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Tad Nakamura's new documentary short A Song For Ourselves chronicles the life of Asian American singer-songwriter and political activist Chris Iijima.
A Song For Ourselves is Tad Nakamura's third documentary short film, and like his award-winning 2004 Yellow Brotherhood and his 2006 Sundance-featured Pilgrimage, A Song For Ourselves brings the stories and faces of the Asian American social movements of the 1960's and 70's to a new generation. Begun as a single video interview with Chris Iijima before his untimely passing in 2005, A Song For Ourselves is a moving portrait of this influential musician, activist, scholar, and father.
Tad sat down with APA to talk about A Song For Ourselves and his background as a documentary filmmaker.
Both my parents - Karen Ishizuka and Robert Nakamura - they're pretty well known filmmakers, at least in the Japanese American community. The funny thing is that growing up, I was actually never really forced or even pushed towards film. Or not even the arts. I actually think I went the opposite route. I was totally into sports...
I really didn't have any kind of creative training or schooling until I was an Asian American studies major here at UCLA as an undergrad... I was around Visual Communications growing up, and I would go to my parents' screenings. But you know, I was the kid in the hallway outside not watching the film, and not taking that much of an interest. I think like any other kid, if it was forced on me, I probably wouldn't have done it. So in a way, I was able to discover it on my own. And once I got to the point where I was interested in doing something in that same field, then I think my parents all of a sudden could help me out. I think the main thing too is learning from the best, and I think my Dad still is [the best.]
...it’s kind of bad, but it goes back to what doesn’t work for me. And I was always a slow reader, and I just didn’t like reading. And this is a true story, but I took AP History in High School, and really, the way I passed AP tests was I just watched The History Channel... I would much rather listen and watch and hear and see photographs than read...
I think a lot of people have a lot of the same attraction to family photos. So aesthetically, I always thought it was much more intriguing than even hearing stories… actually flipping through my family photo book. I guess I’m more of a visual person anyway, but I think the fact that… to have a face, or to see people I know as old, older, and to see them young, or to see them as dashing in their young 20’s or actually like hip and cool. Versus like, [thinking of them as] my grandma or my Dad, who'd you never think was cool. You never think your parents were cool.... So I think that combination led me towards the content of my films.
How did Chris Iijima's story come to you?
...whenever I would talk to my parents about the Asian American movement, they would always talk about Chris and JoAnne and how the Grain of Sand album was the soundtrack to that movement. I kinda knew Chris as a historical figure almost, someone that I heard sing on vinyl. And it wasn’t until his family had already moved, and he was teaching at University of Hawaii in Honolulu, when I got to know him on a personal level. I was going to the UCLA summer program at U of H so I was there for a summer. And he would take me out to eat, and we would talk. He was very interested in my thoughts and my generation’s view of Asian America or current political situations...
After he passed away, there was three memorials, one in Hawaii, one in Los Angeles, and one in New York. For the Los Angeles one, I was asked to cut a slide show, or a more intimate video for his memorial. And that was pretty much the structure or the start of the film.
How long did A Song For Ourselves take to produce?
Start to finish, I think realistically working on the film full-time was about 2 years. If you include when we shot the interview, it was more like two and a half... This is the first biography that I’ve done, or tried to do. I learned a lot. The biggest lesson, doing a biography, is that it really is about you too. As much as people want to say it’s about that person, the subject’s life, it’s really about the way you’re interpreting that person’s life, or the way you see that person. I was almost fighting that, wanting to provide, to do him justice, and to be somewhat accurate…. but then realizing that it’s still very much my interpretation of his life, or even the movement the way I see it. It’s very much from my own perspective...
I wasn’t able to fit in all his achievements, but the one thing I wanted to focus on was him as an artist. But an artist who was able to evolve and adapt. I think every other documentary you see about an artist, it’s like young success, then they have drug problems, financial problems and then maybe a come back at the end. But you know, like they couldn’t get it together. I think Chris’ story is very different because he was very successful as a musician in his early 20’s, but he was able to evolve into a teacher and eventually a law professor. He had to raise a family, he had to get a “real job” and he was able to do that and adjust to getting older, but at the same time the impact and his goal of creating social change was consistent.
