There’s an excitement about it. Pulling up to the movie theater parking lot, seeing the round yellow lights flashing around film titles. Employees in red button-up suits hand out tickets at the booths to eager families, couples and friends giggling with anxious enthusiasm. Through glass doors, sidewalk meets red and blue diamond carpet in a building filled with the smell of butter, salt and sweets. Walls are lined with movie posters old, new and those still yet to come. For some, it’s their own Narnia, an escape from the real world. For others, the theater is a place to learn more about the world both real and imaginary. But for many, this is home.
The Asian Film Festival is one of the leading cinema showcases in North America. This year, being rooted in San Diego, the festival has its seventh annual spring show case at the UltraStar Theater in Mission Valley.
Underneath a double-decker outdoor strip mall, the movie theater was decked out with a red carpets and festival canopy underneath the flashing film-title framing yellow lights outside by the ticket booth. Inside, information and press tables sat awaiting check-ins with attendees who flooded the floor. Posters of the festival screenings such as The Right To Protest, Sunday Beauty Queen and others panned the left side wall near the popcorn, soda and snack counter.
In the back, purple café tables and chairs housed lunching filmophiles and interviews between press and film directors. All of this resting on the same red and blue diamond carpets all theaters consider a necessity.
“I grew up in a place where there weren’t many movie houses,” said director Baby Ruth Villarama. “I had a small little television in the house and that was my window to the world.”
Villarama is a film director from the Philippines. Her documentary Sunday Beauty Queen tells the stories of Filipino domestic workers living in Hong Kong. While they work 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, every Sunday, these women host a beauty pageant on their one day of freedom to celebrate Independence Day for the Philippines. Last week at the film festival, the documentary had its first ever premiere in North America.
“My mom was once a domestic helper and I also grew up with nannies by my side,” said Villarama. “But they are voiceless in the grand scheme of things. To me, it’s a discovery of a real-life Cinderellas.”
Cinema is the window to the world, according to Villarama. She said that it’s like looking into a family album where 50 years from now, people will be able to look back and see what life was like. To Villarama, cinema guides us to what we can do for the future.
“Life imitates art and art imitates life,” said Villarama. “Cinema is the perfect way to show someone that there’s more out there than what you’re living. Film is a powerful medium that gives someone a special way to experience life.”
“News is fleeting, but with movies and documentaries you get to give more time to research and put more emotion into it,” said Villarama. “You can help people empathize more. If they can take away some lessons and the film gives them inspiration, then it’s all worth it.”
This year, the film festival hosted 20 films from ten different countries. Genres consisted of anything from comedy to cartoon and drama to documentary. Konrad Aderer is one of the documentary filmmakers, similar to Villarama, but Adrere’s latest films center on the past. While he is known for one of his first documentaries, Enemy Alien, a post 9/11 documentary, Aderer’s newest film, Resistance at Tule Lake recounts the resistance group at Tule Lake, one of the United States war incarceration camps for Japanese Americans following World War II. Aderer’s own grandparents had been living in the camps when Aderer’s mother was born.
“As I was making the film I began to ask myself questions like, ‘Would I have resisted? Or would I have just gone along with everything?” said Aderer. “I really don’t know—I used to think I would have but I have kids now. Things change.”
Cinema, according to Aderer, draws from a source that no textbook can: human emotion. It might be the overwhelming power of the 50-foot-wide screen infront of you, glowing brighter as the lights dim, but Aderer has another theory why people are so drawn to the theaters.
“Almost all films, documentary or not, are based around a dramatic structure,” said Aderer. “That’s how we are drawn into a topic. There has to be something you like about these characters and they have to have a challenge and see how they overcome that challenge.”
It’s the story that captures us. It’s not the flashing lights or the smell of pop-corn. It’s not the soft and possibly reclining theater chairs. The movie theater is a home for storytellers and story listeners. The sights and smells of a theater mean a story is coming. It means that for two hours, you get to be a part of another life, another culture, another world.
“It captures our imaginations,” said Aderer. “As a filmmaker, I see pictures of places like Tule lake, and it just makes me want to bring it to life. To me, the payoff of understanding the world of someone else, is human emotion.”
Just in the past few months, the US has hosted Sundance Film Festival, the Latino Film Festival and now the Asian Film Festival. People from every nation on earth have a love for storytelling. While film is just one of the many mediums, it has become one of the most popular forms of narration for both fact and fiction. When it comes down to it, stories that may not be true still house truthful lessons. In that sense, all stories ring with emotional facts of life. The theater is, in essence, a school for emotion.
“We’re always discovering things about the past—with film, we can pick history apart in slow motion and really make new connections,” said Aderer.
Villarama added, “When you get to spend time with people who are different from you, you get to understand what they are going though, their culture and their identity. Through film, you can begin to appreciate who they are.”
As the people who had been waiting in line file into the theater, find their seats and watch the screen light up as the lights dim down, conversations silence. All eyes face one direction, towards the window to the world. Each person, man, woman and child, watch as life plays out before their eyes. As viewers root for the hero to triumph over tribulation, something begins to stir inside them.
“Film gives people hope,” said Villarama. “People can walk out of a theater having learned something that gives them hope. Especially in the world today, we don’t want to lose that hope.”