By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Visual Communications marked its 49th anniversary with its “Past//Forward” gala on May 18 at the L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown, part of a series of events leading up to next year’s 50th anniversary celebration.
The gala was co-emceed by Tess Paras, an actress (“Just Add Magic,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) and filmmaker (“The Patients”), and Jenny Yang, a writer and actor (“Busy Tonight” on E!) and standup comedian (The Comedy Comedy Festival: A Comedy Festival).
The program included remarks by VC Executive Director Francis Cullado and a video message from VC’s board president, actress and filmmaker Jodi Long, who was unable to attend.
• The Cornerstone Award went to the staff of Gidra (1969-1974), a tabloid-sized, newsprint publication founded by five UCLA students who each kicked in $100 to produce an Asian American community newspaper when their request for administration support was met with conditions restricting editorial control. Tracy Okida suggested the name: a giant three-headed dragon from 1960s Japanese monster movies.
Based at the new Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, Gidra defined “The Movement” for readers and covered the fight for ethnic studies on college campuses, along with rising community activism. As Gidra evolved and moved to L.A.’s Crenshaw District, its scope broadened to encompass an Asian American perspective on the international anti-imperialist movement, linking the Vietnam War to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to other movements in Okinawa, the Philippines and Korea.
Topics included the draft, Third World unity, art and poetry, and even a series on cooking, clothing, and fixing toilets.
The staff worked voluntarily without pay, and, in line with Movement values, aimed to be non-hierarchical — without editors or publishers. Rotating coordinators were responsible for production of issues. Its press run was 4,000, with 900 to 1,300 subscribers, but Gidra’s impact went far beyond, as copies were passed along by devoted readers across the country.
In her introduction, author and curator Karen Ishizuka said that the newspaper was criticized by some for being too radical and by others for not being radical enough, “but it was this wide range of perspectives that made Gidra more than just an alternative rag.” She praised the “rotating cadre of some 300 staff writers and artists who managed to put out an issue every month except one,” some of whom were in the audience.
Accepting on behalf of the staff was Mike Murase, who recalled the “good times, the camaraderie we had as we fought for worthwhile causes. We made mistakes, but we weren’t afraid to organize, mobilize and educate. We weren’t afraid to ruffle feathers occasionally. We were impatient for change to come and we thought there was nothing wrong with twenty-somethings trying to provide leadership to our communities and the whole nation.
“I think that is a lesson for us today because now more than ever, we need young people to take the lead in resisting white supremacy, opposing the rightward shift, and leading the fight to protect Mother Earth …
“We never thought that Gidra would even be talked about 50 years later, much less be honored, but looking back, we are proud to have worked on Gidra. We are proud that we were bold enough to think we could change the world. We are grateful for the progressive values that we learned to embrace, and we are happy about the lifelong friendships we built not only in Gidra but with everyone in the entire Asian American Movement, and among many of you in this room today.”
• The Influencer Award, which goes to a corporation that has provided space for Asian Americans in film and television, was presented to Warner Bros., which was introduced by IW Group President and Chief Momentum Officer Nita Song.
“When I think of the word ‘influencer,’ I think of words like ‘impact,’ ‘visibility’ and ‘leadership,’ and these are the words I would use to describe Warner Bros. and what they’ve been able to do for creativity and inclusion in Hollywood,” Song said. “In 2010, Warner Bros. became the first major studio to conduct Asian American marketing campaigns for its tentpole films, and IW had the privilege to be one of Warner Bros.’ partners in this effort.
“I still recall the first film we worked on. It was ‘Inception’ … Asian audiences responded in big numbers. It was an important moment for our agency, but more importantly it was an important moment for our community and for Hollywood.
“Over the years, Warner Bros. has provided the launching pad for new, game-changing Asian and Asian American talent, including Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, Henry Golding, and has been instrumental in igniting Hollywood’s new-found interest stories featuring and created by Asian Americans with ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ which was the first major studio film to not only feature a contemporary Asian cast, but also directed by an Asian American filmmaker, Jon Chu.
“Warner Bros.’ leadership in seeking out and pushing out culturally inclusive stories has created the long-overdue visibility for creators and talent in our community, and the impact is significant.”
Accepting for Warner Bros. was Senior Vice President of Multicultural Marketing Terra Potts, described by Song as a “champion of diversity.” Potts said that she tells her staff, “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing — we’re supposed to be representing everybody in the world.”
She recalled feeling “enormous responsibility that we didn’t take lightly” when bringing “Crazy Rich Asians” to the screen, knowing that “if the film didn’t work, it would probably close a lot of doors for these stories waiting to be told. So I think I held my breath until the Sunday after the film was released … It was very rewarding for me just to see that people embraced it all across the country and all across the world. People want to see more, so that’s what we’re doing.”
