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Rea Tajiri, 2015 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Fellows Friday: Q&A with Filmmaker Rea Tajiri

Fellows Friday: Q&A with Filmmaker Rea Tajiri

Rea Tajiri, 2015 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

This week, we speak to filmmaker Rea Tajiri (2015), who is devising new approaches to storytelling that embrace the murky spaces of memory, history, and public consciousness. She characterizes her work as “personal essay documentary,” exploring the effects of political, social, and emotional histories within families and across generations. Tajiri’s films have been shown at the Venice Film Festival, the Guggenheim (New York and Bilbao), and the Whitney Biennial, and her 1991 documentary History and Memory is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Tajiri will screen her film Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice as part of the Pan Asian American Film Festival at Ithaca College, April 15-17, 2016.

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?

My father really liked road trips, and growing up we took many cross-country journeys as a family. During these trips, my father was a raconteur. He shared stories about how he had to move numerous times during his early adulthood. His stories conveyed an experience of displacement and survival: moving to various cities due to economic hardship, being drafted pre-Pearl Harbor, and then being considered an “enemy alien” after Pearl Harbor. Later, he was assigned to join the 442nd Regimental Combat team in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. During this period he was allowed to make two visits to the Poston, Arizona internment camp to see his family who were incarcerated there. Finally, he settled in Chicago with my mother after World War II. I never forgot the feelings inside those stories. Inspired by my father’s need to share them, I too developed a desire to tell stories, and a deep curiosity to dig for the hidden story—the one underneath all the stories that gives access to a missing piece, the missing part of a whole. It seemed that my father’s stories were always fragmentary and missing something, but at the time, I felt like I didn’t know what questions to ask.

My parents recognized that there was something liberating about artmaking and storytelling—an experience that surpassed everyday life. They encouraged their children to make things, write things, and to see art exhibits. Being given permission to be creative was really formative. I was not an outgoing kid—but the fact that I could draw, tell stories, sing—those activities were foundations for valuing my own thinking. For a young girl, that is powerful—not always comfortable, but important. I was allowed to have a platform to point to things in the world, comment on them, and, for the most part, my parents listened. I graduated from art school, but it wasn’t until my late 20s that I could even consider doing “moving image cinematic” art.

What is one of your most treasured possessions?

A few years ago, some friends gave me a painting on a piece of wood [seen below]. We all saw it separately, and we all wanted to buy it. But in an act of supreme generosity, my friend surprised me and gave it to me as a gift. The painting shows a woman in a boat crossing a body of water under a full moon. On one side it says “elsewhere,” and on the other side it says “somewhere.” Elsewhere is a place that isn’t where you are at the moment. Somewhere suggests a place, but you don’t know specifically where it is. It suggests a narrative about transition and journey, or about being a nomad, or being an immigrant. It’s a very potent image because it’s mysterious. I keep it by my editing table to remind me about the border between ambiguity, not knowing, and beginning to understand.

Your current project, Wisdom Gone Wild, chronicles 15 years of caregiving for your mother, and explores aging as a natural developmental stage of cognition. What are you interested in conveying with this work?

The film is an intimate documentary that focuses on the experience I had caregiving for my mother who had dementia. With this film, I hope that we can re-conceptualize how we communicate with our elders who have dementia—and embrace and accept the cognitive changes that occur as we grow older. I’ve seen elders with dementia use expressive language to compare their present situation to something far beyond, in space and time; it can be quite profound. If we start to listen and understand, I think we’ll find a deeper connection and understanding of the wisdom of our elders.

What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?

All documentary filmmaking requires ethical consideration. Moment to moment, I find myself making and re-making decisions. During the shooting of Wisdom Gone Wild, for example, I continuously asked myself whether it was ethical to film someone who was at the end of her life. On the other hand, there were moments while I was filming where my mother seemed to be making a statement; she was addressing the camera. She made it clear when she was enjoying herself, laughing, singing, and engaging with people up until the very end. There are very few representations that show the process of illness, of decline, of dying, and ironically, what a life-affirming process this can be. It’s a frontier many of us do not have an understanding of: showing on film the process of saying goodbye to someone and having someone say goodbye to their life.

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?

Learning and performing George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was a formative experience. During my first year of high school, I was studying music and was told to show up for choir every day. The music was very foreign to me—I had never sung a piece of classical music, let alone religious music, and it was my first time working with a team to perform in front of an audience that was not made up of our parents. When we performed in front of an audience, I noticed something happening in the collective effort of synchronizing our voices: we forgot about ourselves as individuals. As time expanded, I became hyper-focused on listening, breathing, and singing while everything around us fell away. We communicated something to the audience that was meaningful. The experience taught me about process and patience—something that you do in filmmaking as well. You prepare; you rehearse. It’s a long process that shifts, stumbles, and builds, and you work to perfect something, and then you connect it to an audience. When you’re shooting there’s this hyper-focus on the moment-to-moment, and you forget about time. You’re aware of things unfolding in the back-and-forth engagement with your subject. It happens in the editing, too—when all the elements of your film begin to align, as you watch the film come to life. Then finally you screen the film with an audience—and it’s palpable when an audience is engaged and when they are not. When you have communicated something, that’s when a whole conversation can begin.