At first glance, viewers may be a bit perplexed by what’s happening with Rose Tajiri Noda, the 93-year-old central character in “Wisdom Gone Wild,” a new feature documentary by Rose’s Sansei daughter, award-winning filmmaker Rea Tajiri.
Rose has dementia, but rather than make a film about the disease of dementia, Rea Tajiri has centered her story around the valued content of her mom’s long-lived mind. In doing so, however, Tajiri presents this content in a non-traditional storytelling structure that crisscrosses time “much like my mother’s cognitive style.”
In other words, it’s like watching a movie through the eyes and mind of someone who has dementia. Instead of a linear beginning, middle and end, Tajiri purposely jumps backward and forward, to present day, to back when young Rose was growing up on a strawberry farm in Salinas, Calif., back to present day, and then back to the past and present again. Slowly and painstakingly, bits and pieces of Rose’s life are revealed by Rose herself in different stages of life, in different stages of dementia.
Tajiri describes her mom as a “time traveler, a history keeper and a chronicler of Japanese American experience.” Diagnosed with dementia at age 76, Rose’s non-chronological access to key historical events are cued through daily encounters and reminiscences — that span 16 years.
“My intention was to create a film that is a reflection on the possibilities of care, connection and communication with someone living with dementia,” said Tajiri. “Throughout our lives, I always had questions about Rose’s past that she would never answer.”
Due to her dementia, Rose has lost a lot of her short-term memory, but is able to answer questions about her past with amazing clarity. But due to her disease, her memories come out unfiltered — about camp, her life and her hopes and dreams.
Sometimes they are harsh and other times angry and violent.
“Put her in jail — she’s driving too fast!” she tells her doctor during a visit. “Put her in jail. Papa said she’s driving too fast!” she says again. And then she punches her doctor — twice.
But then there are other moments when Rose remembers going to a beautician’s school in San Francisco. There are tender moments of Rose remembering songs and singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
In the end, “Wisdom Gone Wild” is about a daughter and her sibling’s love for their mother living with dementia, as expressed through the care, grace and compassion they show her throughout the film. Those who have cared for loved ones with dementia will recognize and relate to this immediately.
But instead of focusing on the frustration, stress and burnout that caregivers often go through, Tajiri offers hope through her use of improvisation and humor and a pathway to connection through listening, art and music.
In one scene, Rea is heard singing the Carpenters song, “Close to You,” to her mother. “Rea, where did you learn how to sing? I like the way you sing.”
“Thank you,” says Rea. “I learned from you.”
The following film festivals will screen “Wisdom Gone Wild” in November:
Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, through Nov. 13 (digital rental): https://tickets.paaff.org/2022/movies/wisdom-gone-wild.
DOC NYC, Nov. 11 at 1:50 p.m. (in-person screening and online viewing from Nov. 12-27): https://www.docnyc.net/film/wisdom-gone-wild.