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INTERVIEW WITH REA TAJIRI
YURI KOCHIYAMA: PASSION FOR JUSTICE
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Rea Tajiri in May, 1997.
How did you get involved in
this project and how did you come to make this documentary and portrait about
Actually, I met Pat Saunders at a workshop in Washington, DC. It was a workshop that we were both attending, and I was doing research in the National Archives. She started talking to me and we realized we were both from New York. And we realized that we knew a bunch of people in common, and then she mentioned she knew Yuri. And over the years, we kept running into each other, and we talked a little bit more, and then she told me that she was interested in doing a project on Yuri's life. I had met Yuri years before -- I had met her through my cousin -- and I knew her as an Asian-American activist. I was involved in Asian-American community politics as well.
And I was really surprised to find out that, in fact, she was involved in the civil rights movement, as well as rights for women, and a whole other realm of different community politics. So I thought that that was really intriguing about her, and the more that Pat told me, the more I was really surprised about her. As time went on, we kept talking and talking about doing this project and then eventually we decided to approach her. Then we realized that the biggest stumbling block was going to be getting Yuri herself to agree. Well, we kind of worked on it over time. Pat had a relationship with Aichi, who was Yuri's oldest daughter. She spoke with Aichi and we met a couple of times with Aichi. And Aichi thought it was a really good idea. Yuri had been approached over the years by different people but she had always turned them down. But she thought that maybe now was the time and she asked her mother. At first we approached it like it was going to be an oral history project. So she agreed to that.
And then, it was kind of strange because we had this final meeting -- well, we didn't know it was the final -- but we had this lunch with Aichi. I still remember it was at [New York restaurant] Charlie Mom's and then about two weeks later, she was dead. She was in an accident. So it was very incredible timing. I remember seeing her, and we were all happy and we were going to do this, and then she was in this horrible accident and she was killed. So that was a really tough time to start the project. And it was also kind of strange and almost prophetic . . . And then, of course, we postponed. I think we had one meeting right before she was killed and we did a very long interview with Yuri. She talked a lot about her early life. And then the accident happened and we had to put the project on hold for several months until she was really ready to talk again. Then we went back and we did a couple of sessions where she just really went through a lot of detail. And it was pretty amazing how much she remembered. She has an amazing memory. Really covered a lot of life. Just an audiotape of her. So that's how it got started.
And then did you have to go back in and redo all that on video?
Yeah. We almost had to say, "Oh, yeah, so that was okay. Now we want to do this on the video." And she was like, "Oh, my God. Ohhh." And we were really very careful at trying to select the camera person. We were looking for a woman and trying to select somebody that would be really sympathetic and really into the project. I think we first worked with Irene Sosa, and she was really good and it was hard. And every time we'd come over, Yuri would always make us food. But then we saw that as she got going, she was really an incredible storyteller. And remembered so many details.
So did that shape the piece in a way, as to what came out of those interviews?
In a lot of ways. Looking back, she has such an amazing mind for detail that in some ways, you could have taken any story she had and just gone on for an eternity on that. There was just so much stuff that she whizzed through.
Yeah, I think what was completely amazing to me about the documentary was to see all the different aspects of her life and how many different things she had been involved in. It was really an inspiration. It was almost overwhelming because it made me realize, "Wow. One person can do all these things."
Yeah. And the other thing is that this is probably about one tenth of all the material we collected. So there's so much that we left out, unfortunately.
That's amazing. You pretty much focused on most of her family members in the tape. Were those interviews done at the same time, or how was that conducted? Did you have the interviews with Yuri and then asked people to fill in stories?
It was difficult, too, because I think that her children have very mixed feelings about the times. I don't think it's easy, and I wouldn't think it was easy, by any means, asking them to go back, and remember, and recollect. Also, they're all spread out geographically.
Where are they?
Well, Audee is in San Francisco or Oakland. And Jimmy and Tommy are in L.A. And Eddie was in New York, and so that was kind of a challenge.
The other thing that's quite interesting is the archival research that you've done in the piece, and the way that you've filled in the stories with historical materials. Can you talk a little bit about that research?
That was just the worst. It was so hard. Because we had no money. And I think we ended up just begging people for things, and it was hard. Sometimes we would get very close to finding something really interesting and great, and then the person for some reason would just withdraw their permission, or just wouldn't follow through. A couple of times that happened, and that was really agonizing. And then we ended up going to WTN [archives] and finding some really amazing footage which we were excited about. I think it was the Brooklyn demonstration.
And then we were able to find one photographer. I think we had tried to get in touch with him for over a year, and then we found out he was in Africa. And then he happened to be in New York this one week right as we were going into post-production. And he had some really incredible photographs of this takeover in Harlem of that one mosque. He happened to be one of the few people that had photographs from that. And we were really lucky to catch him the one week he happened to be home from Africa. And then, of course, Yuri has some amazing photographs, so we were really lucky with that.