What would you like for people to take away from A Song For Ourselves?
...two things. One, for Chris Iijima specifically, I would hope people see him as a well-rounded, complete human being. He was not only a musician, but he was also an academic, and he was also a father and a husband... Also on a larger scale, I want to portray the Asian American movement... It was much more than just people on bull horns and having picket signs. It was a whole culture and identity that was created.
The one empowering thing for me to see about that footage was that not only were Asian Americans organizing and creating change, but they were singing and they were creating art. They were creative people. At the same time, they were very dedicated to community, very dedicated to political analysis with their art. Because I think most people -- when I say most people we’re talking about mainstream audiences -- still see Asian Americans as foreigners. So to see an Asian American even in the early 70’s surprises people... I think Asian Americans aren’t really seen at artists at all. I think that Chris and Nobuko and Charlie Chin break that stereotype.
...I actually listen to more music, I follow music much closer than I follow films. I don’t consider myself a music buff. But I certainly dialogue more about music than films. And I think that’s actually what brought me to filmmaking too: when I was an undergrad at UCLA, I was taking Asian American studies classes, and I think we were all trying to figure out a way to create change. And at that time, I think poetry was kind of big. And there was actually a lot of Asian American hip hop artists that were starting to come up, and that was actually what one thing that inspired me. I wanted to do something creative. But I can’t rap, I wouldn’t touch poetry in terms of my own stuff, and I’m not very musically inclined, so it was a way for me to work with that music...
I really felt I was able to work with Chris Iijima’s music - along with Nobuko Miyamoto’s and Charlie Chin’s – and that’s the first time I felt I actually got a chance to reinterpret someone’s work. The whole score is off of the Grain of Sand album. So it was interesting to pair songs that maybe weren’t originally meant for this kind of mood for this kind of tone, but trying to reinterpret them for the film.
What about the Asian American movement now?
It's a good question, and its been asked, and its being debated on consistently. Is there an Asian American movement now? And I think on one hand there is, but it has evolved just like the Asian American community has evolved... The majority of the Asian American movement in the late-60's, you're talking about Japanese American, Chinese American, Filipino American, Korean American, and South Asian. But now communities that are on the forefront, were talking about Vietnamese American, were talking about Khmai, Thai, Southeast Asia, communities with different kinds of issues. And because of that, the movement has changed.
I don't think you necessarily see a mass movement like the 60's, but if you look at the labor movement, the workers movement in L.A., you see a lot of Asians. Or you talk about immigration too, those I think are mass movements going on now. And aren't necessarily ethnic specific, but at the same time, Asian Americans have huge role in both those movements now.
On the premiere of A Song For Ourselves:
I'm actually really excited because besides the film screening, we’re going to also have a concert featuring musicians that aren’t directly connected to Chris Iijima, but are continuing his work of creating music for the Asian American community -- to build community as well as [conveying] very critical political content through their music. The first group Blue Scholars is coming out of Seattle.... and they are really is providing the soundtrack to today’s movement in terms of the communities we were talking about earlier. Same thing with a MC named Bambu - Filipino-American - and another Filipino American MC named Kiwi who were both part of a group Native Guns...
Besides the hip-hop acts, Charlie Chin and Nobuko Miyamoto, who were Chris Iijima’s old singing partners, are going to be making a guest appearance. I actually just heard that Chris Iijima’s oldest son and Nobuko’s son will be performing with them on-stage. The theme is bridging the generations of community artists and I definitely think that will add to that.
"Yellow Pearl" from Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America by Chris Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin:
A Song For Ourselves premieres at 7:30pm on Saturday, February 28th at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
For more information, click HERE.
Date Posted: 2/20/2009