By Eddie Wong. Posted Nov. 10, 2021
Robert A. Nakamura is recognized fondly as the Godfather of Asian American film. The Founding Director of Visual Communications – the nation’s first community-based non-profit film/video production company – and an esteemed professor at UCLA Department of Film and Television and the Asian American Studies Center, Robert was at the forefront of the new wave of Asian American filmmakers in the 1970s. His first film, “Manzanar,” a 16-minute personal reflection on being incarcerated in a US concentration camp during WWII, broke open a long-repressed conversation about this gross violation of civil rights, which was a product of decades of racial prejudice against Japanese Americans.
Released in 1971 by Visual Communications, the film has garnered much praise. “As idyllic scenery gives way to vintage stills of Japanese Americans being forced to leave their homes and businesses, ‘Manzanar’ becomes a timeless, eloquent reminder of an infamous page in American history,” wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times.
David E. James, author of The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinema in Los Angeles wrote of “Manzanar:” …the atrocities cannot be retrieved from the site’s present appearance. Instead of representing the physical dislocation or its psychic scars, the burnished leaves of the trees and shrubs shimmering in the autumn light, photographed with a visual richness and subtlety reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s photography of his Colorado mountain home, summon an elegiac wistfulness to hallow the historical memory that the Japanese American community had so long repressed.
Robert completed his MFA in the Ethnocommunications Program at UCLA Film School in 1975 and made several other award-winning films. He later returned to UCLA as a professor in the film school and in Asian American Studies where he taught for 35 years.
The following edited interview was conducted on Nov.2,2021 by Eddie Wong. Please view the retrospective video of Robert A. Nakamura’s films by Tadashi Nakamura at the end of this article.
Eddie: Both of our films were made for the Project One class at UCLA Film School. Did you know you wanted to make “Manzanar?” Was it the topic you picked from the very beginning or were you considering other things?
Robert: That’s an interesting area because I thought about doing “Manzanar” a little later. I ran through all kinds of crappy ideas and then it finally dawned on me. Thinking back now it was kind of curious, maybe it’s part of the camp story being buried and my folks not talking about it and generally the negative vibes about talking about the camps. It seems to me now that making something on camp should have been at the top of the list, but it took a while before I thought about Manzanar. I realized, “Gee I was in the camp,” and then that’s when I decided.
Eddie: Do you remember some of the other things you thought about doing?
Robert: Yeah, a lot of artsy-fartsy stuff. The only other good idea I had was doing the day in the life of a gardener. I was going to do something on my dad and I played with that idea but other things came in between. I just remember thinking “Gawd, what am I thinking about?”
Eddie: I know exactly how you felt. I was in a panic. I had no idea what I was going to make. I finally decided that I had to do it on my dad. I had to get it out of my system and then I was shocked when he agreed to let me do it. (Read more:Reflections on “Wong Sinsaang)
Eddie: That was it! The year before, prior to Ethno, you had gone on the first Manzanar Pilgrimage in December 1969. How did that change you and how did that affect the film?
Robert: That’s why I wondered why I hesitated when we were developing a Project One idea because going back to Manzanar for the first time since I had been imprisoned there as a boy woke up a lot of latent feelings. I’m visually oriented so seeing abandoned dishes and other things left over from camp – stacks of artifacts – got to me. The light was just right, we had gotten there early. I had the idea of documenting Japanese Americans on an abstract level but once I went on that first pilgrimage, I saw not only the content possibilities but the creative possibilities. I was thinking before of doing a straight documentary but on the pilgrimage I shot a lot of black and white and creatively and artistically there were some good images there. That’s why I wondered why doing a film on Manzanar wasn’t at the top of the list. I don’t know why I struggled with other ideas. Maybe because it was film school. I don’t know.
Eddie: I think so, all kinds of things come into your head. You mentioned the light and that’s kind of a hidden component. The public doesn’t know this about filmmaking or photography. Could you explain the notion of finding the morning light or the evening light?
Robert: I think Ansel Adams used to get up at 5 in the morning and shoot till noon and then go back and take a nap and come back out at 4:30 or 5. There’s nothing uglier than high noon light and the hidden agenda for good photography and film is the light. People don’t notice it, or they notice it on a subconscious level but not consciously saying, “oh, look at that light.” When you were working with objects, all you have is the light and music later in film to evoke certain moods. There was the early morning Manzanar light and clouds passing by and they just lit up all the artifacts of camp.
Eddie: I remember seeing those photographs like the fence posts, the guardhouse. Everything looked weathered by the environment and it was almost ghost like. I think you captured that also in your film. There’s that classic shot of the monument with the mountain and the clouds and the monument is lit from within and it is radiating something. Allegorically, maybe it’s truth or honesty or suffering or something but that’s the feeling I get when I see that photo. It’s just startling.
Robert: The light was a strong side light. It was white against the dark mountains and I used the red filter for black and white printing. If you use a red filter, it makes the blue sky even darker and the clouds even more delineated. It also lightens up any green. So, using the red filter really enhanced the drama of the light, the clouds, and mountains.
Eddie: Once you decided to make the film on Manzanar you took the approach of telling the story from a child’s point of view because that is how you remembered it. Did you write out the entire script for Manzanar?
Robert: We all remember how jumbled everything is. I started out with the idea of a Ken Burns six-part documentary, which was hard. So, when I went out there with my brother Norman, we stayed there and shot for two days and a lot of was early morning and late evening. And to be quite truthful I just shot everything I thought I should. You know it’s Super 8 (a cheap stock that came in 2.5 min cartridges). I vaguely had a traditional documentary in mind; I’ll use these images as b-roll over the camp photos that I had from the cube exhibit.
It was editing time and I panicked: “I’ve got to write a script. I’ve got to get Walter Cronkite to narrate.” (laughs). Once I looked at all the images without narration or captions, that seemed to be the best way to get across my feelings of returning home to camp. Once I decided on not making a documentary with Walter Cronkite giving you names and dates, then the editing began to really flow. When I was shooting, I had a vague idea of looking through my own eyes when I was seven years old because that’s why I took those running shots where we used to run as kids. So, I guess that might have been in the back of my mind but it wasn’t until the final edit.
Eddie: It’s a great way to start the film. In the opening sequence you talked about getting lost on the way to the latrine and then your father found you. That’s an experience every person goes through at least once or twice in their life and then from there you go into telling the history of what led up to the camps with the still photographs. Tell us about the photographs because at the time they weren’t publicly known. People hadn’t seen those WRA (War Relocation Authority) photos.
Robert: I had seen one or two Toyo Miyatake pictures of camp, but this batch of archival material was mostly from the National Archives. Bob Suzuki wanted me to make a small exhibit using those photos for the Campaign to Repeal Title II. That whole process of the Asian American Movement and making community-based films is the process of your own discovery. When I saw those photos, that kicked a few emotional buttons. And then there was the pilgrimage experience. But of course you want do it over again the right way (laughs), but I think it was a good choice in the long run. I wanted to get the emotion across. I wanted to get the idea that the feelings were not all negative. There was a certain period of boyhood there and you’re kind of oblivious to the external world. You’re into marble games and collecting bugs and whatnot. I didn’t get the idea as much as I wanted to of my parents really doing their best to protect me from having a bad experience. To an extent that’s true because it was really after I got out of camp that I faced a lot of really overt racism.
I wanted to show the ambivalence of fond boyhood memories and as an adult looking back at being incarcerated in an American concentration camp. It was about discovering as a young boy that you were different and you were the other. That’s one thing I wanted to get across so that’s why there’s some happy or light music and the way I lined up in certain places – the sun and birds.
Eddie: Music is powerful mood signifier and dramatic element in “Manzanar.” Tell us about how you found the music and how you edited scenes in tandem with the rhythm of the shakuhachi and taiko drums.
Robert: Since this was our first film at UCLA we weren’t able to have original music. So I was beginning to panic because nothing seemed to fit. I even tried 1940s Big Band music, but that didn’t work. Everything sounded wrong. Then I decided to go through my mom’s Japanese records. I lucked out and found a Japanese 78 instrumental recording of increasingly strident sounds that helped capture the ambivalence of being just a kid running through camp with the increasingly frantic feeling of wanting to run away from camp.
Eddie: Tell us about the time you brought home a report card and it had a C on it and your mom burst out in tears.
