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YURI KOCHIYAMA: PASSION FOR JUSTICE
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Pat Saunders in May, 1997.
How did you get involved in this project of making a portrait of Yuri Kochiyama? Why did you decide to do it?
Well, I've known Yuri since the early 1960s, when we were both activists in the civil rights movement. Since that time we've been in touch, and when I decided that I wanted to try my hand at making a documentary, Yuri was the first person that I thought of. I wanted to portray her life because it had not been documented before. I met Rea Tajiri at a workshop and presented the idea to her. She was interested but she didn't really know Yuri, although she had met her in the past. So we approached Yuri and her husband, Bill, with the idea. It started out as an audio history project. We just recorded audio for several weeks until Yuri became comfortable with us and comfortable speaking. And then we approached her about videotaping.
At first, she was kind of reluctant but she and her husband talked about it and she discussed it with the children. Eventually, she agreed to do it. And then we started writing grants, trying to find money. So, that's basically how we got started. I was interested in capturing Yuri's life on film because of her contributions over the years: her contributions around the issues of political prisoners; her contributions during the civil rights movement and certainly, the Black Liberation movement; and the fact that, as an Asian-American woman, she has been instrumental in bringing people together that would not necessarily work together around common issues. I wanted to document that, which is why I decided I wanted to do it.
Well, initially, she became involved when her family moved to
Harlem, which was in the early 1960s. At that point, one of the big issues
here in New York City was the public school system and how it really did
not relate to African-American and Latino students. The whole issue was
around community control of the schools. I think that was one of the first
issues that Yuri became involved in within the Harlem community. The parents
decided to boycott the schools until their demands were met. So there was
a lengthy boycott of many of the schools in New York City, and
particularly the schools in Harlem. So, she was involved in that.
Well, as I said, I met Rea at a seminar in Washington, DC. And we got into this conversation and, at some point I mentioned Yuri and she said that she had met Yuri. In fact, it's interesting . . . during World War II her mother and Yuri lived in the same boarding house in Mississippi, but they never met each other. Their husbands were in training during World War II at Camp Shelby, which is in Mississippi. As I said, this was my first project, so I really didn't have any experience in producing or directing a documentary and it was clear to me that it would be good to have somebody else on board. So Rea and I discussed it. She had, by that time, produced and directed HISTORY AND MEMORY, and she was very interested in the whole idea of doing something around Yuri. So that's basically how it started.
Well, we spent some time with the family. Three of Yuri's
children live on the West Coast, so we made two trips out to California to
accompany Yuri for a family gathering. One trip she was honored -- she and
Bill were honored for their work. So we made two trips out to California
and interviewed out there. And then, of course, we interviewed her son who
lived here and her two oldest grandchildren who were here. Overall, we were only able to use just about 50% of the material, so we have still, at least, 50% of footage that we haven't used. So, only half of the people that we interviewed really got into the piece, and so there were a lot of stories there that didn't make it into the piece, unfortunately -- just because of editing decisions and time constraints.
Well, there's one story . . . one young woman that we interviewed
talked about knowing Yuri in the 1970s, when the two of them went to
different prisons to visit political prisoners. At one point, several of
the prisoners that they wanted to visit in one particular prison had
converted to Islam. They decided that if they wanted to visit those
prisoners, then they would also "convert" to Islam. So that was a whole
other story of trying to get into the prison itself. In other words, what
I'm assuming is that the prisoners could only have certain visitors and
those certain visitors either had to be family members or, maybe, members
of the religious community. And so, this person talked about she and Yuri
changing their clothes into Muslim dress to get into the prison. In fact,
I think we had a photo of that, but we didn't use that in the piece. That
was a funny story that we had hoped we could use, but we ended up not using
And when we interviewed Malcolm X's daughter, that was what she said also. Over the years, she was really impressed with the relationship between Yuri and Bill, and how they complemented each other, and how Bill made the decision not to be on the forefront much, but to really help on the homefront so that Yuri would be able to do what she did.
I felt that it's part of who she is, and that if we really wanted to tell the truth and wanted to give a complete picture, then that had to be part of it. I come out of the civil rights movement and, somewhat, out of the Black Liberation Movement, so I think I was very aware or cognizant of the messages that the piece would ultimately give. And I felt that that's one part of who Yuri is. It's not everything that she is. That is one part of who she is, and it's an important part of who she is, and she makes a statement in the piece that she has no problems working with groups, whether they're civil rights groups or whether they're more revolutionary groups. She has no problem working with either one. The feeling was that we needed to show both sides then, to tell both sides of her. That's how that decision was made.
One other thing I wanted just to say is that we made a conscious decision early on not to have a voice-over in it. Because my feeling was and still is that people should really speak for themselves, and there shouldn't be this voice of authority coming over, trying to explain what it is that people are saying. Yuri and others in the tape were perfectly capable of explaining themselves. So that was a conscious decision. It made it more difficult, I think, because we didn't have a voice-over. It was more challenging to edit when we were trying to match sequences and interviews and footage without having this voice to narrate and smooth things over. But we both felt that that was important as part of an oral history, that people should really be allowed to speak for themselves.
Yes. I think so, too.
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