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Vancouver Asian Film Festival president champions equity for racialized directors

Andrea Bang and Joe Scarpellino star in Stay the Night
Two characters, Grace (Andrea Bang) and Carter (Joe Scarpellino), seek comfort with one another in director Renuka Jeyaplan's Stay the Night, which was screened at this year's Vancouver Asian Film Festival.

(This article is longer than the norm on media websites.)

Back in 1995, Barbara Lee had an audacious idea. It was inspired by one of North America’s most famous actors of East Asian ancestry.

“A friend of mine took me down to the Seattle International Asian American Film Festival and I went to the opening night,” Lee recalls in an interview with Pancouver while strolling through the side streets of Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. “And there, on the big screen, was CBC’s Runaway, starring Sandra Oh. That was the first time I saw somebody who was Asian Canadian on a big screen in a theatre.”

Lee had already shot a short film. She was eager to submit it to the equivalent festival in Vancouver. Much to her chagrin, she discovered that upon her return to Vancouver, not a single festival in this country focused on films made by Asian Canadians.

“I was young and I thought, ‘Okay, how hard could it be? So, we’ll start one’,” Lee recalls.

She quips that it was “youthful ignorance” that led her to do it. Despite the challenges, she’s persisted and this year, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival is celebrating its 26th year.

For most of its history, VAFF has been led by a volunteer board and volunteer executive team, with Lee remaining as president throughout.

“In the past year during this whole COVID time—when there some more funding available for diverse culture and arts organizations—we got a bit more money, so we were able to hire some contract arts administrators to help out,” Lee acknowledges.

The in-theatre screenings ran from November 3 to 6. Virtual screenings continue until November 13, with tickets available through

Vancouver Asian Film Festival 25th gala
Barbara Lee (centre) and her VAFF team celebrated the 25th anniversary of the festival last year.

The cover of the program guide features a photo of hunky actor and model Kevin Kreider, a Korean American who stars in Bling Empire. He appears alongside the headline “Representation Matters”.

This year’s festival includes Vancouver director Karin Lee’s Incorrigible – A Film About Velma Demerson. It’s a documentary about a Vancouver-born white woman who was jailed in 1939 in Ontario for living with her Chinese partner, whom she wanted to marry.

Among the other films being screened at VAFF are South Korean director Lee Soon-Sung’s My Perfect Roommate, which revolves around an elderly woman sharing a home with a young college student; Vancouver director Kathleen Jayme’s investigation into loss of the Vancouver Grizzlies basketball team to Memphis called The Grizzlie Truth; and American director Crystal Kwok’s Blurring the Color Line, which explores the experiences of her grandmother’s family operating a grocery store in a Black neighbourhood in Augusta, Georgia.

The opening-night film, Stay the Night, was written and directed by Renuka Jeyapalan and stars Burnaby actor Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience).

Advocacy came in response to racism

In the early years, people would ask Lee if the films at VAFF were subtitled. Sometimes, she would reply that the majority of Asian people that she knows in Canada only spoke English—to reinforce that this is a Canadian festival.

Lee then acknowledges that as a woman of Chinese ancestry in Vancouver, it’s been “very wearing” having to deal with racism, even when it’s done in less overt ways.

“I don’t ask white people ‘Are they born here? Where are they from?’ There’s this whole thing that I have to prove that I’m Canadian,” Lee says “I have to prove that I belong here, that I’ve done enough, or lived here long enough. It’s such a double, triple standard.”

These experiences have shaped Lee’s advocacy work with the festival. One of her goals has been to incubate talent in safe spaces.

“We give opportunities,” she says. “We bring in mentors—mentors that look like the emerging filmmakers. And sometimes, when you’re just in that space and you ask certain things—or you talk about certain things—there’s that comfort of knowing that they understand where you’re coming from. They don’t need someone to add to their voice to make it legitimate.”

VAFF created the Mighty Asian Moviemaking Competition to provide real-life experiences on a racialized film set. Participants can feel safe to ask whatever question they like without feeling judged or made to look stupid.

