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How this Philadelphia filmmaker is building solidarity between artists of color

Rob Buscher. November 10, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedFundingMediumPeople
Rob Buscher isn’t from here. Still, over the past three years, the filmmaker has built the 10-day Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) into the largest Asian American film festival on the East Coast.

That doesn’t exempt PAAFF from the same funding struggles that face its contemporaries BlackStar and Philadelphia Latino Film Festival (PLFF).

None of the staff is compensated for their work except for Buscher, who serves as festival director and says the festival has grown attendance by 30 percent every year since 2012. He only allows himself a $500 stipend per month. He freelances and teaches at Arcadia University, but for the most part, this is his full-time gig.

He watches every submission himself. This year there were 300.

Here’s the problem: According to the Foundation Center, organizations serving Asians and Pacific Islanders received only 3 percent of philanthropic dollars designated for racial minorities in 2012. And that’s from the top one thousand foundations in the country. It’s a pitiful number for a group of people that make up 5.6 percent of the United States population.

One million dollars, said Buscher, would fund PAAFF, BlackStar and PLFF “for five years each,” and that the festival itself is “really inexpensive.” But when you’re doing something that is “not valued by the larger society,” raking in that kind of moolah is nothing short of a pipe dream.

“Most of our funding comes from corporate sponsors. We’ve been very lucky in that sense to have cultivated those relationships,” he said. “At the end of the day, there is only so much money out there for artists and communities of color. Looking at some of the other arts-related grants, we’re a little too specific for certain funders. They don’t necessarily see us as important enough to fund because they’re not looking at it from our community’s perspective.”

Asian American and Pacific Islander funders, said Buscher, would rather support “fundamental” issues like education or public safety.

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But PAAFF has that kind of programming, too.

This year, PAAFF has myriad panels and exhibits that touch on transnational identities and cultures. From themes of displacement in Japanese and Muslim communities to a day dedicated to Persian art and artists and beyond, the festival is “trying to build solidarity” between artists of color, said Buscher.

One of the most important things the festival tries to do, Buscher said, is to help non-Asian and Pacific Islanders better understand the community. For example — when the festival’s founder Joe Kim handed Buscher the reins to PAAFF in 2013, he remembers a prospective attendee approaching him and asking if all the films would be in “Asian.”

“That’s the kind of place we started from even four years ago,” he said. “We’re making progress. More and more people are starting to see what it is that we do. People are starting to see Asians as Americans and starting to understand that difference in the generational identity.”

Some of that understanding, said Buscher, will come from more intermingling between PAAFF, PLFF and BlackStar.

“We’re all on the same page. The stereotypes we’re trying to overcome are different,” he said, but lack of funding and lack of representation and portrayal in media, those are the same. “If more of our audiences started coming to each others’ programs, they’ll see they might have a lot more in common than they thought. We as a community can build ourselves up.”

As for funding the festival in the future? Buscher said that’s something PAAFF is working out.

“Next year will be all about trying to figure that out while also planning our 10-year anniversary,” he said of the festival. “It might continue to live on, but under the umbrella of something else. It’s good timing for us to think about these things.”


Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival

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