AAHC formed in 2007, when the trust acquired Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, which, according to SBTHP Director of Programs Danny Tsai, “was the last Chinese-run business from Santa Barbara’s ‘new’ Chinatown, in 2007. The main goal of the Asian American History Committee is to help organize programs that bring attention to the Nihonmachi [Japantown] and Chinatown that once existed in the Presidio neighborhood. The focus has always remained on educating the public about the Asian-American experience.”

The film series has grown in popularity and ambition over the past decade, and Tsai noted that “we are all very proud of this achievement.” Whereas last year’s program was a blending of documentary and fiction films, this year’s slate focuses strictly on docs, addressing diverse subjects. The doc focus wasn’t intentional, said Tsai, explaining that “every spring, we come up with a list of all types of movies centered around Asian-American issues. Then we begin narrowing the list down based on whether it speaks to our mission in some way and whether it would be appropriate for our audience.”

First in the lineup, on July 5, is Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, which chronicles the first Asian American and woman of color elected to Congress in 1965. On July 12, the scourge of the WWII internment of Japanese Americans is in the spotlight in For the Sake of the Children, with executive producer Marlene Shigekawa and three cast members on hand for a post-screening Q&A and internment camp paintings by Mary Higuchi on display. 

Photo: Courtesy‘Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority’ and ‘Ulam: Main Dish’

On the culinary front, Ulam: Main Dish (July 19) addresses the growing Filipino food scene in America, and the series finale (July 26), Bittersweet Roots: The Chinese in California’s Heartland, reveals the hardships and triumphs of the Chinese immigrant population in the California Delta. Each screening is an event, with dinner available before the films and Q&A/receptions afterward.

Another lure is the venue: The Alhecama is, as Tsai put it, “a hidden treasure here in town that is becoming harder for people to keep secret. Not only is it an elegant venue, but the Santa Barbara City Council had recently designated the Alhecama Theatre as an official city landmark.” Once the home of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, the theater was saved from destruction 1939 by Alice Schott and was Ensemble Theatre Company’s home base for many years; SBTHP has been in charge of the venue since 1982. 

Technical upgrades have occurred, including a new projector, sound system, screen, and curtains, while retaining this theater’s vintage charms. “We think our audience will be very pleased with the audio/video quality and the overall movie-watching experience.”

Tsai agreed that a film series with public screenings achieves a community solidarity and dialogue not possible in the comforts of one’s own home-theater environment. “Watching movies at home has become so accessible and affordable that it has become routine,” he said. “As a result, I think movie festivals offer something special to look forward to.”


4•1•1 | Asian American Film Series screenings are on Fridays in July at 7 p.m., with boxed dinners available at 6 p.m. See sbthp.org/aafs.

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