Monday, November 12, 2007

Get to know an Asian American Filmmaker: Tadashi Nakamura, PILGRIMAGE

I know these "get to knows" have been about Asian Canadian filmmakers, but I was able to do a little interview with Tadashi “Tad” Nakamura, director of the documentary short film Pilgrimage which is showing with Koryo Saram:The Unreliable People. Pilgrimage is about the activism of Japanese Americans in the 1960’s who reclaimed the various internment camps by making pilgrimages to the sites of the camps and memorializing that history. Check it out on Friday, Nov. 16 at 1pm at the NFB Cinema.

When his previous short film Yellow Brotherhood showed at Reel Asian in 2005 Tad wasn’t able to make it to Toronto. Let’s show him a good time!

Aram Collier: What was the inspiration/genesis for this project ?

Tadashi Nakamura: Warren Furutani (who’s in the film) had written a piece about the first pilgrimage before and actually approached me about making it into a film. so from there my parents and I thought it would be a really good part of ja/asian american movement history to document.

Since my dad had gone on the 1st pilgrimage himself, he had a personal investment in the story. he for him that first pilgrimage had a huge impact on him becoming politicized and eventually joining the movement so he knew it had a similar effect on others

It was also that time that the anti arab and muslim, 9/11 back-lash was in full effect, patriot act etc. so I felt like I needed to do something as a young japanese american and as a wanna be fimmaker

AC: How long did it take from start to finish?
TN: A total of 2 years. I started production in the beginning of 05 and was editing for all of 06 finishing in november

AC: You've mentioned your parents as very active in the process of this film. -Both of your parents are very active in the Japanese American and Asian American community and the whole Asian American Studies 1st generation (eg very much of the activist generation you feature in pilgrimage). can you talk about the experience of being a 2nd generation Asian American studies kid, the good and I'm sure bad.

TN: yeah, being part of this 2nd generation asian american movement is interesting, meaning being the kid of people who were in the "movement of the late 60's. first off, while my parents and their peers in the movement grew up working class (my dad's father was a gardener), most of their kids did not. because of the movement many asian americans were able to go to college and become professionals or worked in non-profits that enabled them to raise families in middle class communities.

So on one hand my generation is much more comfortable and privileged economically and we have a lot more resources as asian americans with asian am. studies, all the non-profits and the arts with film festivals, magazine, etc. but at the same time I think its because of these resources that many asian americans, at least japanese americans are very comfortable and do not feel the urgency to be more active and dedicate their time toward social change

AC: yes, its like, what results from political and social movements are not always clear at the time, and never guaranteed.
TN: I also think the political climate is very different now. back in the 60's you had movements all over the country and all over the world. mass movements in this country actually posed a threat to the establishment. now it doesn't. so while my generation has all these resources about our history and other issues in the community. it is much harder to do stuff on a mass level

AC: do you think then, that because of the gains of the asian american community and JA community then AAs and JAs need to be more active in other movements. Whether it be for other communities of colour, the "green" movement or environmental justice and whatnot. You touch on this in the film.
TN: yeah, I think at least for JA's we should be. One, because like all AA communities we know the fucked up things that this country has done to us here and to our countries or origin. but also for JA's we not only have a history of oppression but a history of activism as well. so we inherit our parents struggle to create change. but I do think that today many JA's and AA's need to look beyond their own communities since they are the ones who are being targeted more heavily.

