“So Long, My Son” (Photo courtesy Li Tienan/Dongchun Films)

By Connor Dziawura

Filmmaker Ihman Esturco sees a distinct lack of representation for foreign cinema, namely that which is from Asian countries.

“There’s a lot of filmmakers, especially in Asia, who don’t have access,” explains Esturco, who is also an actor.

To promote awareness of these cultures, Esturco played a part in launching a longtime dream: the Asian International Film Festival Arizona (AIFFA).

From Friday, December 6, to Sunday, December 8, at the Pollack Tempe Cinemas, the festival will showcase 11 films from 10 Asian countries.

The films are “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” (Afghanistan); “So Long, My Son” (China); “Memories of My Body” (Indonesia); “Jhalki” (India); “Deep Well” (Kazakhstan); “This Little Land of Mines” (Laos); “Dark is the Night” (Philippines); “Ramen Teh” (Singapore); “Kokdu” (South Korea); “The Tailor” and “The Third Wife” (both Vietnam). Various short films will be screened, too.

Individual screening tickets cost $15 (or $12 for senior citizens and students), while bronze, silver, gold and platinum passes—that can include extras like VIP status, meet and greets and admittance to the opening and closing galas—range from $250 to $500. For screening times, visit aiffa.org.

The AIFFA will also host open forums to discuss the various works. Actors and directors who were involved in some of the films’ productions are expected to be present, including Filipino director Adolfo Alix Jr. and Kazakhstani director Zhanabek Zhetiruov.

With a theme of “Bridging the World through Asian Cinema,” the event’s purpose, according to Esturco, the festival director, is “to discover, to develop and to distribute.”

“We want to bridge those filmmakers who don’t have the voice, especially in Asia,” he explains.

Supporting this purpose wasn’t easy, however. Esturco recalls he and producer/actress Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel, with whom he has attended world-renowned film festivals, began flaunting the idea of launching their own Asian film festival a decade ago.

“I really like attending festivals. I really like exposing myself to different cultures, because you don’t get it if you don’t go there,” Esturco explains. “You don’t see the reality of what’s happening to that country, what is really happening to their lives, to their culture, to their values.”

Vargas-Knaebel, who is based in Switzerland, is the AIFFA’s programmer. She scouts films at international film festivals before bringing them to Arizona. And the planning committee is important due to the different tastes of its members, she says.

“I don’t have anything in mind when I choose a film,” she explains. “I just go for films that interest me as a person.”

But audience, accessibility and variety matter, she says.

“What accessibility means for me is that the story is very honest, it’s very fresh, it’s very original, but it’s entertaining. It might be political, but it’s entertaining,” she explains. “We have to present the good and the bad, and then we balance it.”

To finally get the festival up and running, Vargas-Knaebel says the support of the community was needed. That includes the Pollack Tempe Cinemas on Elliot Road.

“I think that it’s great that we’re having it here in Arizona, because unfortunately they never had (an Asian-centric film festival) here,” says Michael Pollack, the theater’s owner.

Pollack’s venue is a sub-run theater, or one that shows movies at discount prices weeks after their initial theatrical runs. Pollack says his cinema has shown everything from smaller, specialty films to the more popular ones, and has even held other events.

“We try to keep it unique and different. For us it’s not just a place like a regular movie theater,” he says. “I mean, it’s got so many different things that are here—so many different, fun things. I try to always keep it fresh, keep it new, keep it unique. That’s what it’s all about.

“With this it’s always some kind of an adventure because we’re able to do some good stuff and we’ve done a lot of really great fundraisers here for people. I’m glad that we’ve been able to be a part of that.”

Aside from the preselected features and short films, the AIFFA launched myFILM, a short-film competition for all film students and amateurs.

Entrants were required to craft a 5- to 7-minute creative video using their mobile phone that shows “the dynamics of the thriving Asian culture in Arizona and how it impacts the youth,” according to the festival’s website.

Three winners will be chosen and awarded $500 to $1,500. Their films will be screened at the festival.

“It’s just something new to amateur filmmakers, that they can enter,” Esturco says. “My point is we have professional, and then we have amateur.”

December’s AIFFA launch event is just a taste of what’s to come, however. Next year’s “First Edition,” set for December 2020, will be larger in scope. It will have several sections including a main competition, a look at 100 years of Filipino cinema, children’s films and a retrospective look at classics.

“Right now (the films are) preselected. We are the ones reaching to those filmmakers. We paid for that,” Esturco explains. “Next year it’s going to be different a different story, because they will submit their films.”

At the end of the day, the goal of the AIFFA is to give international communities a presence here in Arizona.

“We want to bring cinema to the people. We want to bring Asian cinema to the Asian-Americans. We have to do it. We have to work harder for this,” Vargas-Knaebel says. “And if in the future it will be big, it’s not because of us. It’s because of the people who acknowledge the Asian International Film Festival.”

Asian International Film Festival Arizona, Pollack Tempe Cinemas, 1825 E. Elliot Road, Tempe, 480.522.0602, aiffa.org, various showtimes from Friday, December 6, to Sunday, December 8, $12-$500.