by Alison De La Cruz
JACCC Director of Performing Arts & Community Engagement
I had a chance to sit down and talk with filmmaker Tad Nakamura about his newest documentary MELE MURALS and its L.A. premiere, co-presented by JACCC and Visual Communications at the Aratani Theatre on August 5, 2016.
Alison De La Cruz: Can you tell me what was the biggest surprise or learning moment for you on the Mele Murals documentary?
Tad Nakamura: Sure. This project was the first time I really worked with people within the current movement to revive Hawaiian language and culture. As a student in Asian American Studies, and later as part of a broader progressive Asian American community, all you really hear about Hawai'i is that there is an on-going struggle for sovereignty and that's it. Working with ʻŌiwi TV and other Hawaiian artists, I never heard the word sovereignty but instead saw how these cultural workers were always talking about the language movement as a tool to connect Hawaiians to each other. I saw how the concept behind the cultural organizing was about building up the community in a way that claimed: we are going to take care of ourselves and build up ourselves.
AD: That’s so interesting because many who have seen your previous work or know you, might see you as a politicized artist or cultural worker. Did this project change your understanding of who you are as an artist who documents individuals and communities?
TN: I don’t think that it necessarily changed my understanding but it deepened my understanding of folks in the cultural movements. You know, the sexy word to describe what we do is cultural worker and I think that’s where we sit. I’ve always identified as a community builder and at one point I was an organizer, but lately I been more of an artist. This project solidified what a cultural worker is to me and the role that a cultural workers play in the larger movements for change. I’ve always seen myself as a community builder. That’s why screenings are as important as the film. Screenings bring people from different communities together and create a time and space to be able to meet each other. Sure it's good to build political and cultural space together with people when we are pissed off and want change. But while making this documentary, I was reminded that we can also connect while we are hanging out and enjoying ourselves as a way to build space with each other.
AD: Seeing this cultural work among Native Hawaiians, did this impact how you think of the Japanese American community?
TD: I’ve always thought of my J.A. community and the threat and what’s happening to Little Tokyo. Then I went to Hawai’i and met the guys from ‘Oiwi TV and saw how they place their work in a larger cultural context: they are responsible for documenting their entire people’s culture. They see themselves as responsible for retaining a language; and not just protecting a neighborhood like Little Tokyo; but the land itself and their whole people. It blew my mind – I knew what being accountable to a community was like- but here it is on such a larger scale. To be responsible for helping to retain the stories of a whole people and a whole people’s culture so that it will survive, that’s huge. Again, I was struck by how immediate of a threat the possibility of Hawaiian culture and language going away was. But I saw how close these artists are to that past and how vital their role is in the future.
As a Japanese American filmmaker in the context of Hawai’i, I definitely had to think about the kind of responsibility that I have to acknowledge my privilege and support those who have been oppressed or silenced. Working on this documentary, I also realized that there is so much the JA community can learn about language and cultural revival from Hawaiians. For example – for me as a Yonsei: my grand parents were put in camp so they don’t speak Japanese, neither did my parents. It’s easy to say I didn’t grow up with language, I’m 4th generation, there is no way I can learn the language.
Then I met all these folks working in the Hawaiian community – none of their parents speak the language– they are literally 2 or 3 generations without language and yet, people are taking it upon themselves to bring that language back. I had never thought of it or seen it –a language that was almost buried and dead – and now to see it revived. To see elementary school kids speaking Hawaiian made me think about my own niece and nephew and son and how maybe they could be fluent in Japanese one day. Now that I’ve witnessed it in another community – I can visualize it in my own community.