Cinema Asian America: Seven Questions for Documentary Filmmaker Tad Nakamura

Tadashi Nakamura's new documentary, "A Song For Ourselves," is part of XFINITY On Demand's new Cinema Asia America collection.  (An-Rong-Xu)
This month on Cinema Asian America – a new collection available on XFINITY On Demand – Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Tad Nakamura presents his latest film, “A Song For Ourselves.” The winner of multiple film festival awards, “Song” is an intimate journey into the life and music of Asian-American Movement troubadour Chris Iijima. Told from the perspective of his two teenage sons and widow, the film charts Iijima’s musical career and passion for social justice and how they helped provide a voice and identity an entire generation.

You’ve described your film as “A personal journey into the life and music of Asian-American Movement troubadour Chris Iijima.” What drew you to make a film about him? Before Chris passed I felt it was important to document the historical times and events that he was a part of, but a film on his life specifically was not in motion. I thought it was really empowering to listen and see images of young, powerful and attractive Asian-Americans singing about political and personal liberation. But after he died, and after attended his memorials in LA and New York, I saw the huge amount of people who were inspired by Chris directly in so many different ways. Me being one of those people, I wanted to make a film so that the people who weren’t lucky enough to know him could still be inspired by his music and wisdom.

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You have made several award-winning short, nonfiction films – why do you make documentaries and why short form? My goal as a filmmaker is to create work that inspires young people to become interested in the historic and current conditions of their community, realize their own potential to create change, and then take an active role in improving those conditions. I personally get inspired by the stories and people that surround me, so making documentaries allows me to share that inspiration with a wider audience. As educational tools, I feel that short films can be more effective and are easier for teachers to use in the classroom.

Chris Iijima’s personal history also intersects with your family’s. Can you tell us about your connection to him, and what role he holds for you personally? My parents were both active in the Asian-American Movement and knew Chris from the late 1960s. I had always known about the ground-breaking “A Grain of Sand” album that he did with Nobuko Miyamoto and Charile Chin but I didn’t get to know him on a personal level until I was in college. I went to summer school at the University of Hawai’i when Chris was a law professor there. He would take me out to eat and we would talk about all types of stuff. I was really impressed by his diverse career as a musician, activist, middle school teacher, lawyer, and law professor — all without sacrificing his dedication to creating social change. A lot of people present a black and white perspective of becoming an artist or activist, you either have to sell out or starve. But Chris was a great example of how to balance your art, career, family and community work.

It seems that a goal of your films is to re-present critical aspects of American history to a younger generations, who are further removed from the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s, which was so key to creating an Asian-American identity. You’ve made hip, fresh reinterpretations of history. Why? Every community continues to evolve as each generation gets older, and as that happens, the identity of that group shifts or changes. By presenting the stories of the Asian-American Movement of the 60s and 70s, I hope that today’s generation will embrace the legacy of activism that we have inherited. I want to provide the audience with an empowering experience, specifically, I want young Asian-Americans to see themselves as gifted agents of change.

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“A Song For Ourselves” concludes a trilogy of films about Japanese-American history. Can you tell us a bit this set of films? “A Song For Ourselves” is the third installment of my trilogy on the early Asian-American Movement. The first of the trilogy was “Yellow Brotherhood” (2003), a documentary about the meaning of friendship and community through a youth organization called Yellow Brotherhood, which was formed in the 1960s to help youth get off drugs. The second was “Pilgrimage” (2007), which tells the story of how an abandoned WWII concentration camp for Japanese-Americans was transformed into a symbol of retrospection and solidarity for people of all nationalities in our post 9/11 world.

Where can viewers see your other short films? My previous films “Yellow Brotherhood” and “Pilgrimage” can be viewed on my website ( along with some shorter video projects. All of my films are available on DVD, which can also be ordered on my website.

What are you working on now? I am currently working on a documentary film on the ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, a young Japanese-American from Hawai’i. The film is being produced by the Center for Asian American Media and it has been great working with them so far. The learning curve is pretty steep but I have a lot of great people helping me.

Comcast digital cable subscribers can view a sneak peek of Tad’s new documentary for free: “Jake Shimabukuro’s Japan Uke Tour.” Go to the Cinema Asian America folder on XFINITY On Demand.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.


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