AC: Pilgrimage and your previous film Yellow Brotherhood both use a lot of archival material- photos and film, talk about that process as well as what was it like working with that material that most people have/had never seen. Did it feel more 'weighted' or did you feel any kind of 'responsibility' towards the material?
TN: luckily, I had a lot of archival material to work with for this film. because the movement was so massive in the 60's, it created its own arts movement that included photographers, filmmakers and musicians. the result being that there are a lot of photos and music from that era. most of the photos from the first pilgrimage itself are from my dad's collection. he was a photographer at the time so he shot about 7 roles that day (the day of the first Manzanar Pilgrimage).
TN: but there really wouldn't have been a film if it were not for Ron Rundstrom's super 8 footage of the first pilgrimage. I met him at the 2003 pilgrimage and explained the project to him. because he had remembered my dad, he told me that he had "some footage" from that first trip. so we went to Santa Fe (New Mexico) and he gave me the original reels that him and his late brother don had shot. when we got back to LA and looked at the footage, it was like striking gold! again, I have to really thank Ron Rundstrom for his generosity

AC: Very serendipitous
TN: what’s serendipitous mean?

AC: “lucky and fortunate, yielding good results.”… I had to look it up too. haha
TN: thanks haha!

TN: I also just really like the aesthetics of the asian american movement. I think there is something very empowering about seeing asian americans back in the day, not only all 60's out but also politically active. plus, we just look hella good!
AC: you like the asian american activist aesthetic? the long hair and ho chi minh goatees?
TN: yeah, hairy ass asians are the shit!

AC: more and more documentaries are using animation and after effects to liven up their still images, Pilgrimage features this as well. first, what are your thoughts about this trend and how did you do it?

TN: I think its exactly that, a trend. which will probably get played out very soon cause of people like me. but I think it is a good example of what our generation can bring to documentary filmmaking. the main goal of the visual effects on the stills were to make these old black and white photos be more appealing to a younger audience. so while it may be nostalgic to a certain age group, I felt they had to do more to "come to life". even though it had been done before, I first saw the effects in the tupac resurrection (sp?) film and was like "yo, I’m gonna totally bite that shit!"

AC: on the DVD special features, what would be a "deleted scene" from your film?
TN: hmmm. well I actually had a whole section of the younger non-JA people in the film (the chicana, filipino, south asian and arab american folks that were interviewed at the 2005 pilgrimage). I actually did regular sit-down interviews with them and cut this section where they talk bout how there was a boiling point in the 60's that really ignited the movement, and how they think we might be approaching a similar boiling point now. It brought up more contemporary issues like katrina and the iraq occupation. I liked it cause I felt it made the film more relevant but some thought it was too preachy and a lot of people felt it took away from the main focus on the pilgrimage.

AC: that would have been interesting but I also see their point. and the film works pretty well as it is, at the length it is.
TN: thanks aram
AC: what is your next project/what are you working on now?
TN: I’m currently in production on a biography on the late singer/songwriter chris iijima. he was one of the early musicians to use his music to help organize and empower people to create change. he and his singing partners nobuko miyamoto and charlie chin came out with an album called "a grain of sand". this became the unofficial soundtrack of the movement. I used songs from that album in both yellow brotherhood and pilgrimage. I wanna use this film as a last film in this kinda trilogy of japanese american movement pieces. then I think i'm done with the movement, at least for a while. I have fantasies about making a football documentary about the Samoan community in Carson, ca and how the intersection of football, gangs and church play out in the boy’s lives.
I really want to make a sports film!
AC: dude, I totally wanna make a sports doc too! (but about baseball)
TN: do it!

AC: what's the story behind your headshot. that's not the Tad I know...
TN: which one, the one with my hat to the side?
AC: yeah hat to the side, in front of graffiti wall. seems like doc filmmakers per capita are more likely to be photographed in front of a graffiti wall than the average population
TN: haha! that's the only shot of me not blowing smoke out my mouth or making a dumbass face. it was taken as a regular shot while I was visiting new york. you know trying to pretend I’m hard.

AC: this is your first time to Toronto and Canada, what are you looking forward to, and what are you scared of? do you know what poutine is?
TN: I wanna see what t dot is all about. i'm really scared of the cold and am going to be walking around in a sleeping bag of a jacket. but i'm also really curious about what the asian canadian film scene is like,
TN: what's poutine?
AC: oh man, you must experience poutine...

Let's show Tadashi some good ol' Canadian hospitality, and if you see him at the festival - get him a poutine!