• The first Past//Forward Award — which recognizes a person who has a deep connection with and truly embodies the spirit and has helped to tell honest, authentic stories about Asian Americans — went to Walt Louie, who has been in the broadcast media business since 1974, working as a producer, director, editor and instructor. His documentary work includes Arthur Dong’s “Forbidden City, USA,” winner of “Best Documentary of the Decade” at the Hawaii International Film Festival, and “Restoring the Light,” which was shot entirely in China.
Louie is currently a tenured professor at Santa Monica College in the Digital Media Department, where he teaches post-production classes utilizing Premiere, Avid Media Composer, Adobe Photoshop, and After Effects. He is also the owner of Flash Cuts, a post-production company in Los Angeles that provides editorial services for independent filmmakers. Its list of clients includes Netflix, Hulu, commercial agencies and PBS.
Louie served over 15 years as a national board member of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association in San Francisco (now known as the Center for Asian American Media) and is currently a board member at VC.
Dong, an award-winning filmmaker, shared funny stories about Louie from family and friends, and also praised him for his involvement for more than 30 years in “the two oldest and largest nonprofit organizations dedicated to independent Asian American media” and for serving as “a mentor to dozens of young filmmakers.”
“An award such as this is given to the individual, but it is not the individual who really deserves it,” Louie said, “because truly it belongs to those who have helped him get to this position. In this community, no one works alone.” He especially thanked his wife and daughters, who “put up with me over all these years.”
Louie also said he was inspired by pioneers like director and cinematographer Emiko Omori as well as others who have since passed on, including filmmaker Loni Ding, actor Victor Wong and VC executive directors Steve Tatsukawa and Linda Mabalot, “people who did amazing things for the community. When you were around them, you found that they were just really good, normal people, but they had such extraordinary drive and determination … They made me a better person.”
• The second Past//Forward Award went to Jessica Yu, an Academy Award-winning and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and writer working in a variety of media and genres. This year, she became the first Asian American woman to direct a network drama pilot, NBC’s “Bluff City Law,” which stars Jimmy Smits and has just been ordered to series.
Yu has helmed episodes of many shows, including “American Crime,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Billions,” and “Scandal.” In 2008, her cult comedy feature for Cherry Sky Films, “Ping Pong Playa,” was released theatrically by IFC after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
She won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” an intimate portrait of a writer who lived for four decades confined to an iron lung, and is the author of the award-winning “Garden of the Lost and Abandoned.”
Yu has been the artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. She has been a board member of the International Documentary Association and an artist trustee of the Sundance Institute. She currently serves as an advisor to the Sun Valley Writers Conference.
The award was presented by actor, writer and producer Jimmy Tsai, who worked with Yu on “Ping Pong Playa.” He praised her for overcoming the “nearly insurmountable obstacle” of being an Asian woman in the entertainment industry and mentoring the next generation, not only in the Asian American community but also in “other underserved, underrepresented communities.”
While kids today may idolize Captain America or Iron Man, Tsai said, “Sometimes our heroes are right in front of us … I’m lucky enough to see my hero on a regular basis and to call her my friend.”
“I really feel so lucky to be working as a filmmaker after two decades,” said Yu. “Years ago, I remember a journalist asking me where I wanted to be in 15 years, and I remember telling him I wanted to be able to do the exact same thing, but I hoped that I wouldn’t be driving the exact same car. I’m happy to report that that particular wish came true …
“There’s a long list of people who gave me a chance … When you’re starting out, it helps to see people who look like you doing what it is you want to do. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be role models. They just have to represent to show you that your aspirations aren’t hallucinations. I remember when I directed my first episode of ‘The West Wing,’ I think that year I was one of about eight women of color directing on all of network TV …
“VC has been highlighting our work, supporting new artists and building community even when we were completely shut out of the mainstream. We knew we existed because VC brought us together and celebrated our vision and our voices, and made us feel less alone …
“My mom, Connie Young Yu, is a writer of Chinese American history, and given that this is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, she very much wanted me to mention that we are descendants of railroad worker Lee Wong Sang. It’s really humbling to think of the harsh, restricted lives of Asian immigrants in this country 150 years ago, and to look out at this crowd and consider the rich and varied lives we live today.
“Our immigrant ancestors boldly risked their lives for our future. So we owe it to them to keep getting our stories out there. So I’d just like to say let’s keep looking out for each other.”
Actors Amy Hill and Dom Magwili paid tribute to two members of the VC family who passed away last year, actor/directors Rodney Kageyama and Elizabeth Sung. Hill fondly recalled working with Kageyama at Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco — one of many community groups that he was involved in — and appearing with Sung in a 2016 film, “The Unbidden.” This year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival included a program dedicated to Sung’s work in front of and behind the camera.
Magwili called for a moment of silence and also shared memories of Steve Tatsukawa, who died in 1984 at the age of 35. The two actors then led a live auction.
The gala also included clips from VC’s Digital Histories and Armed with a Camera programs. Music was provided by the Los AKAtombros Trio and DJ Icy Ice.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo