Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! To celebrate, members of our staff are going to spotlight one of their favorite directors throughout the month. This week's spotlight comes courtesy of associate artistic director, Brian Hu about filmmaker Rea Tajiri.
How do you remember a memory that you never experienced? A memory of your mother, which your mother herself does not remember? And yet you’re haunted by its spectral presence anyway, a haunting not simply by ghostly figures but by the entire weight of an oppressive period of history?
Rea Tajiri had such a memory. It was of her mother by a faucet, filling up a canteen in the Poston Japanese incarceration camp. Her mother never told her that memory, and yet she knew it anyway, just like she could look at a map of the camp and point exactly to the location of her mother’s barrack, even though she was never told which number it was. The ghosts of incarceration and the pain in a family’s bloodline are inherited in the most unusual ways.
How does Tajiri remember this memory, and then how does she convey it to us, her audience? She could turn it into a fiction film. Then again, Hollywood has already made incarceration camp films (Bad Day at Black Rock, Come See the Paradise), and the fantasy of fiction ensured that the films would be distorted and only a selective history. She could make her own fiction film, with characters and narratives that were authentic to the experiences of her family. And yet that would equally be a lie. The finality of fiction, the wholeness of a story, can’t capture that sense of haunting which crosses generations, settings, and narratives. What good is beginning-middle-end when the memory itself is incomplete, like shards of images: some real some imagined.
Tajiri came to peace by being authentic to the pieces. History and Memory: for Akiko and Takashige (1992) was the result. Made in the heyday of Asian American video, the 32-minute work tells the Japanese American incarceration from the point of view of the next generation, in search of the source of a family’s pain that nobody is willing to talk about. Tajiri narrates her conjured memories, and contrasts them with images she’s culled from Hollywood films, from newsreels (both Japanese and American), and from archival images of the camps. She makes uncanny connections between them, most strangely a wildflower that Spencer Tracy picks up in Bad Day at Black Rock with a wildflower plant she notices at her mother’s house. What is the connection? Is the plant – that living testament to the events of the earth – the only true witness to injustice? Or has the mother internalized the kind of mock incarceration stories that Hollywood is so good at manufacturing?
Tajiri smartly leaves in gaps like these because this is a film about the gaps in our understanding and recollection. She observes as her mother watches archival footage from the camps: young Japanese Americans sitting at a canteen. Her mother insists that there was no such canteen. Do we trust the documentary footage? Or the survivor? Or is the question not about trust, but how we remember?
The latter question has repercussions beyond simply personal and family history. It is the central question about American history more generally, and one Tajiri takes on when she asks how we’ve learned about the incarceration in school. Did we watch the John Ford documentary December 7th? Did we hear a speech by Milton Eisenhower? Clearly we did not hear from the Japanese American survivors, many of whom have chosen to remain quiet, or have forgotten to remember. Yes there are gaps, but those gaps are precisely the point. They remind us of America’s collective amnesia. They don’t represent zero space from which we learn nothing. They are a negative space that takes us some place darker than where we started, a place where we start having visions of events we don’t remember having.
With History and Memory, Rea Tajiri fills in that gap with a negative image. Not the smoking gun newsreel or a family member’s sudden a-ha recollection. No, Tajiri breaks a cardinal rule of documentary (in 1992 anyway) by re-enacting the scene herself. She inserts herself into the role of her mother, not in a moment of fiction, but in a truest documentary moment of all: the document of an abandoned memory. And with it, the ghosts of incarceration may not be exorcised, but at least we can see them now.