From Grassroots to the Silver Screen: A Song For Ourselves

Yayoi Lena Winfrey January 21, 2010 Comments Off on From Grassroots to the Silver Screen: A Song For Ourselves

Filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura

The word Yonsei means fourth-generation Japanese American and Gosei, fifth. Together they form YoGos, a group of Seattleites intent on keeping alive the community, culture and history of Japanese Americans.

On February 6, YoGos will offer two free documentary film screenings to the public. Titled “Inspiring Community Through Film: A Night with Tadashi Nakamura, Asian American Filmmaker”, the work was created by the son of celebrated filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura.

Making an appearance at the NVC Memorial Hall, Tadashi “Tad” Nakamura will participate in an audience Q&A following two films that make up his documentary trilogy. All are about Asian Americans and the importance of community.

In “A Song for Ourselves”, Nakamura chronicles the life of Chris Iijima, folk hero among Asian American activists of the 1970’s. Along with Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin, Iijima participated in a musical group called “Yellow Pearl“ that inspired the Asian American political movement, much like “We Shall Overcome” did for African Americans.

From student to musician, lawyer to law professor, from New York to California to Hawai’i (where he battled for Native Hawai’ian rights), Iijima fought for social justice. His passionate voice and strong sense of activism influenced a generation of Asian Americans that felt invisible and mistreated following WWII.

“It’s about his whole life,” Nakamura says of the film. “The first part is about him as a movement musician in the late 1960’s to 1970’s. It follows his life as he evolves into a middle school teacher in the mid-1980’s and becomes a law professor in the 1990’s.”

Nakamura’s interest in Iijima, who died in 2005, is more than just a passing curiosity.

“Chris Iijima was a family friend,” he explains, “but I really learned to appreciate his work and, as I became an Asian American studies major in college, I learned about his music and how it inspired young Asian Americans with its political messages.”

Nakamura adds that Iijima’s influence could extend to a new generation of APA’s today if they discover others like him creating for political change in their communities.

The second documentary on the screening slate, “Pilgrimage”, is about the first expedition to Manzanar War Relocation Center in 1969 (24 years after Japanese Americans were released from there) and subsequent annual treks.

Calling it “a pretty personal story,” Nakamura reveals. “My whole family was incarcerated at Manzanar. Not only was my father incarcerated, but he also went on the first pilgrimage to Manzanar.”

Indeed, archival footage in Pilgrimage shows father Nakamura filming that initial event.

“Hundreds of people come out,” says Nakamura about the annual journey, “not just Japanese Americans and not just from California, but from all over the world.”

The third film of Nakamura’s trilogy, which will not be screened, is “Yellow Brotherhood”, about a self-help organization in Los Angeles started in late the 1960’s to get Asian American kids off drugs and out of gangs. Viewable at Nakamura’s website, it gives an insightful glimpse into the lives of Asian Americans in Los Angeles, including Nakamura’s family and two best boyhood friends.

With his films focused on the past, what does Nakamura think about Asian American youth and activism today?

“In general, the political climate is a lot different now than in the 60’s and 70’s,” he replies. “There’s not necessarily a mass movement. A lot of young people just don’t have the inspiration they need to create a national movement.”

Citing reasons why younger Japanese Americans seem complacent, Nakamura says that “current atrocities are not specifically directed towards them” and that “it’s hard for them to identify with the struggles of current legalization of immigrants or hate crimes after 911” that don’t personally affect them.

Although his films feature serious topics, Nakamura has a visually rich storytelling style with quick pacing. And, while the music—mostly a mix of jazz, R&B and rap—isn’t relegated to the background, it doesn’t interfere with the somber tone of his movies’ messages either.

At 29, Nakamura already has a robust awareness of the past. The Los Angeles native is currently collecting oral histories and considering a return to school later this year although he’s already earned an M.A. in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz and a B.A. in Asian American Studies from UCLA.

“I’ve been wanting to show my films in Seattle for a long time,” he says, “especially because I worked with local Seattle artists and a hiphop group called Blue Scholars who provided some of their music in ‘Pilgrimage’.”

Screenings will be on Feb. 6 at the NVC Memorial Hall, from 7-9:30 p.m. with beverages provided. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., but seats are limited and on a first-come basis.

For more information about Nakamura, go to: www.asongforourselves.blogspot.com & www.tadashianakamura.com

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