Japanese American seniors tell stories through film

‘The Fourth March,’ courtesy of LAAPFF 2022

In keeping with a long-standing tradition of Asian elders passing down their stories to their children and grandchildren, Visual Communications, a Los Angeles-based Asian American media arts center, created Digital Histories, a project that provides Asian Pacific American older adults the unique opportunity to tell their stories — as directors of their own short films.

Since its creation in 2003, Digital Histories has provided a professional work environment for underserved, Asian Pacific American seniors to produce documentary projects focused on issues such as preserving family histories, coming to terms with a gay child and seniors loving and dating.

According to Visual Communications, the project’s goal has been for seniors to develop their own unique storytelling voices, educate viewers about California Asian Pacific American history and to illuminate how place helps shape identity and community.

This year, several of the project’s films accomplish just that, and are featured in Visual Communications 38th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which opened May 5 and runs through May 13.
Here’s a look at a few of the Digital Histories short films premiering at this year’s festival (Screening May 13, 5 p.m., at Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Japanese American National Museum):

‘The Fourth March’
Directed by Robert Shoji
“The Fourth March” tells the story of Steven Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a 21-year-old Japanese American activist who participated in what director Robert Shoji calls the lesser-known “Fourth March” with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after the famous three civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in March 1965.

In the film, we learn that Kuromiya, who has roots in Monrovia, Calif., joined an earlier march in support of Black voter rights, but was beaten so badly by local police that he required 22 stitches in his head and was left soaked in his own blood down to his waist.

King called for another march in protest of the beating of Kuromiya and others. Shoji found historical photos showing King and Kuromiya marching together in protest of the police brutality and injustice those who were there suffered as peaceful protestors.

Shoji says this particular march has been “forgotten by time.” However, through his extensive research, he was able to find newspaper articles documenting that it actually happened. In a remarkable moment, Kuromiya’s voice is heard confirming that he was indeed there and was an active participant.

Since the film is less than 10 minutes long, there are many questions that go unanswered. At the end of the film, however, Shoji offers this insight into Kuromiya.

“He fought for causes he believed in regardless of the personal consequences,” said Shoji. “If Kiyoshi were alive today, his advice to us would be to follow your own heart, and to act on your own convictions.”

‘Honor, Recognition, And Respect’
Directed by George Wada
Armed with a 48-star American flag, Johnny Gogo, a Santa Clara judge of Guamanian descent, embarks on a journey to honor those remaining survivors of America’s concentration camps who were imprisoned during World War II for being of Japanese descent without due justice.

By having camp survivors sign the 48-star flag — the same type of flag that flew above all 10 camps — “Honor, Recognition, and Respect” by George Wada shows how one American can not only honor Japanese Americans, but also provide them an opportunity to share their stories, pay tribute to family members no longer living and most importantly, give them a sense of healing by having them sign their names on their country’s flag, despite what their country did to them.

What started with one American flag has grown to five completed flags with more than 1,000 signatures. Signers include the late Secretary Norman Mineta, former Rep. Mike Honda and everyday community members who may not be as well-known, but who stepped up and proudly signed as well.

At the end of the film, Gogo reveals that his project is continuing with a sixth flag, and he will be visiting several other cities to collect more signatures.

‘Fun On 4 Strings’
Directed by Frances Ito
“Fun on 4 Strings” shows how a large group of APA seniors can bring aloha and joy to elders in nursing homes as well as friendship and camaraderie among themselves — all by jamming on their ukulele.

Directed by Frances Ito, who is also a member of the Hui Aloha Na Makana ‘ukulele group, the film tells its story through photos of the group performing at nursing homes and other special events throughout Southern California. Since most of the performances were pre-COVID-19, Ito also remembers four members who have passed away during the pandemic.

These remembrances, in combination with a Hawaiian song playing in the background, gives this film the same feeling of fun and Aloha that the group conveys through their ‘ukulele, and shows that despite their losses, their friendships and love of music sees them through, day by day, and on every Monday, rain or shine.

For more information about the Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival, including to purchase tickets, visit https://festival.vcmedia.org/2022.

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