Documentary Highlights at Reel Asian

Finding Big Country

By Pat Mullen

Crazy Rich Asians was a cultural phenomenon this summer, giving audiences the first Hollywood production since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian ensemble. There was also Canada’s own Sandra Oh making history with a Best Actress nomination at the Emmys. One movie a year and one lead TV role don’t cut it, though, and audiences hungry for wider representation can check out Toronto’s Reel Asian International Film Festival for a range of films by and about voices from Asia and the Asian Diaspora.

The documentary side of the biz is doing a lot more for the community that Hollywood is, although these Asians aren’t nearly as rich. (Momma Young probably wouldn’t give her baller engagement ring to any Yaris-driving documentarian.) This year’s festival, for example, features a spotlight on one of Canada’s notable voices in documentary, Min Sook Lee (Migrant Dreams). The fest offers a retrospective screening of Lee’s 2005 doc Hogtown: The Politics of Policing, which won the award for Top Canadian Feature Documentary at Hot Docs. It’s been over a decade since Lee turned a lens towards corruption and racial profiling in the Toronto Police Services Board, and with many of these problems continuing today, the film and conversation with Lee provides festivalgoers a chance to take stock of the slow road to change.

Similarly, conversations of Asian onscreen representation are growing thanks to Hari Kondabolu’s recent documentary The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu’s film tackles the problematic and politically incorrect, yet beloved character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who ran the Kwik-E-Mart for nearly 30 years on the animated series The Simpsons with Caucasian actor Hank Azaria providing Apu’s thickly-accented voice. (It was recently announced that Apu would be leaving The Simpsons.) Kondabolu provides the keynote address at Reel Asian—a new addition to the festival—with a discussion about the need to recognize and address stereotypes and fight for wider, more inclusive representation.

Other evidence of change and inclusivity at Reel Asian comes in new forms of storytelling, like the interactive work Homestay. This immersive work by Paisley Smith lets users experience grief and loss in virtual reality mode as they tour the Nitobe Memorial Garden at the University of British Columbia. The project situates users within the experiences of host families who provide homes to international students as they come to Canada to study. It’s a story of cross-cultural encounters, tragedy, and reflection told in boundary-breaking ways through new technology. (Read more on Homestay in this spotlight on the NFB’s interactive work.)

Want some more suggestions for Reel Asian? Here are six new documentary highlights among the many great options to see at the festival:

Finding Big Country
Sunday, Nov. 11 @ 11:30 am, TIFF Lightbox

A hit at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival where it sold-out four screenings, Finding Big Country won the #MustSeeBC Award and scooped the Audience Award. It’s a story from the heart of Vancouver about the city’s short-lived NBA experience hosting the Grizzlies. Told by superfan Kat Jayme,_ Finding Big Country_ seeks to give the basketball team its due and correct the city’s memory of the Vancouver Grizzlies. Jayme, who has a really big personality, roams through Vancouver’s forgotten history of the Grizzlies and pays special attention to finding the team’s star player Bryan “Big Country” Reeves, who took the brunt of criticism for the team’s exceptionally bad losing streak. It’s a fun odyssey of fandom, nostalgia, and historical revisionism. Not able to make the screening? You can also watch Finding Big Country for free here.

Origin Story
Monday, Nov. 12 @ 5:15 pm, TIFF Lightbox

Kulap Vilaysack offers a personal and soul-searching portrait of identity and belonging in Origin Story. The film traces Vilaysack’s family history prompted by a niggling concern raised by the filmmaker’s mother when she quipped that her father was not actually her “real dad.” Using a mix of verité footage and graphic novel style animation, along with a word or two from Sarah Silverman, Vilaysack travels from Los Angeles to Laos to learn the truth about her family. Both funny and poignant as Vilaysack mines her family’s history, Origin Story navigates the questions of identity and history that can be lost along the way.

Nang by Nang
Tuesday, Nov. 13, @ 6:30 pm, Bachir/Yerex Presentation Space, 401 Richmond

Richard Fung is an essential voice in Canada’s experimental scene. Known for ground-breaking works such as My Mother’s Place and Sea in the Blood, Fung’s video art have confronted audiences with challenging and significant portraits for both Asian and queer representations. Fung’s latest project, Nang by Nang, is an intimate work that brings the artist back to his native Trinidad to offer a portrait of his 84-year-old cousin Nang, whose incredible life’s story was previously unknown to him. Nang’s tale is one of many highs and lows told with great humour and candour in this vivid portrait.

Sept 12 -8PM – Nang By Nang from CaribbeanTales on Vimeo.

A Time to Swim
Thursday November 15, 2018 @ 7:00 pm | Innis Town Hall

Another story of homecoming appears in A Time to Swim from Montreal filmmaker Ashley Duong. Her doc tells the story of fellow Montrealer Mutang Urad, who was exiled to Canada when his efforts as an activist for Indigenous rights caused a stir in his native Malaysia. Urad returns home after 20 years and shares with his family the story of their road to Canada. As they retrace the journey, Urad finds his home far from as he remembered and as many of his fellow activists have aligned themselves with the loggers he fought in order to protect his community’s woodland. A Time to Swim is an important entry at the festival for fans looking for something with an environmental focus mixed with a personal tale of the diaspora and belonging.

Ulam: Main Dish
Mon, Nov. 12 @ 5:45 pm | Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Nom, nom, nom! Audiences around Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema don’t have any shortage of Asian cuisine nearby if they want to catch a bite before Reel Asian. But beyond the sushi staples, Peking duck, and Korean BBQ, what constitutes Asian cooking? ULAM: Main Dish serves up a mouth-watering buffet of options to pay tribute to the unsung recipes of Filipino cuisine. The film features a host of top chefs from hot spots in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as they guide audiences through the nuances of Filipino cuisine and the notes of cultural identity that resonate with each bite. Even better, the film comes paired with cocktails!

This Shaking Keeps Me Steady
Wed, Nov. 14 @ 7:00 pm | Innis Town Hall

Fresh from Montreal’s RIDM festival, This Shaking Keep Me Steady offers a visually striking portrait of trauma. Director Shehrezad Maher captures the stories of victims and survivors, as well as the experiences of first responders at the front lines of emergency care. Using a device that navigates the divide between reality and fiction, the film explores how people remember and relive trauma—and how the repetition of graphic images of traumatic events influence our perceptions of everyday tragedies. The film was recently highlighted by Sight and Sound as a noteworthy example of innovations in documentaries seeking to emotionally engaged stories of trauma.

Screening is free but registration is required.

Reel Asian runs Nov. 8 to 16.
Please visit for more information on this year’s festival