Rebel Child

An interview with Tad Nakamura

There is a longing for community that we all strive for, and for those of us whose identities dictate that the personal cannot be separated from the political, documentary filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura’s work strikes a resonant chord. His work speaks to the power and passion of young people who have fought to re-claim the narrative of the American experience, an experience that cannot exist apart from ideas of diaspora, activism, and empowerment.

Illustration by Brian Yu

Having already shown his work at Sundance, and featured on the CNN segment, “Young People Who Rock,” he’s just one of the youngest and brightest of a growing movement of cultural hustlers who have made it their craft to remake the American cultural landscape with stories that have too long gone untold.

You know what this movement is if you’ve read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Dĺaz, because you’d know that ghetto-intellectualism, and a hero in the form of an awkward but earnest boy from Santo Domingo are now part of the American literary discourse. Or if you’ve experienced the lyrical poetry of Suheir Hammad, whose evocative language speaks to the beauty and pain of coming up as a young Palestinean woman on the streets of Brooklyn. Or the historiography of Jeff Chang, which defines the history of the hip hop generation as a very real and undeniable history of this country. It’s experience as identity, identity as experience. The power of witnessing these words on the page, these images on screen, and the verses, sung and spoken loud and proud, is that acute sensation of identification and validation of experiences that have been held within for entire lifetimes. This is the transparency of personal storytelling. It may not be sensational, it surely isn’t voyeuristic, but it is most definitely authentic. What is says is, yes, this shit is real.

Rooted in Los Angeles and raised by parents who spent their youth trailblazing a social movement in a heady time of unrest that demanded from the U.S. government social justice for all its citizens, and created a new definition of community and identity in the late 1960s—known historically as the Asian American Movement—it isn’t difficult to see where Tad finds his push for life, his muse, and his greatest inspiration.

The substance and style of the Asian American Movement are elements that resonate with Tad as a filmmaker, and he hopes that they will continue to inspire.

“For me it was very empowering to learn that Asian Americans were fighting for social justice during the 1970s, but it went to another level when I saw that we did it with swagger and looked so good doing it! I hope my films add some dimension to the way people view Asian American history. What’s most important to me is that my work provides young Asian Americans with a well-rounded view of ourselves, beyond the limited images and ideas that we are fed from the media, school, and even our own families. I hope seeing and hearing Asian Americans on-screen talking about being athletes, artists and activists is an empowering experience. Because film combines the visual image and sound, it has the potential to make history more personal and inspiring,” he said.

He is fiercely proud of his roots, and his recently completed trilogy of short films,Yellow Brotherhood (2003), Pilgrimage (2003), and A Song for Ourselves (2009), are the stories and histories that are inextricably intertwined to his personal history as a fourth generation Japanese American, an activist, and a freedom fighter.

The three films reveal how a moment in time during the youth of his parent’s generation has maintained its importance and relevance decades later. It begins with Yellow Brotherhood, Tad’s own personal narrative of his youth, and his coming of age through the discovery of the incredible social movement his parents were a part of. Pilgrimage takes the story further, documenting how a group of Japanese American youth in 1969 reclaimed their silenced history and created solidarity in community by journeying to the internment camps their parents were incarcerated within at Manazanar, California. In doing so, they became pioneers, becoming the first to publically call attention to the injustice of America’s concentration camps, long forgotten since World War II. Completing the trilogy is A Song For Ourselves, a personal journey into the life and music of Chris Iijima, the activist and musician from NYC who defined the voice of the nascent Asian American community at a time when it had none.

By telling the story of his family and community, he tells the greater history of the Asian American Movement that went hand in hand with the rise of the Black Panthers and Young Lords within the America’s urban centers. Through his personal storytelling, he reveals that the Asian American Movement represented a watershed historical moment that gets little play in the history books–even in university ethnic studies courses– but its spirit and legacy are timeless. It was a youth movement borne in a social climate of uncertainty and unrest, where, for the first time in U.S. history, young people of color collectively raised their passionate voices demanding change in the established social structure and ignited radical change in the way they perceived themselves– as beautiful, empowered, creative individuals– and the way their communities were perceived by mainstream American society.

At a recent screening and discussion session in an auditorium filled to the brim with students at SFSU, Tad expressed his intent for his films to serve as an educational tool, to create awareness of social issues and the rich culture of activism and organizing that works towards positive change in our communities, and to inspire the next generation of young people to continue the movement.

