35th annual CAAM Fest kicks off, holds gala at Asian Art Museum

Bright lights, comedic stars, and a red carpet set the scene at San Francisco's Castro Theater for the kickoff of the 35th CAAM Fest film festival Thursday night. The evening started with a film premiere followed by a gala celebration later at the Asian Art Museum.

The CAAM director and many filmmakers said this year's festival seems more significant than ever, with many of the topics addressing issues of immigration, discrimination, and executive orders that resonate in the current political and cultural climate.

"Part of the story we want to tell is just how diverse the Asian American community is, many different languages, many different cultures," said Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media.

Ticketholders waited in a long line of that stretched down the block and around the corner. Many took photos as the director and cast of the opening film "The Tiger Hunter" arrived and walked the red carpet. The feature film is a comedy about a Muslim Indian American immigrant trying to find success and love in the United States.

Actor Jon Heder, known for his role in "Napoleon Dynamite", plays Alex, one of the main characters in "The Tiger Hunter".

"So many people in the cast come from different religions, different cultures, come from different places," Heder told KTVU, "I think it's really good timing because it is so newsworthy and what's happening."

Comedian and actor Danny Pudi has the lead role of immigrant "Sami Malik". He says he was attracted to the film because it was very different from others he's played on TV in "Community" and the reboot of the DuckTales series. Pudi says when he read the script for "The Tiger Hunter" it touched him.

"So much of this story connected to me personally. My dad immigrated from India to Chicago in the 1970's. My mom also immigrated to Chicago from Poland," Pudi said.

Director Lena Khan says the goal of her first feature film was to portray the real dilemmas immigrants can face.

"A lot of the stories that people love most of the film, like the 13 dudes sleeping in the bed together, came from stories of immigrants," said Khan.

With news of last month's attack on an Indian American man in Kansas, the film has ended up with new resonance in the midst of the current political climate.

"People are so much more engaged in terms of just trying to understand what it's like to be an immigrant here. And they're like, when we think of immigrants, we don't think of this sort of funny characters," Khan said, "And so really people are using it to try and shape their perceptions across the aisle, across the political aisle."

The film uses humor to humanize the characters' plight. That appeal to people's humanity is the aim of many of the films, from features to long and short form documentaries. The films include topics on the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Executive Order 9066 that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II.

CAAM director Stephen Gong says he hopes  this year's festival will help people come to a greater understanding of humanity through art.

"These types of stories have renewed relevance and it's deeply important that we remember these histories so as not to repeat them again," Gong said.

A gala celebration was held Thursday night at the Asian Art Museum.

The CAAM FEST runs through March 19th. They are featuring more than 120 films this year at venues in San Francisco and Oakland.

For films, showtimes and more details go to: caamedia.org