“We’ve really built a bigger community,” Lee says with pride. “We’re getting noticed. Our films are winning awards. Our Mighty Asian Moviemaking winner from 2020 got into TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] in 2021. So, we’re getting there.”

In addition to overseeing the annual film festival and offering upskilling opportunities, Lee has also emerged as a vocal advocate for equal funding for filmmakers of Asian ancestry.

“VAFF envisions a world where North American Asian actors and filmmakers have the resources and opportunities to shape mainstream culture in a powerful and positive way,” the program guide states.

But that’s not easy to do if organizations that fund films in Canada are not taking necessary steps to ensure that Asian directors and producers are receiving their fare share of support.

“Representation is a battle of inches,” Lee declares. “After 26 years, it was only during COVID when our community got attacked that people started waking up to [the existence of] discrimination against Asian Canadians and Asian people. A lot of times—for years—we were dismissed. Our stories were deflected or downplayed.”

To counter this, VAFF spun out its advocacy work into the independent Racial Equity Screen Office in 2021. Its goal was to drive institutional changes to weed out systemic discrimination against racialized filmmakers.

Kevin Kreider in Representation Matters post.
The Vancouver Asian Film Festival features actor Kevin Kreider on the cover of its program.

Knowledge Network came under scrutiny

With Lee on the board, RESO decided to start in its backyard by examining funding practices at the B.C. government-owned Knowledge Network.

“We heard so many horror stories where people who were Indigenous, Black, [and] racialized were not feeling welcome, were dismissed,” Lee says. “So, we said let’s try to get their numbers.”

Lee worked with Vancouver producer and director Nilesh Patel, who’s on the board of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories chapter. He became the executive director of RESO. Lee also wrote a letter to Knowledge, which she says was ignored.

Later, they reached out to the B.C. government, which had already pledged its support for racial equity. More letters were sent and finally, they were granted a meeting.

At first, Lee recalls, the government offered to add one racialized board member to the Knowledge Network board. But RESO felt that this was insufficient and demanded a minimum of three.

“It was a huge amount of effort behind the scenes,” Lee reveals.

In response to the pressure, Knowledge Network commissioned a racial equity audit, which was released in November 2021. It showed that over a seven-year period, 98.3 percent of the pre-licence funding went to production firms owned by nondiverse-majority-owned production companies. Only 1.7 percent went to majority-racialized-owned firms and zero percent went to Indigenous-majority-owned producers.

This explosive revelation led to a flurry of media coverage.

“These numbers implicate Knowledge Network in a system of racial injustice that has hampered the careers of a generation of Indigenous, Black and racialized filmmakers,” Patel said in a RESO news release last year. “Knowledge Network has centred white-led narratives in a brazen dismissal of the Indigenous lands that we occupy and the Indigenous, Black and racialized peoples who live here.

“It is time to centre work owned by Indigenous, Black, and racialized creators, and to invest in the Indigenous, Black, and racialized producers,” Patel added.

On June 17, the Knowledge Network board announced that the longtime president and CEO, Rudy Buttignol, had resigned. The chair throughout this controversy, former NDP MLA Marine Karagianis, also stepped down. She’s been replaced as chair by Satwinder Kaur Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute and a media-studies associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Asian representation in Canadian TV
Nilesh Patel tweeted this image from the Diversity on Screen report.

Demanding racial-equity targets

Looking back, Lee says that it’s essential to create racial-equity targets to achieve greater equity. According to her, failure to do this results in racial equity being collapsed together with inclusion, which doesn’t serve all communities equally.

To support this argument, she points to RESO, VAFF, and’s Diversity on Screen: Audit Report of Canadian Broadcasters 2022, and RESO and VAFF’s National Film Board of Whose Canada: Racial Equity Audit of NFB Productions from 2012-2021.

The report on broadcasters showed that the 3.9 per cent Asian representation and 6.8 per cent Black and people of colour representation in Knowledge’s scripted programs were far lower than the percentages in these categories at Global TV, CTV, Citytv, and CBC. According to the Knowledge Network’s own audit, 25.2 per cent of B.C.’s population is of “Asian”, “South Asian”, “Filipino”, or “Southeast Asian” ancestry.

