- Kym Cunningham
Carceral, Colonial Trauma Take Center Stage
By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer
On Aug. 25, the Carson Community Center will host Pacific Cine Waves, showcasing a selection of films created by Pacific Islanders.
The event aims to positively affect communities through storytelling and the arts.
“Our mission is to support Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers,” said Francis Cullado, executive director of Visual Communications — the first American nonprofit dedicated to empowering Asian Pacific communities by challenging perspectives in the media arts. “If nobody is going to tell our stories, we have to tell our stories ourselves.”
The event is a collaboration between Visual Communications, Films by Youth Inside, known as FYI Films, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Although Visual Communications usually participates in events that feature and support East Asian communities, the creation of Pacific Cine Waves is meant as a stepping stone so that the organization can branch ou, both in terms of perspective and location. Through this free event, Visual Communications hopes to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the media arts world.
“I don’t want our audience to be just Asian/Pacific Islanders,” Cullado said. “We want to be very inclusive…. It would be great if … all of the different media groups … were working together and making those impacts together.”
To accomplish this goal, Visual Communications teamed up with director Alex Muñoz of FYI Films, a classically trained filmmaker who has been teaching his trade to incarcerated youth in Los Angeles County — the epicenter of the American carceral epidemic — since 2000.
Giving Incarcerated Youth a Voice
Originally intended as a single lecture at the formerly named California Youth Authority, Muñoz’s program snowballed into an accredited eight-week course now featured in several locations, including Los Angeles County, Guam, Hawaii and Ute Mountain. Muñoz’s program specifically focuses on incarcerated youth — most of whom have not had adequate educations. The industry training provides them with a future beyond prison cell walls.
“FYI empowers youth affected by the juvenile justice system to improve their lives and become self-reliant,” Muñoz said. “Through media literacy and the creative story-telling process, youth find their voice and gain valuable skills that are transferable to all areas of their life.
“The youth deserve the opportunity for self-examination…. They always make films based on their own personal or immediate past. When they look at their own lives being played on the screen, they realize that they matter.”
Muñoz’s program has had a ripple effect, impacting not only the lives of the youth but also those of their families and the community as a whole.
“California [youth] recidivism rate is about 80 percent,” Muñoz explained. “Ours is about 15.”
Muñoz told a story about two mothers who had struggled with addiction throughout the childhoods of their now-incarcerated sons. After watching the screening of the movie that detailed the devastating effects of parental addiction, these women checked into rehab programs within the same week.
“The films are … brutally honest,” Muñoz said.
But providing these youth with a voice wasn’t easy.
“This is a population that is so underserved and so overlooked,” Muñoz said. “It took me a while to really figure out [how to teach them]. I couldn’t teach it USC-style because a lot of the youth are subliterate. So, I had to kind of shape the curriculum and make it their own.”
Despite their lack of formal training, Muñoz said that these youth are incredibly innovative, coming up with ideas like bungee cams and suspended cameras that swing around the trunk of a tree. The youth also work to make these films their own, developing lingo that centers around their shared experience of incarceration as well as improvising all of their own lines.
“They take ownership of the medium,” Muñoz said. “The first day I give them their cameras, they always aim back at the surveillance cameras.”
Perhaps even more impressive, Muñoz said, was the rational and harrowing grasp these youths have of their own social positionality, viewing themselves — as one of his students put it — as “expendable.”
“This is a really fragile population and we’re not doing enough: we’re not rehabilitating them; we’re just punishing them,” Muñoz said. “The more I worked with incarcerated youth, the more I realized that some of the kids were incarcerated because they stole baby formula, because they were a teen father and couldn’t afford it, or they stole a bike. It seemed somehow unjust to be incarcerated for 10 months for stealing a bike from someone’s backyard…. The system is changing for the better, but the odds are stacked against them.”
Muñoz uses FYI Films, in part, to rebel against the prison industrial complex, the multifaceted societal systems in place which make the future of time and unpaid labor in prison almost a guarantee for many American youth of color.
“Hollywood needs to do more to empower young people of color from disadvantaged communities,” Muñoz said. “For me, they radicalized cinema…. The youth have kind of formed their own genre. It’s kind of like neo-ethnographic realism…. It’s made me more excited about filmmaking.”
Guam’s Colonial Trauma
Muñoz has taken this radicalized notion of what cinema can be back to his father’s home country of Guam. Since 2010, Muñoz has worked with incarcerated youth in Guam, attempting to heal some of the trauma inflicted under hundreds of years of Spanish, Japanese and American colonial rule.
One of Muñoz’s films to be shown during Pacific Cine Waves, Guam is Crying, weaves together elements of political violence and creative fantasy in demonstration of the terrible ramifications of American foreign policy on the island.
“During the Iraq War, Guam was losing more soldiers a month than each state in the country,” Muñoz said.
Strategically, Guam is important to the United States as a military base. Indeed, the U.S. military occupies 48.5 percent of the land. This also makes Guam a target for countries such as North Korea, leading the residents of Guam to live in perpetual fear of impending war.
Similarly, the residents of Guam are subject to the bizarre limitations of being citizens of an unincorporated U.S. territory rather than a state. They can nominate, but not vote for the president and it takes four Guam residents to equal a single “mainland” resident in terms of delegates. Muñoz’s films seek to address the denial of civil rights and liberties associated with American neocolonialism.
“We have a lot of repressed pain,” Muñoz said. “We are in crisis and we’re still traumatized.”
Looking Towards the Future
In addition to providing an avenue for Pacific Islander filmmakers — such as Muñoz — to showcase how identity politics informs storytelling, organizers are hoping to expand the impact of Pacific Cine Waves to outside of Pacific Islander communities.
“Los Angeles is very diverse but still very segregated,” Cullado said. “[Pacific Cine Waves] is about connecting with people we haven’t connected with before … and sparking something…. This is just the beginning.”
Organizers hope that City Hall takes note of this event, projecting an annual film festival with government funding and sponsorship.
“This is very personal,” Cullado said. “I grew up in [the] West Long Beach-Carson area. This is my hood. This is my community. My daughter goes to school across the street.”
Muñoz agreed, viewing his work as his way of giving back to his community.
“Artists always have to give back,” Muñoz said. “They have to do what they can to enhance their community and to contribute to the advancement of a safer … more productive and peaceful society.”
As the current political turmoil shows no signs of abating, it is necessary for Harbor Area communities to come together under art’s restorative powers. On Aug. 25, Pacific Cine Waves will debut its first Pacific Islander cinema night at 7 p.m. in the hopes of creating an atmosphere of understanding in the place of biased judgement. RSVP for this free event by Aug. 21 at http://pacinewaves.splashthat.com.