“I’m trying to make a history relevant. The majority of the activities during the late 60s were circled around the East Asian community. I think my purpose is to expand that so the new face of Asian America and the new immigrant community can identify and become empowered by the experience. I’m trying to relate concepts that, not just Asian Americans, but other marginalized communities can adapt and identify with. ” And to the students to whom Tad was speaking with that afternoon, he urged, “if you are thinking about pursuing a certain craft or medium– the world desperately needs your work.”

In A Song For Ourselves, Tad reveals that “When Asians in America were invisible to this country—and more importantly to themselves—the late Chris Iijima’s music provided the voice and identity an entire generation had been in search of.” Through this story of an individual, Tad recounts to us the historical moment when young Asian Americans decided that they were no longer Oriental, but Asian. In the face of racism and social inequality, they were rebellious and defiant, and above all, they took pride in their culture and heritage when they were given every indication otherwise. It was a movement that was social, ideological, and full of style. They provided social services for their communities. They formed art collectives, wrote poetry, one-act plays, produced illustrations, posters, essays, and manifestos that confronted racism, inequality, and the absurdities of the U.S. government’s actions in Vietnam. During this time of widespread unrest, Asian American youth raised their collective voice and spoke to their shared hopes, fears, and dreams as the children of immigrants, as the cousins of Third World peoples, forging their way and claiming their valid place in the U.S.

Tad is forwarding a movement of young documentarians whose work is deeply personal, and that’s where the transparency lies.

“I get my passion to create documentaries from the strong community that raised me.  When I say “community” I’m talking specifically about the Japanese American community in LA which includes my own family.  My introduction to making films was, and still is, to document and present the stories of my community that have been ignored by mainstream media and academia.  For me personally, I know how much these stories and histories have helped provide me with a sense of identity and purpose in my life.  At the same time, I realize that most people don’t have the privilege of growing-up in the same type of community or family that I did, so I try to share those stories with others through film.

He is concerned about the nuances and politics of transparency in his work as well, which is refreshing– he keeps it real.

“From a filmmaker’s point of view, I’m seeing how that issue [of World War II] has become utilized because it is still “safe”, meaning that it was a long time ago, and it’s PC to say that it was wrong, but when you bring up parallels to raids [within Arab American communities] that happened last week, then all of the sudden it isn’t a fundable film.  It’s a subject that continues to be introduced, but parallels need to be drawn so Japanese Americans can support those movements. Japanese Americans, we’ve been talking forever about World War II, specifically how we were encarcerated, how we fought under the American flag. I think those are definitely important, but it means nothing if you’re going to vote against gay marriage or not support workers’ rights. So, I think those parallels need to be drawn.”

And he discussed how he’s bringing his work to the next level with his future film projects.

“As an artist, you want to tell stories that mean a lot to you and hopefully I’ll continue to do that. I’ve done three films specifically centered on Japanese American issues. I do want to expand, as an artist. On one hand, I want to help bring other people’s issues to life, but on the other hand, I feel that I don’t have the authority to tell their stories. For example, as an undergrad I worked for an outreach and mentoring program in Carson, California specifically targeting Samoan American high school students. I got integrated in the community and I would like to return to do a feature-length documentary on the Carson High School football team. A sports-documentary following the team, but focusing on the Samoan American athletes. I want to document both the rich community and resources that they’ve created for themselves in athletics, but also to document the structural problems that are failing that community. Mainly the increasing drop-out rate among SamoanAmerican students and the continuing violence on the streets …  So I’m kind of dealing with that because I am not of that community and this would be the first time I’m telling someone else’s story– or, attempting to have them tell the story for themselves.”

Using archival footage and iconic imagery from such an important chapter in our history, Tad’s documentary works are beautifully edited, visual poetry. Through image and sound, the spirit and energy of a singular moment in history come alive.Through exploring subject matter that is closest to his heart, he is re-defining the Asian American experience and introduces its legacy to a whole new generation of young people.

Tad’s work takes us back and moves us forward all at once, and leaves no doubt that he is a filmmaker of vision, who dares to take us on a journey of where we come from, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. Much more than film, this work creates a movement all its own. It’s bridging cultures and generations at a time when we need it most, and reminds us, that for as far as we have come, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Tad is currently at work on his forthcoming full-length documentary on ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, but until then, he’s shared with us a lush music video cut from the film’s footage shot in Hawai’i Kai, Hawaii.

Graphic Design by: Janelle Flores

You can find the mixtape that accompanies A Song for Ourselves at:

Published on 11 August 2010 |