Pass the Remote: Docs at the 40th CAAMFest highlight the resilience of immigrant families

"Delikado" details the efforts of environmental crusaders on an island in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy Thoughtful Robot Productions)

Numerous Bay Area activities are in the works to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, with the standout for movie fans being CAAMFest. 

The Center for Asian American Media event features an array of films short and long, musical performances, talks and special events to mark the fest’s 40th year, a milestone that finds organizers emerging from a two-year period of not having in-person screenings.

This year’s program will be a hybrid of live and online viewings, Thursday through May 22, with summit talks preceding it all this Wednesday. Events and screenings will take place in San Francisco and Oakland.

It’s a critical time to come together and showcase these works, CAAM executive director Stephen Gong wrote in a release. “The continuing rise of anti-Asian hate crimes makes the return of CAAMFest especially vital,” he added.

Opening night will light up the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and closing night will swing into the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.

This year’s program marks the first festival for Thúy Trần, CAAM’s new festival and exhibitions director.

Pass the Remote canvassed the program and has come up with the following recommendations.

To purchase tickets and view the program, visit

“Free Chol Soo Lee” is the powerful opening night selection. The documentary tells a sobering Bay Area story. (Photo courtesy CAAMFest)

It’s a tough task for programmers to nail the right selection for an opening night feature since it helps reflect the tone of what will follow. CAAMFest found an ideal feature in the sobering, sensitively told Bay Area-set documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee.”

Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s film received a world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and hauntingly recounts the sad story of Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee, who at 20 was arrested and convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a gang member in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

In this miscarriage of justice, Lee found himself getting bounced in and out of various prisons, including landing on death row at San Quentin. It originated over a slipshod, severely flawed investigation that exposed the deep-seated anti-Asian American racism in the police force as well as in judges’ chambers. 

Using Lee’s writings as its soft-spoken framework, “Free Chol Soo Lee” covers a lot during its 1 hour 23 minute running time, including how Lee’s plight mobilized the Bay Area Asian American community. But mostly, it serves as another tragic reminder of a harrowing immigrant experience that happened on our own home turf. (6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Castro Theatre)

Family members confront neo-Nazis during a Black Lives Matter protest in “Bad Axe.” (Photo courtesy CAAMFest)

Something rather special, even unexpected, happened when emerging filmmaker David Siev left New York City at the start of the pandemic and moved back to the rural Michigan town where his Cambodian-Mexican family lives. The result is the multiple SXSW winner “Bad Axe” (the town’s name), an engrossing video recollection of what transpired during that time.

With startling candor, “Bad Axe” expresses the resiliency and feistiness of a family of immigrant parents as a younger generation chips in to help their parents’ restaurant located in Trumpland.

Siev’s intimate portrait doesn’t shirk from the uncomfortable and hard stuff, including an intense, volatile Black Lives Matter downtown protest organized after the murder of George Floyd, dad Chun’s unresolved anger issues stemming from being a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide he bore witness to, daughter Jaclyn’s vigorous and demanding role as the defender/protector of the family and on to enduring the vitriol of unmasked, confrontational customers who refuse to put their masks on.

Siev’s documentary doesn’t just touch on touchy issues, it confronts them head-on. The biggest takeaway here is how the family got through this pressure cooker of a time and then came out of it with a greater appreciation for one another. (The Centerpiece film will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Great Star in San Francisco.)

“Delikado” details the efforts of environmental crusaders on an island in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy Thoughtful Robot Productions)

Political corruption and the lucrative tourism industry play prominent roles in the background of  “Delikado,” journalist/filmmaker Karl Malakunas’ blistering investigative documentary that is as suspenseful as it is important. Set on Palawan, a gorgeous island of natural wonders in the Philippines, it takes us deep into a deadly and ugly tug-of-war battle between developers and businesspeople and activists and townspeople trying to preserve not only their threatened way of existence but also critical rainforest land that’s being stripped of its minerals and denuded of its forests. 

Malakunas recounts exiting president Rodrigo Duterte’s devastating war on drugs along with a pivotal mayoral election and, primarily, a group of activists as they attempt to stop the pillaging (most often by sabotaging and/or taking away chainsaws) in this disheartening true story that’s certain to outrage. Malakunas taps into his journalistic sensibilities to tell it, spending time on defining who these key players are in order to not simply alarm us, but illustrate that there are unknown heroes out there risking their lives to save the planet from an insatiable, destructive greed. (Available to stream online)

The works of Bay Area artists and filmmakers are always a staple of the CAAMFest program. This year is no exception and includes these: a special presentation showcasing an upcoming documentary that details how a 1900s bubonic plague tore through San Francisco’s Chinatown, “Plague at the Golden Gate” (noon Saturday at the Great Star); a “Homegrown” selection of shorts (2 p.m. May 22 at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland); and a screening of the documentary “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres” (noon May 21 at SFMOMA). 

“In Search of Bengali Harlem” co-director Vivek Bald — a Santa Cruz native — and co-director Alaudin Ullah dig deep into Ullah’s family’s past. (Photo courtesy CAAMFest)

Another film with Bay Area ties is Santa Cruz native Vivek Bald and co-director Alaudin Ullah’s “In Search of Bengali Harlem.” Like “Bad Axe,” it’s a personalized documentary wherein multitalented comedian/actor/playwright Ullah embarks on an extraordinary quest to learn more about his parents — Habib and Mohima — and understand how their past in Bangladesh shaped who and how they were with him. “In Search of Bengali Harlem” is a tearjerker about how in order to understand who we are we need to venture into our parents’ past, where you often find stories of sacrifices and bravery that helped shape generations afterward. (6 p.m. Saturday, The Great Star)

The Closing Night Feature, “Every Day in Kaimuki,” invites us into a Hawaii that few tourists rarely see, as a young couple living there arrive at a crossroads in their relationship — as a song once said, “Should I stay or should I go?” In other words, skateboarding radio DJ Naz is struggling with the idea of moving to New York City. Alika Tengan directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Naz Kawakami, who plays the reluctant Naz. “Every Day” works best if you consider it more of an observation piece than a drama. It also hints at promising next steps in both Tengan’s and Kawakami’s careers. (6:30 p.m. May 22, the New Parkway in Oakland)

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