The Accidental Filmmaker: An Interview With Tad Nakamura

Tad Nakamura  shot and directed an unintended trilogy: Yellow Brotherhood (2003), Pilgrimage (2006), and A Song for Ourselves (2009). I was able to catch up with him while he was on his way to visit his grandparents on a Wednesday afternoon to talk about how he identifies as a community member before an artist of any discipline, the origins of his Trilogy, and his current project with Jake Shimabukuro. This is a full transcript of the interview intended for an upcoming ACV Cinevue blog article.

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h!: What’s your trilogy officially called?
TN: It’s referred to as the Trilogy on the Asian-American Movement, but it’s really more focused on the Japanese-American Movement. People say Asian-American Movement, because it might be easier, but it’s not that accurate.

h!: How did you end up creating the trilogy?
TN: I actually didn’t know that it was going to be a trilogy at all. I actually didn’t think of it as a trilogy until making the last one on Chris IIjima. The first one, I was actually an undergrad at UCLA. Once I started doing more interviews, I started getting all these side stories, and through those side stories, that led from one film to another. In Yellow Brotherhood, a lot of the interviewees are the same people in Pilgrimage. It was because of that film that led to the second film. I didn’t think of it as a trilogy until the third, because they’re all kind of similar people, so it made sense to package it as a trilogy.

h!: In Yellow Brotherhood, I noticed you grew up with a lot of the folks you interviewed. In filming, did it help that you had access to the progressive Japanese-American community?
TN: That’s actually the reason kind of why I made it. I didn’t go away to college, I was 20 minutes away from my neighborhood. At that age, when I was getting politicized, you kind of start to appreciate family more and the community in its entire context. I wanted to make a thank you note almost to that community that has raised me. Now that I was removed from that for a little bit, and I had that political consciousness, I wanted to show my gratitude to those specific people in the film. It was more of a personal film, I wanted to document that history, but it was more a thank you letter to my best friends and the people you saw there.

h!: How have your films been received by the Japanese-American community?
TN: I’ve gotten nothing but huge amounts of support from the Japanese-American community, even more specific in LA. I don’t think I would have made the following two films if I didn’t get that much support.

I didn’t ever think I wanted to be a filmmaker, it wasn’t this dream of mine growing up. I just kind of did it, and I had so much support. It provided me with a new role in the community as a filmmaker. If it wasn’t for that support, I wouldn’t have made the second film, or the third film.

It wasn’t just people receiving it well, it was also the encouragement of that generation, and this would be my parents’ generation, who has been waiting to pass on the torch to our generation to retell certain stories of the community with more of that role as a documentarian or storyteller. I found a new role or identity in that community [as its documentarian.]
But then even more than anything, particularly with Pilgrimage, the ability to travel all over the country, and has broadened my sense of the Japanese-American community. My understanding of it was very isolated to Los Angeles, so through these films, it was good to connect the Japanese-American community in Seattle, the Japanese-American community in Chicago, and other places.

h!: What have you discovered about the Japanese-American community in this process?
TN: One thing is it’s been validated that there is a younger generation of Japanese-Americans who felt that their stories or perspectives were never represented. Our community is very dominated by certain narratives and stories; majority of them are those of the World War II generation, the 442 Soldiers, or those who were incarcerated in camp. I think that a lot of Japanese-Americans my age feel like their perspectives never really had a place in the community.

Even though the films [in the Trilogy] tell those stories, too, people feel like it’s from our perspective. Whether it was the type of music in the film, or just the pacing of the editing, I think younger people were attracted to it and felt it represented our generation within that community.

h!: A lot of your work is community-oriented, why is your work drawn in that direction?
TN: I think that was my actual introduction to filmmaking. I identify as a cultural worker, mainly identify as a community member and try to contribute back into that community. Again, I didn’t get into film to be a filmmaker or to be a director. It was more to use those resources that I had to document and preserve the people and stories of that community.

It’s based on where I started, and where I got my initial training. I continue to work with the Center for EthnoCommunications at UCLA that my dad runs, that’s where Eric Tandoc came out of, that’s where a lot of community documentarians came out of. We’re grounded on creating media for social change. The only reason why I picked up the camera was to document and to preserve my community. I think it’s evolving now, but those are the basis as to why I decided to pick up a camera.

h!: How is it evolving?
TN: Right now I’m working on my first feature length documentary, and it’s on a Japanese-American ukulele player based out of Hawaii named Jake Shimabukuro. Why I say it’s evolving is because it’s the least political film. It’s part of the Japanese-American community, but it’s not as a part of that politicized, LA, Japanese-American community. It’s good because I’m learning a whole lot on the project. Learning a lot more about production and storytelling. So hopefully I can increase my skills as a filmmaker, and bring those skills back to the community, and take on more projects targeting certain subject areas.

h!: How did you end up focusing on Jake Shimabukuro?
TN: It was actually the Center for Asian American Media. Don Young, the producer of the film and asked if I would like to direct and edit the film. It was pretty much an offer that any young artist would love – it was already funded, and it was an opportunity to work on a much larger scale.
Actually, I had just gotten into USC film school, so I was planning to go back and get an MFA and do the film school thing, but then this film presented itself. I decided that school will always be there. The opportunity to direct an hour long program possibly for PBS broadcasting – couldn’t pass it up. I’m really glad I made that decision. It’s a learning process, but a great process so far.

h!: How long have you been working on this project with Jake Shimabukuro?
TN: I’ve only been working on it for about a year no. It’s been on and off since he tours so much. He’s based in Hawaii, but he tours 10 months out of the year. So it’s not like we can shoot everything at one time. I’ve been able to tag along with him at different tours. Last time we actually went to Japan, I followed him on tour for a little bit. And we shot him in NY and of course, Hawaii and the Bay Area as well. It’s been great in terms of being able to travel. He’s based in Hawaii, and Hawaii is one of my favorite places, and I’ve been able to go out there a handful of times.

h!: Did you know Jake before you started working on this project?
TN: I had heard of him, but I didn’t even really know his music. It’s been good to start fresh – I didn’t have any preconceived notions or images of him. To do a biography film of someone you haven’t known that long is challenging, but at the same time there’s no baggage coming into the project.

h!: When will it be completed?
TN: Hopefully it’ll be done by Spring 2012, about a year from now.

h!: After watching your films, what do you want your audience to feel?
TN: I think that it’s the feeling of building community. There are certain artists that are either very political who are very active in the campaigns, I think my work fosters more community building. While I participate in that, my work is more community building by providing stories on screen that people can relate to and can actually feel that sense of community even though physically not part of that story or removed from their own community.

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