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Letters from the Directors

Welcome to the 15th Annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival!

The identity of a film festival is ever-changing, just as artists shift their focus across different subjects and media, just as communities become engrossed in issues and struggles when the need arises, and just as individuals evolve and grow over lifetimes. A film festival is a conduit for information and vision and experience. It is, in essence, a platform; and the identity of a platform wholly depends on who it serves. 

The city of Philadelphia has been my home for six years. In 2017, I was floating through life without any real idea of what I wanted to do but make it from one day to the next, and Philly seemed as good a place as any to be. I spent my time working odd jobs, writing, and noncommittally dipping my toe into various community organizations. About six months into my time here, an old friend told me the local Asian film festival was looking for volunteers to help with programming. On a whim, I stopped by one of their monthly meetings…

My parents were born in Iran in the years following a U.S.-engineered coup d’etat and came of age in the years preceding revolution. As a result, I have always had a complicated relationship with that country, as well as the country of my own birth and the diaspora to which I belong.  In 2020, in the earliest stages of what would become a global pandemic, the United States was once again at the brink of conflict with Iran. As PAAFF’s new programming director, I saw the opportunity to provide a platform to Iranian filmmakers who, under the yoke of cruel economic sanctions, were struggling to find an international audience. Then the world shut down, and we were forced to reimagine what our festival would look like in the age of COVID… 

I am someone of many intersecting identities and experiences. Naturally, I’m of the belief that an “Asian American” film festival must represent the full spectrum of what that label means, including the ways Asians in both diaspora and their countries of origin interact with the world at large in all its complexity and contradiction. In late 2022, it became apparent that PAAFF was once again going to see a turnover in leadership, and I was encouraged to apply for the job of festival director. For my part, I was excited to focus on the core of the festival: as a platform, serving filmmakers and artists of almost innumerable identities whose work is capable of expanding the worldview and imagination of audiences; and serving those who have historically been without voice, whose work has remained unseen…

I don’t mean to assert my own importance. The theme of this year’s festival is “lost and found” and I would be lost without the many people who made and still make PAAFF possible. I have to give special mention, of course, to my predecessor, Selena Yip, who shepherded our organization through its most uncertain years and continues to provide me with invaluable advice and guidance; and to my co-director, Joseph Carranza; to our marketing and design team; our volunteers and volunteer coordinators; our programmers; and so on, and so forth…

The identity of PAAFF is ever-changing. It will continue to change, and hopefully grow, this year and for many years to come. I thank you for staying with us on our long journey, and for joining us in this new chapter. While I’m here, I’ll do my best to make it worthwhile. 

Arzhang Zafar
Festival Co-Director

To me, a film festival is a sacred space – there is nothing like it in the world. The awe that comes upon me when I step into a theater brings me so much thrill and excitement. To direct a film festival is something that I never dreamt would be a part of my life’s story. I’ve centered my life and career around contributing to making the world a better place by creating work spaces that thrive off of teamwork, gathering creatives to work on projects that have meaning, planning large scale events that make an impact on our culture and society, and providing a storytelling platform for our society’s underdogs. To come into the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival in its 16th year is one of the most pleasant surprises that life has presented to me thus far. 

Being Filipino American is something that I have grown to cherish more and more the older I become. The films that, together with our amazing programming team, we have selected this year illuminate parts of my own life that I never knew existed. The stories of resilience remind me of my immigrant grandparents who moved to America at a point in history where they had no examples to glean from. The stories of love remind me of my parents who, as first generation Asian American citizens, had to find ways to honor the heart of their culture while forging a new way to live. The stories of levity in the midst of hardship remind me of my younger brothers, who always know how to make me laugh even in life’s hardest moments.

I am thankful to our filmmakers who have submitted such brave, thoughtful, and compelling stories this season. I am a better person because of these films. I am also thankful to our entire team who are the real heart and soul of our organization. Arzhang, with whom I have the honor of co-directing this festival with, has taught me the art of programming with exquisite taste; thank you for journeying with me through this new chapter of my career and in this new season in the history of Philadelphia American Film Festival. Last, but certainly not least, thank you to every person who has purchased a ticket to our program this year! I truly believe that the best days of Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival are ahead of us and you are one of the main reasons why our future is so bright. I am committed to keeping our vision and mission alive while bringing the joy of cinema to our beautiful community.

Joseph Carranza
Festival Co-Director