One of the things that really struck me about her was the way that she worked so cross-culturally -- in all these different communities, for all these different issues and different causes. Was that something she developed over time or was it something she came to naturally? Did she always have an interest in human rights and a need to work with different people of color? For the times that she was working, it seems exceptional.
Yeah. I think that a lot of that is generated out of who she is, that this happens to be her gift or something. That she somehow can go somewhere and it's just something that's in her personality. It's not a conscious thing. It seems like she's had that ever since she was young. Because all the stories she tells about are from when she was young. Like she was supposed to go somewhere, and start talking to one person, and then the next thing she's got another person drawn in, and before you know it, she's got a crowd of people. She did that when she was young. She was teaching in community work, and I think she used to work with an orphanage for children who were from broken homes. And she just would go and start telling stories. And then, before you know it, she's got a group of kids and then the community around her. She rode a bicycle and she started a little newspaper. And she would ride around and deliver it to people and talk to people and get news and then put together this newsletter. She had that kind of personality from the time she was very young, it seems. That was the thing that she did as a girl; she did it all throughout her life. So that by the time she was an adult, she was able to just generate excitement about something wherever she went. She was really amazing in that way. If you go to her house and you talk to her and you spend any time with her, she can get you so involved and wrapped up and fascinated by some issue. She's just gifted in that way. It's really an amazing quality I've never seen before. And maybe you see it in someone who's in a very high position, probably like a politician in a classic sense, but she was more in the daily realm.
When you went around with the tape and showed it, what kinds of reactions have you had?
It's been really wonderful in terms of showing it to young people, people who are in college. Because a lot of the response is like they're just discovering this incredible era. It's also as if they are discovering that there is this human being who exists who did all these amazing things where she was able to cross boundaries and cross communities. And: Maybe this is a possibility that we can look at. And: How could we change our thinking to look at it that way? The piece got that kind of response.
Great. I'm hoping that that will happen with the airing of it on WNET. We're putting it on the Fourth of July weekend -- sort of with that thought in mind. Suggesting a model perhaps . . . Anyway, did you have any production stories that were particularly interesting or poignant?
This is the one about meeting Malcolm X's daughter. Well, she's very private, for obvious reasons, and doesn't want people to be around. Yuri had to call her because she had this special number, voicemail number. And we had to meet her in a public park. At a certain time. And it was funny, we didn't know till the night before whether she was going to show up or not.
Yes. And we had gone out thinking, "Well, if we haven't heard from her . . ." So we went out to this concert and we were out till one or two in the morning, and then we get home and there's this message saying, "Well, I'll meet you at 9:00 AM in this park." So, we had to charge our batteries overnight -- we had forgotten and we didn't charge our batteries. So all night long, we had this shift set up so that like every two hours one of us would wake up and we'd go over and change the batteries. And we took the battery charger by the bed. So the alarm would go off, and we'd get up and change the batteries. Every few hours.
You must have been exhausted. Well, okay, let me ask you this last question. As a filmmaker and videomaker, I know that with other projects and this one, you've worked in different modes -- some more experimental, some documentary, this type of documentary portraiture, and then also with fiction and a feature format with your latest film, "Strawberry Fields." I'm just wondering now in retrospect, having worked in these different modes, how you see this documentary functioning? How do you make the choices of engaging in one format versus another, and does that affect your different audiences?
Yeah, it was always a question about how we would handle the material. And I don't know. I think for myself, I didn't really see it as having this heavy aesthetic intervention into it. I always felt like we should just make it very simple and very straightforward, and that it would probably have more of a mainstream audience, like this kind of television, PBS audience -- an actor's audience, a community and college audience. But that doesn't mean you couldn't have done something else. I think that part of it was working together with Pat. We wanted to keep it very straightforward. And also there was so much material that that was enough to work. It was 50 or 60 hours of material. And not much money. And then in the end, not much time to edit it.
And the thing that's interesting about it is the way it functions as a piece of oral history. It's interesting that it started out as an oral document. Because it still has the remnants of that. Partly because Yuri is such a good storyteller. That's still really present with everybody speaking, so I think that's really interesting that that was its genesis and that it seemed to maintain that.
Yeah. There's a friend of mine in Chicago who was also a political activist, in the seventies. She saw a cut of the project -- because we had different cuts that we were using -- and she saw this one cut early on. She said, "Oh, you know, I wish you could just release this material in some other form." Because there's so much stuff that we didn't end up using that it would be nice to just take it and use some of that material and just have it as a straightforward oral history.
Right. Yeah, now down the road, people will be approaching you for footage.
All right. Well, this is really great. Do you have anything else you want to add?
Let's see. You know, it was a really, really difficult piece to make, and under so many kind of different strains, that it's really nice to think about it going on television, and on July 4th weekend. It's just nice to think about the receivership end of it and that people will be watching it. It's really important.
I think so too. That's great, Rea, thanks.
Yeah. Thanks, Kathy.
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