What started out as a group of friends projecting short films on buildings across the city has now become a bona fide film festival.
Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre is hosting the inaugural Cine/SEEN film festival on Friday. The one-night-only event will feature six short films by BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and women filmmakers alongside some stand-up comedy sets.
Fran Bittakis, one of Cine/SEEN’s co-organizers, says the festival addresses the need for more representation in Portland’s film industry.
“We live in a town that is mostly white,” she says. “I’m connected to so many amazing creative people in general, and when you go to even a singularly creative thing, like a music video showcase, and you don’t see anybody who looks like you on that stage, it’s heartbreaking.”
Bittakis, who identifies as Thai-American, wanted to pick a name for the festival that best reflects her desire to celebrate the cinema artistry of those who are typically from underrepresented communities.
“I think being able to be seen and why the name Cine/SEEN is what it is, it’s just all about being able to take up space,” Bittakis says.
In 2021, she had planned on traveling to five Oregon cities and projecting the films onto the sides of buildings. Bittakis wanted audiences to enjoy the shorts as safely as possible, rather than inside a stuffy theater.
But budget costs for renting a mobile projection unit, paying the filmmakers, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on plans.
But Bittakis and her friends didn’t give up. They reached out to the Hollywood Theatre to potentially host a single evening screening.
“Being indoors at Hollywood Theatre in Portland for one night without a mobile projection unit works out better in the sense of doing something as a pilot version, testing the water to see how people will react,” she says.
They put out a call for submissions and whittled down 60 entries to the six films, including “Crouching Comic,” directed by local filmmaker Alberta Poon.
Poon loved making home movies as a kid, but never saw filmmaking as a possible adult career.
“I never took filmmaking seriously because I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me be successful in filmmaking. So to me, it was always this super fun side hobby,” she says.
That hobby quickly became a passion as Poon was getting more work making music videos, comedy sketches, and public service announcements.
“One thing just led to another, which led to another, which led to paid work. And I thought why don’t I just try to actually pursue the thing that I’ve been doing for my entire life,” she says.
Some of Alberta’s early films lean on the experimental and surreal. In her short film, “Bee the Change,” actors dressed as honey bees gyrate around large fake sunflowers, while others chase them and spray pesticides.
In her comedy web series “Scorpiono,” Poon and her friend blame their troubles on the planet Mercury in retrograde.
“There’s this attached stigma of being a Scorpio. And so we just created a comedy out of that!”
In 2020, after making a slew of short films and a web series, Poon wanted to tackle an issue that was close to her: accurate Asian American representation in the media.
“As someone who grew up in the states my entire life not seeing anyone like me, the only people I saw like me were depicted in racist, offensive stereotypes,” she says. “How am I as a kid supposed to feel good about myself when that is what I see on screen?”
The way to combat those stereotypes, she says, is to have more representation on screen and depicting Asian Americans living normal lives.
“Obviously all television and film is based on drama, but if you can see it on screen, you can think it exists for you,” she says. “I’m an Asian American woman, and I also tend to write comedy and there’s a lot of comedy that comes out of being an Asian American and trying to pursue creative jobs.”
She called her friend, stand-up comedian and winner of the Willamette Week’s 2021 Funniest Five poll, Katie Nguyen. Together, the duo made the film “Crouching Comic,” with Nguyen writing the jokes, and Poon crafting the plot.
“One main contribution I had to this film was really the angle of a stand-up, specifically what that particular art form is like for someone like us,” Nguyen says.
The 10-minute comedy follows the character Laila, played by Nguyen, practicing for a stand-up show. Things turn surreal when she suddenly imagines a photo of a white male coming to life and heckling her.
Laila also has humorous phone conversations with her traditional Vietnamese mother, who is constantly badgering her daughter to marry or get a “real job.”
While the story is fictional, Poon and Nguyen based many parts on their own lives.
“A lot of the jokes and what the men say and what the mom says to Laila are drawn from our real life experience,” Poon says.
They shot the film over the course of three days in 2020 with an all Asian-American crew.
“I’ve worked on all BIPOC crews, I’ve never worked with an all Asian American crew before,” she says. “So to make a film about our experience with the people behind the camera, sharing that experience was really special.”
Both artists plan to attend the Cine/SEEN screenings. Nguyen will also perform one of the evening’s two stand-up comedy sets as an extra nod to the duo’s comic film style.
“I just hope that it makes people take time to reflect on the ways in which the people in their lives who are members of marginalized groups, just the stuff they might be thinking about and dealing with in their own time,” Nguyen says.
While there aren’t current plans to make the films available online after Friday’s event, organizers are encouraging audience members to follow the emerging artists on social media for details on when their short films might screen again.
For Poon, that’s what matters.
“It’s important for us to share our community’s work with the public that otherwise may not come across it.”