Toronto-based Asian film festival celebrates 20 years

Executive director says festival makes Asian films more accessible to general audiences

Twenty years of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival were celebrated Nov. 15–19.

Seventy-seven films were showcased in downtown Toronto, North York and Richmond Hill. The festival was founded in 1997 to give a platform to Asian filmmakers.

Louanne Chan, Toronto Reel Asian International Festival executive director, addresses audience in Innis College theatre room.
Louanne Chan, Toronto Reel Asian International Festival executive director, addresses audience.   (Raquel A. Russell/TORONTO OBSERVER)

Executive director Louanne Chan says her team took special care to make sure this year stood out from the rest.

“We offered free admission to students and seniors to any shows before 5 p.m. to make festival more accessible,” Chan said. “We also commissioned work from internationally renowned filmmakers and artists from around the world.”

On the final day, the festival showed Weeds on Fire, inspired by the true story of Hong Kong’s first youth league baseball team. The film played at the University of Toronto’s Innis College theatre. English subtitles accompanied the Cantonese dialogue for a theatre room that held people of many backgrounds.

While Chan says the festival aims to bring international works to Canadian audiences, opportunities continue to grow in other areas.

“We really made it a point to show more Asian Canadian work, more work by female filmmakers and also to try and bring back filmmakers whose [pieces] we supported at the festival,” she said.

When the not-for-profit organization began, it was run entirely by volunteers, with no permanent staff. Now, seven people work for the group in full-time or part-time capacities and over 550 volunteers have helped to put the festival on.

Frankie Hui, 30, volunteered at the 20th festival.  He immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 2003 and enjoys volunteering at events that engage different communities.

“I learn a lot from this festival,” Hui said. “I know what’s happening in other Indian cultures, Japan culture, Korean culture. It’s a fun thing to get together from different places, to study and learn from each other or you can just socialize [with] each other.”

Conversations surrounding diversity in film continue to be part of current discourse. Chan has hopes for how this Toronto festival can engage in that dialogue in the years to come.

“I’d really hope that Reel Asian has become more mainstream in the sense that Asian films are more popular — more accessible to people, that they don’t have to just come to our festival to see it — and hoping that Asian filmmakers just get more opportunities to get their movies on screen and to tell their stories,” Chan said.