Robert: Well, it wasn’t a C but one of those “unsatisfactory” for behavior. I got a U; I don’t know why. She burst into tears and that really affected me as an adult when I look back. She had a lot of stuff on her back being in camp and she was probably pregnant at that time because my brother was born in camp. I can’t imagine being in a situation like that and expecting to have a kid. So that was one thing I wanted to bring out in the film.
Eddie: Tell me about the impact of film. We blew them up from Super-8 to 16 mm and started showing them around because people asked to see them. What was the reaction both positive and negative?
Robert: Let’s see, I think the first thing is that a lot of our Ethno films served as just enlightening people on how racism is kind of based on what we look like. We were putting ourselves on screen with more humanistic images and stories. At that time, I think we could have done anything, and they would have been valuable because there was nothing out there. In fact, there was no such thing as Asian Americans.
I think our Ethno films made quite an impact. If nothing else, they were kind of entertainment that people could organize around, and the films were something teachers could use. I think we were valuable because we were one of the first and I feel almost anything we did was relevant to identity, the Movement, and ending racism in this country.
Our films, if you look at them as film, were kind of crude. We shot on silent Super 8 and blew them up to 16mm. Do you remember that film festival we put together “Views from the Third World?” It was great to see all the components – African American, Chicano, Asian and Native American – displaying films all at once. We had a good turnout and that’s when I felt we were making some impact not only on the individual filmmakers but that there’s an audience out there that wanted to see these films.
Eddie: I remember Jose Luis Ruiz’s film and it was all in Spanish with no subtitles. Do you remember the faculty comments at the screening? (Robert laughs). They said, “We don’t understand this film.” And Jose Luis Ruiz said, “Maybe you should learn Spanish.”
Coming back to “Manzanar” wasn’t there some feeling among the Nisei about “why are you bringing the camps back up” and “we want to forget about this.”
Robert: Yeah, I think that was the general attitude a lot of Nisei had about the camps: “It’s over, let’s put it behind us, we don’t want to bring this up, we want to counter that image of being traitors and spies, and we’re going to become whiter than white.” That’s a generalization. Although looking back, I realize that there were a lot of Nisei who were involved in the Movement and played valuable roles and made a lot of changes by setting up different Asian American institutions. So, I’m going to back away from that generalization because there were a lot of progressive Nisei. Some Nisei were ashamed of being put in camp; it’s like a prison record and I know it twisted a lot of people and brought out a lot of identity issues and so they just wanted to put it behind them. When we began to screen “Manzanar,” there was a lot of push back and comments on why are you bringing that up and why don’t you do more things on the 442 (note: the Nisei soldiers in WWII) and why don’t you do something positive? I didn’t think my film was that negative. Or how come there’s no narration?
Eddie: What was the Sansei reaction?
Robert: It’s like I said there’s nothing else out there. In fact on the camps, there was very little out there, and so any of the Ethno films that were produced in our class had a certain kind of relevancy to everything. Take Steve Tatsukawa’s film, something about Godzilla Meets The Smog Monster? I forget the name but anyway there was a lot of wit in there. And there was your film on your dad. That played directly with the stereotype of the Chinese laundryman.
Eddie: I think Jeff Furumura had a film about a gardener.
Robert: It was called “I Don’t Think I Said Too Much.” That was Karen’s uncle, Elmer. And there was the film about the Chicano Moratorium. Playing in that nice theater, it was really impressive. It was a good experience overall.
Eddie: Do you think films like “Manzanar” influenced other people who eventually went into filmmaking?
Robert: I don’t know if our films stylistically influenced people, but once they saw the films, they realized the potential of what you can do if you’re not interested totally in an entertainment film but in an activist or movement context. Seeing in the early VC work woke something in people that we can do a lot with the moving image or media in general. “I saw that and it’s not too good; I could do better.” (laughs)
Eddie: Yeah, if those idiots can do it, I can do it better. (laughs). I remember Renee Tajima-Peña told me that she was in high school when she saw our films said, “Wow, I didn’t know that there were Asian Americans filmmakers. It was just planting the seed that “hey, if they can do it, I can do it too.” That’s a nice part of the legacy I suppose.
