Issue 66 / The Reel Asian Film Festival Celebrates Two Decades of Great Asian Cinema

The Reel Asian Film Festival Celebrates Two Decades of Great Asian Cinema

Nov 23, 2016

 Nearly 80 films were screened at theaters across the GTA (including a selection that were shown at Toronto’s prestigious TIFF Bell Lightbox) at this milestone year for the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, which has been dubbed Canada’s longest running and largest Pan-Asian film fest.
Celebrated filmmaker Anita Lee founded the festival in 1996.  Photo Credit: Reel Asian Film Festival


It all began 20 years ago when filmmaker Anita Lee was invited to screen one of her films at Asian film festivals in Canada and the United States. She was so inspired by the sense of community and camaraderie she witnessed that she decided to start her own in Toronto. Years later and Reel Asian is still going strong. “[It] provides a public forum for Asian media artists and their work, and fuels the growing appreciation for Asian cinema in Canada,” says Philbert Lui, the festival’s marketing manager.

This year’s edition of  Reel Asian is truly a testament to how big it has grown throughout the last 20 years.  What began very humbly as a four-day festival to showcase Asian film has since expanded to include South Asian films — produced in countries like India and Sri Lanka — and now runs over the course of nearly two weeks with more than 10-thousand attendees and a pretty large budget of an estimated $690,000.


The Reel Asian Film Festival opening night gala party at the AGO Galleria Italia.  Photo Credit: Mike Tjioe
Organizers say since Bombay Talkies opened the festival in 2013, the number of South Asian movies at Reel Asian have steadily grown. The contemporary take on Hindi cinema features four short films, including one directed by Karan Johar about a wife — played by Bollywood heavyweight Rani Mukerji — who thinks she’s in a happy marriage until she meets someone at work. Bombay Talkies not only marked the beginning of a new era in Bollywood, but highlighted a growing desire for South Asian film at the festival.
Sairat was this year’s closing night film at Reel Asian. Photo Credit: Reel Asian International Film Festival
In fact, India’s highest-grossing Marathi language film, Sairat, was one of the most anticipated flicks of the festival and was chosen as the closing night film. The Canadian premiere saw the return of director Nagraj Manjule to Reel Asian. His movie tells the all-too familiar story of a poor boy who falls for wealthy girl and all the trouble they endure along the way. The last time Manjule was at the festival he took home the 2014 National Bank Best First Feature Awards for Fandry, which similarly to Sairat cast non-actors in the lead roles to set a more authentic tone.
Line-up at the University of Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theater for Sairat.  Photo Credit: Yuhan Pan


Also garnering a lot of buzz at the festival, the South Asian documentary about two women part of world-renowned family of musicians the Shankars’.  Nari, which means both woman and sacrifice in Sanskrit documents the hardships Lakshmi Shankar and her daughter, Viji, had to overcome in their quest to bring Indian music to the West in the ’70s. The screening of the film culminated with a captivating high-energy live performance by Viji’s daughter, Gingger.
Gingger Shankar took to the stage after the screening of Nari, at the Aga Khan Museum. Photo Credit: Mike Tjioe


Another exciting screening for Reel’s 20th anniversary featured Hollywood stars Emmy-award winning Sandra Oh and Oscar-nominated Ellen Page. Both Oh and Page lent their voices to animated feature, Window Horses, by director Ann Marie Fleming who’s been a fixture on the Canadian movie scene for more than 25 years. Keeping in line with some of the central ideas of the festival, the movie takes viewers on a journey with a young Chinese poet who uncovers a secret about her cultural identity in Iran.


The 2016 Canadian Spotlight artist was Ann Marie Fleming who took part in a Q & A for her film Window Horses, which had its screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Photo Credit: Mike Tjioe


And as Reel Asian continues to evolve, educational programs have become almost as important as the movies themselves.  The 20th year celebrations marked the debut of “Wee Asian,” a children’s program that gave kids the opportunity to explore the art of movie making through things like crafts. Lui says the aim of the intiative is “to inspire the next generation of Asian storytellers.”  Another unique element to year 20 of Reel Asian is that its now moving beyond the 12-day festival. In the summer, organizers had a one-day screening event for Hindi films called “Bollywood in the Bluffs” and in May they marked Asian Heritage Month by screening a series of films in the GTA.


Day one of kids program, Wee Asian, at the AGO Weston Family Learning Center.  Photo Credit: by Mike Tjioe


Calling the 20th anniversary of Reel Asian a success, with total ticket sales projected to be higher than previous years’ organizers hope the festival will be bigger and better next year by expanding to other Ontario cities including Mississauga, Scarborough and Markham.  However, they say they will only do this by continuing to stay true to the main themes of the festival, which include telling multi-generational stories from all over the world and introducing new creative voices from the Asian community.


The Reel Asian International Film Festival closing night gala party at The Spoke Club. Photo Credit: Mike Tjioe
The Reel Asian Film Festival closing night gala party at The Spoke Club. Photo Credit: Mike Tjioe


Main Image Photo Credit: The Reel Asian Film Festival

Neetu Seupersadsingh


Neetu Seupersadsingh has loved writing for as long as she can remember. That's why Carleton University’s journalism program  was her clear choice for post-secondary studies. In Ottawa, she was able to further develop her skill in arts, entertainment and lifestyle reporting. So...


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