Reel Festival, Real People

The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, celebrating a lucky 13th year, is in good hands with its heart beating in the right place. Introducing four faces who make things happen “behind the curtain” of the festival …

Tucked away amidst the organized chaos of a cramped office space in Toronto’s fashion district, fourth year Artistic Director, Heather Keung, armed with five devoted full time staff and a pillar of strength numbering over 100 loyal volunteers, is forging ahead with a guiding credo: “Define Yourself” through cultural identity and artistic empowerment.

An accomplished video artist and in constant perpetual motion, Heather believes in one burning thing, “The success of the festival is built on the will of all the people who run it and believe in what we are doing. We need to appreciate our artists while we are here and create a positive experience for them while building lasting relationships with our multiple cultural communities.”

The daunting challenge of how to compete with an extravagance of year-round film festivals in Toronto keeps her dream awake yet ever restless, “Reaching out to an all encompassing audience of Asians and non Asians, queer and straight, students, seniors and younger urban professionals is a tricky business. My worst nightmare is that we fail to get the word out and I’m sitting in an empty theatre.”

Hardly the case! After pre-screening only a few of the nearly 50 homegrown and international film menu offerings, I’m still reeling from laughter, tears and shock waves from a smorgasborg of delicious cinema.

Right off the bat, likable Hong Kong born Raymond Phathanavirangoon, International Programmer for the festival, belts a home run reality check, “People have mistakenly flattered me with how glamorous my job must be. Okay, so I go to Cannes, after long waits in airports, wake up at 8am, have a two hour producer’s breakfast, then watch four films in dark rooms every day for nearly two weeks, never see the sun and I don’t earn much. Is that glamorous?”

He then returns to Toronto to face his greatest fear, “Programming is about my personal taste versus gauging the public taste and it’s so difficult to separate the two. I try to choose the films that are engaging and audience friendly – yet, I can have the greatest programming in the world, but if only ten people show up, it’s a failure.”

High on his list of this year’s festival favourites are:

Agrarian Utopia, a film that sharply confronts globalization and the impact of modern agricultural practices around the world with poetic and mesmerizing grace.

Closing night award-winning powerful film, Breathless, which shockingly explores domestic abuse and violence through a quirky yet touching friendship between Kim, a fourteen-year-old potty-mouthed high school student, and Sang-hoon, a low-rent gangster/debt collector.

Raymond has his own spin on the slow disappearance of art house cinema and a prediction for the future of film, “Choice is a very tricky thing. The more you have, the less you have. Choices divide us. People don’t necessarily try something new and miss that experimentation, that sense of adventure. Things are so readily available nowadays. In the 60s and 70s, people experimented with art house films and that doesn’t happen anymore. Young people don’t appreciate art house or older films, because the MTV generation has taken over. Film in the future will be regulated to spectacles or blockbusters in 3D or IMAX. Dramas will be episodic on television or in downloads and not in feature-length form.”

Progress or regress? Agree or disagree? Stick around for another decade and decide for yourselves …

Former volunteer and present Executive Director, Sonja Sakamoto-Jog, is in command of the festival’s successful execution, its funding strategy and initiatives and the fostering of community relationships and she frankly shares her core belief, “We cannot forget what we’re doing and whom we’re doing it for. It’s all about people. People are inherently very giving and help us create value for our festival on an emotional level.”

To alleviate stress and minimize her daily work pressures, Sonja plays Ultimate Frisbee twice a week and, with a sense of irony, keeps a memo pad and pen beside her bed for a 3am divine revelation.

Sonja is ever grateful for community, corporate and organization goodwill towards the festival and for being an active part of it. She is not grateful for how hard it is to park in downtown Toronto. Ditto!

Last but not least, second year volunteer and student of English and Equity at the University of Toronto, Gina Rim, creates web sites and garners opening night sponsorships with precision and passion.

Gina feels strongly about the controversial issue of whether volunteering should be included as a fixed deduction come income tax time, “If money gets involved, it takes away the meaning and value of volunteering. Some people might volunteer only for that reason and the trust between them and their service organization would be in question. Volunteering teaches you basic manners and reveals the kind of person you are. The feeling of helping people is enough of a beautiful reward and a thank you is all we ask and need.”

Contact: The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
November 11-15, 2009