Fed up with Euro dominance of the Oscar foreign-language category, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz and Georges Chamchoum decided to do something about it: They created the Asian World Film Festival and launched it in the industry’s backyard last year.
Now the fest is returning for its second outing in Culver City: It kicks off Oct. 24 with a screening of Oscar-winning director Asif Kapadia’s “Ali and Nino,” and concludes Nov. 1 with John H. Lee’s Korean hit “Operation Chromite,” starring Liam Neeson as Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The festival, sponsored by Variety, will honor pioneering “Bambi” illustrator Tyrus “Ty” Wong with a lifetime achievement award Oct. 24; Pam Tom’s documentary about him will screen on his 106th birthday the following day. Korean-American actor-director Justin Chon, best known for his work in the “Twilight Saga,” will receive the fest’s Rising Star Award. Panels on topics ranging from marketing to women in Hollywood are also on the agenda.
But the primary goal remains: To cast a greater spotlight on films from the region. To qualify for competition, films must be submitted for Oscars, or up for similar honors at the Golden Globes. A jury led by “Frozen River” producer Heather Rae will determine award winners over the course of the eight-day festival.
This year’s lineup includes “3000 Nights” (Jordan), “The Age of Shadows” (South Korea), “Interrogation” (India), “A Father’s Will” (Kyrgyzstan), “Cold of Kalandar” (Turkey), and “Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass” (Vietnam).
The festival is positioned after foreign-language Oscar entries were submitted to help Asian filmmakers gain traction during awards season. Chamchoum, executive director of the festival, considers the region’s paltry Oscar showing unjust considering the number of masterpieces made there over the years.
Since 1947, Asian movies have received seven foreign-language Oscars, and three honorary Oscars before the designation of the foreign-language category in 1956. All told, Japan and Russia/USSR are both tied for four each; Iran and Taiwan have each nabbed one Oscar each for their films.
Russia extends into the European continent but the bulk of the country is in Asia, and the festival counts past Russian- and Soviet-winners as Asian.
The Academy itself says it does not classify non-U.S. films by region.
“When you think of the wealth of talent it should be higher,” Chamchoum says. “If there was any justice as least a dozen would have won.”
By contrast, consider the European bounty: Italy and France have each won more foreign-language Oscars than the whole Asian continent, with 14 and a dozen, respectively. Spain has also picked up four Oscars, with Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands at three each.
Sher-Niyaz and Chamchoum both feel the disparity keenly as filmmakers themselves. Fest founder Sher-Niyaz, a native of Kyrgyzstan, directed “Kurmanjan Datka” (Queen of the Mountains) in 2014 and produced “Nomaden des himmels” (Heavenly Nomadic) last year. Chamchoum, born in Niger to a Lebanese family, was educated at a boarding school in France before becoming a filmmaker.
Now 70, he has been working in America for 25 years. He says his biggest frustration is an Euro Oscar tilt.
Once he and Sher-Niyaz hatched the festival plan, Chamchoun quickly worked his contacts to pull it together last year.
“It wasn’t even an idea of a festival when Sadyk approached me,” Chamchoum explains, praising him as a man of vision. “We have the same frustration about Asian cinema in Hollywood.”
He says he quickly rallied a team of organizers to the cause. “Didn’t even take 48 hours to set it up,” Chamchoum says.
There were frustrations along the way, but both Sher-Niyaz and Chamchoum are pleased with their first showing. Last year, 14 Oscar-submitted movies screened at the festival — proof, according to Sher-Niyaz, “that the idea of the festival was right and necessary.”
“Last year it went very well,” Chamchoum concurs, citing mostly full houses during screenings. “For a first year we really pulled a miracle because Hollywood is not easy.”
He considers “Ali and Nino” a particularly good fit for this year’s opening-night slot. The movie is an adaptation of a 1947 novel about a Muslim and Christian who fall in love despite their differences. Kapadia, a British filmmaker of Indian-Muslim heritage who just won an Oscar winner for his Amy Winehouse documentary, directed it.
“For me it has everything that we want,” Chamchoum says, before detailing its cross-cultural appeal. “It is the perfect example of what we’re trying to do with festival.”
“We were approached by the festival and delighted to be asked,” producer Kris Thykier says. He believes the movie has contemporary resonance despite its setting in World War I-era Azerbaijan, and wants as many moviegoers as possible to see it.
Thykier applauds the festival for showcasing diverse voices at a time when tribalism and xenophobia is on the rise around the globe.
“Anything that can bring diverse cultures and perspectives to a larger audience should be supported and applauded, particularly in a world riven by xenophobia and fear of ‘difference,’” he says.
Convincing some filmmakers to screen their movies at the festival has been more of a challenge than Chamchoum expected, however. He and his all-volunteer team try to get filmmakers to screen their movies for free in exchange for the exposure.
Each Oscar-submitted film will screen twice at the festival and 80% of all the Globes contenders will play twice, the remainder getting a solo screening. The festival draws from 51 countries, spanning from Cyprus to Japan and including movie-loving India.
But some consultants and publicists treat festivals as a business proposition, Chamchoum rails, admitting he has an old-school approach to the gatherings.
Another obstacle this year: Increased competition with other U.S. film festivals interested in booking Asian films, Sher-Niyaz says. “But we are thrilled at the same time that is happening,” he says in a translated email exchange. “That is what we have aimed for.”
The main goal, he adds, is that more Americans see important film projects from the region. Chamchoum expects to triple last year’s attendance, which he pegs above 7,000.
“I hope we have 25,000,” he says.
“There’s always frustration and anger,” putting a festival together, he says, “but passion and commitment takes over.”
As for Sher-Niyaz, he believes the festival he founded can help further highlight the need for diverse views and perspectives everywhere, Hollywood included.
“The world is different and thus interesting,” he says. “Politicians create walls and borders; people of culture and art try to create bridges to connect people.”