Robert: Back in the day, people saw our films as an organizing tool which I thought “that’s right.” It brings people together and they begin to talk on relevant topics. I just wish we did more short films. I think our short films had the most impact rather than the longer pieces. Maybe half hour or 20-minute educational films. There were a lot of good ideas that we didn’t do. We pooped out or didn’t get the money to do it.
Eddie: That’s one of the big difference is today I think you could actually do that if you really wanted to because you can shoot digitally, edit on your laptop, put it out on the Internet. You could produce a lot more material.
Robert: Well, let me fire back on that. You also see a lot of shitty stuff out there.
Eddie: That’s true, but I think the other thing is that we tried to work collaboratively. We backed each other up. Not only us but the Black filmmakers – Charles Burnett worked on Haile Gerima’s film, Haile worked on Larry Clark’s film, and Julie Dash worked on Larry Clark’s film. They are just all together and that makes a critical mass. That was what Larry Clark was talking about last Sunday when he screened “Passing Through” at the Pacific Film Archive. He said you must have a critical mass to create a film movement and a Black aesthetic. And that was one of the striking things about Visual Communications. There were Asian American filmmakers in New York and San Francisco, but what was unique about VC was that we tried to work together to forge something. Not that we told each other what to do. It was more like you had a vision, how do you want to fulfill it. And we were there for each other. So today if that were to happen again, you can just imagine the amount of material they could produce.
Robert: I guess that’s something historically then we should get down – the difference in the media that was accessible to us, the primitive cameras and sound systems we had compared to an iPhone. I think we would have really kicked some ass if we had at least one iPhone.
Eddie: I know what you mean. When we switched from film to doing ¾” video, it was painful because the image quality was kind of shitty and the equipment was so cumbersome. Today you can just take a little Sony camera and shoot a whole movie on it or with an iPhone.
Robert: They have classes on the iPhone. They’re using an iPhone and the quality is much better than we had. (laughs)
Eddie: Do you have any desires to make another film?
Robert: I’m kind of involved in a film now. Tad (Robert’s son Tadashi Nakamura) is doing a film on me and that’s impacting me by forcing me to go through all this stuff and then identifying and then writing it down. So that’s kind of a job in and of itself, but with the Parkinson’s, my energy level is about 50% so I’m slow. But it’s interesting. You should go through some of your old stuff. You can see your thinking at a certain period in time. So doing Tad’s film is forcing me to do all of that. Like yourself, you’re probably not doing it.
Eddie: Slowly, because it’s my daughter Maggie asking about the stuff like what were you thinking. When I wrote the article about making “Wong Sinsaang,” I mentioned what films I was watching at the time and how that influenced my choice of film stock and my form of shooting, some of which was accidental because I didn’t know how to focus correctly. I want to do a little bit more of that just so I have it down somewhere. When I made the Delta film (“Pieces of a Dream), I decided not to have a single narrator. We just have the people’s voices. So it made it kind of hard to follow and I probably would have compromised looking back on it and just put titles to identify who was talking and still not use one narrator. But I wanted that myriad of voices. We wanted to have the impact of this is the people talking. We had these political ideas that we tried to translate into the art. Some of those ideas worked and some of them didn’t work, but at least we’re thinking about doing things in a different way.
Robert: In the Delta film, you showed the different Asian American groups – the Nisei farmer, the Filipino grape picker, the Issei ladies in the tomato cannery. There’s a lot of good stuff that you can still use now hopefully or is it there?
Eddie: The Delta towns are still there but there’s only 12 Chinese people living in Locke. All the people we knew have passed away and now we are the elders. The Asian communities in the Delta are a lot smaller. I’ve always wanted to go back and follow up but never had the time.
Robert: I heard a short doc on Locke on KPCC. The guy is so excited about this Chinese enclave, there’s a museum there, etc. It’s a brand-new discovery for him.
Eddie: Yeah, Locke gets rediscovered every 10 years. Well, I think you’ve covered a lot in this interview. You’re looking good. Are you still working out?
Robert: I’m working out still, three days a week with the trainer. He’s a Persian immigrant who doesn’t take any shit from me.
Eddie: Yeah, you told me about him and how he makes you push this big ass tire up a ramp. Thanks a lot for doing this, Bob.
Video by Tadashi Nakamura on Robert A. Nakamura’s filmography.