By Joe Veyera
When he was a kid, Martin Tran says he wanted to be Bruce Lee.
But for him, mainstream media depictions of other Asian Americans were basically nonexistent.
“I couldn’t imagine being anyone else, because it felt weird to think you could be Indiana Jones, or you could be whoever,” Tran said. “You didn’t look like them.”
Now, in his role as co-director of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, the aim is to provide images of Asian Americans that are “all over the spectrum.”
The volunteer-run festival, which draws around 2,000 attendees each year, returns Feb. 19-21 for its second year at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave. More than 150 submissions were whittled down to a 49-film lineup, starting 7 p.m. next Friday, Feb. 19, with “Top Spin,” a documentary about three teenagers competing to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Table Tennis team.
An opening night party at Velocity Dance Center, 1621 12th Ave., follows the screening at 9 p.m. Admission is included in the price of the ticket for the film, but can be purchased separately for $10.
Throughout the festival, most screenings are $11, while weekend-long passes are $75.
The festival traces its origins back to 1985, when the makers of the independent film, “Beacon Hill Boys,” launched the first iteration of the event. Since then, the fest has been held on-and-off through several periods of inactivity, before the most recent relaunch in 2013. That year, the festival was held at the Wing Luke Museum, and then moved to Ark Lodge Cinemas in South Seattle before landing at the Film Forum.
Tran said organizers look for unique plots and a diversity of voices when setting the lineup each year.
“We just want stories that people haven’t seen before, or if it’s a story that’s familiar, spun in a different way,” he said.
That means challenging many of the current popular narratives currently in place.
“There are certain narrative tropes in Asian American stories or just Asians in film in general that people accept,” he said. “They accept the struggling immigrant story or they accept the documentary about Japanese internment or they accept us as a sidekick.”
And this year, while the lineup does include an internment documentary, “The Empty Chair,” (12 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21) that selection approaches the topic with the story of how the residents of Juneau, Alaska, responded to the upheaval of neighbors into those camps.
According to Tran, most of the filmmakers will also be at the festival and their attendance serves both as an opportunity for theatregoers to support their work firsthand, while also giving them the chance to network with each other.
“It’s great because you hope it supports them into their next endeavors,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s always great for the community to meet the artists whose art they’re appreciating.”
Tran said the biggest benefit of being a volunteer-run outfit is the passion that everyone brings.
“We could be doing anything with our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday nights,” he said. “But what we’re doing is working on these films, and bringing them here for the audience to see.”
There also isn’t the pressure to make a hefty profit, but to remain sustainable through sponsorships, grants and ticket sales. But of course, the format doesn’t come without its share of difficulties.
“The challenge is we have day jobs,” Tran said. “We have to work on the Fest when the boss isn’t looking or we have to work on it after hours, so that can get taxing.”
Ultimately, while the Film Forum has been a great venue, Tran said, the goal is for the Festival to eventually make another move.
“Our hope is that we fill it too much,” he said. “That we grow into a bigger theater.”
For more information on the Festival or to see the full lineup, visit www.seattleaaff.org.
Three to see:
“Top Spin” (2014), directed by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens: Three teenagers battle to represent the United States in table tennis at the 2012 Olympics in this documentary, while navigating the day-to-day academic and social challenges most high-schoolers face. Screens 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19.
“In Football We Trust” (2015), directed by Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn: This documentary that follows the lives of four Polyneisan high school students in Utah as they pursue the dream of playing football in the NFL. Screens 6 p.m. Sunday.
“Crush the Skull” (2015), directed by Viet Nguyen: Thieves discover the house they intended to rob is the home of a serial killer, and are forced to outsmart their captor if they want to survive. A horror-comedy hybrid. Screens 9 p.m. Sunday.