Linda Mabalot, an activist and filmmaker who founded the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival and nurtured the careers of Asian American directors as the longtime head of Visual Communications, a nonprofit media production and advocacy group, has died. She was 49.
Mabalot, who died May 19 at West Hills Medical Center, had cancer.
The daughter of a Sacramento River Delta farmer, Mabalot joined Visual Communications in 1977 and rose to executive director in 1985, when the organization was facing bankruptcy.
She resolved the group’s financial problems, then concentrated on expanding its scope by encouraging a wide swath of Asian American communities to tell their stories through film and other media.
She also led the group to sponsor young Asian American filmmakers such as Justin Lin, who directed this year’s controversial social satire about Asian American teenagers, “Better Luck Tomorrow.”
To support the work of artists such as Lin, Mabalot created the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival, which began in collaboration with the UCLA film department and now is in its 19th year. One of the largest showcases of Asian and Asian American filmmaking in the country, the festival, held at several sites around Los Angeles, drew 10,000 people over seven days in early May.
Lin, a 31-year-old Taiwan native who grew up in Orange County, said Mabalot allowed him to use Visual Communications’ offices in Little Tokyo for auditions and rehearsals and was a source of unwavering moral support for a movie that contradicted the image of Asian Americans as a model minority.
“When Linda read the script,” Lin said, “she really got it. She helped to empower me as an artist to explore the issues I wanted to explore, to stay true to the characters and issues without having to water them down or worry about what so-and-so in the community might think. What she brought was unconditional support.”
Mabalot grew up in a world far removed from Hollywood and filmmaking. Much of her youth was spent helping her father, a first-generation Filipino American, harvest tomatoes on land he leased in the area of the Sacramento River Delta known as Liberty Island.
Inspired by the work of Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan, who wrote movingly about the experiences of Filipino immigrant farm workers, she became an activist in the Asian Pacific American student movement while a pre-med major at UC Davis. She graduated in 1975 with a degree in biology, but her desire to make a film about Bulosan eventually led her to Los Angeles.
She met Duane Kubo and Eddie Wong, two of the founding members of Visual Communications, while walking in Little Tokyo one day in 1977. She joined their collective of artists and filmmakers to direct and produce a project about the history of Filipinos in California. The result was a documentary titled “Manong,” which focused on Filipino farm workers in the Central Valley and on Phillip Veracruz, a Filipino American pioneer in the United Farm Workers movement.
“It was one of the earliest documentaries about Filipino Americans,” said Cas Tolentino, an administrative law judge who taught UCLA’s first class on the Filipino American experience and knew Mabalot for more than 25 years.
Mabalot began to regard projects such as “Manong” as an important step in bringing about social change. “She felt that when there is an accurate portrayal [of a community], there is a change in the mind-set about its history,” Tolentino said.
“Asian Americans do exist, we have a history and we have made a lot of contributions, and yet there are so many untold stories,” she told Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based Japanese-American newspaper, in 1988.
Her other projects included “Planting Roots: A Pictorial History of Filipinos in California”; “Moving the Image,” a series on the International Channel Network; “Hiroshima 20 Years Later”; and “Imaging: A Century of Asian Women in Film.” She also organized “Heading East: California’s Asian Pacific Experience,” a photo exhibit for the California Sesquicentennial Commission of the California State Library that toured the state in 1998.
As executive director of Visual Communications, Mabalot expanded its vision beyond producing films, videos and educational material to actively sponsoring the work of Asian American filmmakers.
“She foresaw the need to help other Asian Americans in their quest to produce and present their works. So we became more of a fiscal sponsor and advocate,” said Doug Aihara, president of Visual Communications’ board of directors.
In addition to Lin, Mabalot helped nurture new filmmakers such as Gene Cajayon, Eric Byler and Rod Pulido.
Mabalot is survived by her mother, Rosalina, of Sacramento; two sisters, Dora Linda Douex of San Jose and Natividad Mabalot Andres of Frankfurt, Germany; and nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. June 22 at the George and Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo. Donations may be sent to Visual Communications for the Linda Mabalot Memorial Fund, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles 90012.