The highest percentage of Asian representation during the one-week study period from April 11 to 17, 2021, was 8.8 percent at Global TV.

The audit of Canadian broadcasters also raised concerns about stereotypes employed to represent people of Asian descent. These sections came under the following subheadings: “Yellow Peril”, “The Model Minority”, “Hypersexualized Asian Females and the Dragon Lady”, “Undesirable Asian Males”, and “Ingratiating Immigrants with Mocked Accents”.

The best-known example of a character following the “ingratiating immigrant with mocked accents” trope is The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, according to the report.

It also noted that coupling the model-minority trope with the undesirable Asian male trope “subliminally signifies that intellectual power comes at the cost of sexual power for men of colour, reinforcing the hegemony of white supremacy”.

“Some portrayals of Asian men also fall under the perpetual foreigner stereotype,” the report added. “These characters are again desexualized and undesirable on top of being bumbling, stupid, and inherently foreign, and therefore sidelined for being insufficiently Canadian or American.”

Racial statistics in a RESO report on the NFB
A new report shows the racial breakdown of directors funded by the National Film Board.

Racialized population expected to increase

RESO’s most recent report on the National Film Board amplifies an inconsistency that troubles Lee. She points out that the NFB made a commitment to 50 percent gender equity in 2016. It has also laid out targets for Indigenous filmmakers. But the federally funded organization has not articulated a specific target of work that will go to Black and racialized filmmakers.

In five of the 10 years studied, Black directors had only one or no film produced by the NFB, according to the report.

“In both of the reports, it shows that the Asian community is getting less than nine percent of the funding,” Lee says.

Yet the percentage of racialized people in Canada is expected to grow to 38.2 to 43 percent of the Canadian population by 2041, according to Statistics Canada. That would nearly double the proportion of 22.2 percent in 2016.

“What I feel sometimes is they are pitting the Black, racialized, and Indigenous people against each other—and trading off amounts,” Lee says. “And really, the Asian and racialized communities are the ones giving up ground more than the white filmmakers.”

Barbara Lee, president of Vancouver Asian Film Festival
Barbara Lee says that VAFF and RESO want to meet growing international demand for stories about the Asian diaspora.

In 2022-23, the NFB forecasts a budget of $67.38 million, according to the report, and advocated for a budget increase of $5 million. The report praises the NFB for its commitment to hiring more diverse staff, but that doesn’t offset the lack of racial-equity targets for funding Black and racialized content creators.

“Hiring more racialized staff and executives and funding more Black and racialized content creatives are two separate and distinct issues that should not be conflated to confuse the Canadian taxpayers,” it states.

Lee says that in the past, she’s spoken to white programmers living in white communities who’ve told her that her grant application isn’t doing enough for the Asian community.

The fact that this has been said to her face speaks to her concerns that her racialized community always has to justify being funded.

“How do we build a community and make a community larger if we don’t support them when they’re small?” she asks. “It’s our taxpayers’ money coming from the community and we’re not getting our fair share. So, who are you to tell me that what we’re doing is not enough? The community is telling me that we need to do more of it, but we can’t because we aren’t getting funded.”

To reinforce this point, Lee discloses that VAFF has never received core funding from Canadian Heritage or the Canada Council for the Arts apart from funds for doing a digital transformation during the pandemic, which went to many groups.

“They say we’re ‘recommended’ but we’re not high enough,” she says. “So how many white festivals have they funded?”

She’s not optimistic that this situation will change. As a result, VAFF and RESO are focusing far more attention on supporting racialized filmmakers intent on pursuing audiences.

“Basically, we’re taking a diaspora lens,” Lee says. ‘We understand the diasporic community has some unique voices and stories to tell that we think that global audiences are looking for.

“We’re here to elevate these voices,” she continues. “We’re looking for equity and funding—and we’re looking to export. The Canadian system has no space for us. You can’t grow much in that little part of the garden that they’ve given us with little fertilizer or water.”

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. For information about online screenings at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival, visit its website.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.



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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.