Film and TV

Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival Roars Into Denver

Mu and the Vanishing World is one of the films at this year's Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival.
Mu and the Vanishing World is one of the films at this year's Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival. Mu and the Vanishing World
Colorado Dragon Boat, a Denver-based group celebrating and promoting Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities across the state, had a tough 2020.

The nonprofit was able to pull off last year's edition of the Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival. The annual event, which was launched in 2016, took place just before the cultural scene came to a screeching halt over COVID-19. But over the summer, the signature Colorado Dragon Boat Festival — which started in 2001, later giving rise to the film fest and other related activities — was canceled and replaced with a virtual event. While the online offering wasn't as thrilling as the races on Sloan's Lake — the most comprehensive in the country — the organization was happy to have a chance to connect with its community, which desperately needed something to rally around.

Stoked by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump during the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have been raging nationwide, making the Colorado Dragon Boat's work more crucial than ever before. But coming together in person as a community has been prohibited by COVID-19 restrictions, putting the nonprofit in a bind.

"We've just been trying to survive," says Colorado Dragon Boat Executive Director Sara Moore. Part of that is making sure that the work continues, whether in person or online.

Moving into 2021, the organization is off to a strong start with the return of its film festival, which starts Thursday March 4, and runs through March 7. The program has been largely curated by Matthew Campbell, artistic director of the Denver Film Festival, with local and shorts programs handpicked by Moore; the Dragon Boat Film Festival will be streamed on Denver Film's Virtual Cinema platform.

"It’s our second year partnering with the organization that puts on the Dragon Boat Festival," says Campbell. "They’ve been incredible partners. They had been doing the film festival before us for a number of years. We had been communicating with them the last few years. We came together to pool our resources and to take this festival to the next level. It was a great success. This year, we're super excited."

Having seen Denver Film pull off the Denver Film Festival online, Moore was confident the organization could successfully host the annual festival of Asian and Pacific Islander movies virtually. And both organizers are confident that the lineup is as good, if not better, than previous years' offerings.

"Working with Denver Film this year, we knew we had the ability to go all-virtual," says Moore. "That gave me hope we’d be able to just continue our mission in a way that’s not overly stressful. Working with Denver Film — they’re the gurus of film, and the online platform is amazing."

The anti-Asian politics sweeping the country influenced how the programmers approached putting the festival lineup together. "Because of what happened last year and in general, we chose the theme of RepresentASIAN," Moore explains. "We decided to really boldly highlight that in film."

And the choice was a good one.

"There are so many amazing talents out there in cinema that are hidden and not seen too often," she says. "We're bringing to the forefront the amazing contributions coming out of our communities."

There's plenty in the lineup, from feature narrative films to documentaries and shorts. Campbell describes opening-night film Definition Please as "an adult coming-of-age story," a feel-good indie film about mental health, family and culture, directed by Sujata Day from HBO's Insecure.

"It's a really impressive first feature, and she should be someone to watch," Campbell says.

While there are plenty of highbrow movies for the arthouse set, the festival also offers programming for viewers of all ages. "There are a lot of great family-friendly films in the festival," he adds. "The top one is Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. The film is from Bhutan. It was shortlisted as Bhutan’s submission for the Academy Awards this year."

For those who prefer to watch local, there are also a handful of Colorado-made films. When Moore came on board in 2018, she started a student showcase, which the organization has since renamed the Emerging Artists Showcase. "We decided we need to highlight the amazing contributions from our community and those that wouldn’t make it in larger film festivals because they’re starting out," she explains.

The shorts program includes the first three seasons of Marin Lapore’s I Put the Bi in Bitter, Steven Thai’s "Safe" and Madison Santa Maria’s "Checkbox: Other."

Despite the film fest moving online, Moore hopes that it will continue to bring Colorado's various Asian communities and the rest of the public together — this time virtually — to celebrate these movies and cultures.

"There are so many Asian-American narratives and documentaries really talking about being Asian in America," says Moore. "This film festival is for everybody, and we’re trying to promote and celebrate culture in Colorado."

For more information about the festival, which runs March 4 through March 7, go to the Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris