FILM: A Tribute to a Nisei Farmer -- Interview with Dean Yamada

FILM: A Tribute to a Nisei Farmer -- Interview with Dean Yamada

APA's Kenneth Quan talks with filmmaker Dean Yamada about remembering the sacrifices of California's Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans).

"[T]he Nisei generation is a dying breed of people and they really have an extraordinary story to tell."

This article originially appeared in
Asia Pacific Arts.

When trekking through the mountainous countryside of Sakuma, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia, Mongolia, and all throughout Europe is not enough to satiate Dean Yamada's thirst for life, what does he turn to? Filmmaking. While attending USC's School of Cinema Television, Yamada produced many noteworthy short films. "Not Black or White," a film that explores the image of women perpetuated by the western media, stars Ming-na (ER), Amy Hill (All American Girl), and Lela Lee (cartoonist). Most recently, Yamada's graduate thesis project, "The Nisei Farmer" has already attracted significant attention, signaling Academy Award nomination buzz. The film was inspired by the early life of his father, a second generation Japanese American farmer, who was interned for three unforgettable years at Tule Lake Relocation Center at the age of 8. Earlier this year, he received awards in the Rhode Island International Film Festival for both his works "Robot Stories" and "The Nisei Farmer."

Click here to see the interview (requires the free Real Player)

Interview by Kenneth Quan
Transcription by Carol Soon

Ken: Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Dean: I am Dean Yamada. I grew up in Davis, California. I went to USC and studied Humanities Theater with a minor in Film. After I graduated, I went on the JET Programme and then took some time off to travel a little bit. Then I decided I wanted to do film for good and so I went to USC's Graduate Film Program. I just finished my thesis requirement, which is a short film called, "The Nisei Farmer," and right now, I am just doing the film festival circuit showing the film around.

Ken: You traveled all over the world - Japan, to Hong Kong, across Europe to London, and to the mountains of Lake Tahoe - claiming that this journey inspired you to pursue filmmaking. What was it about this exploration that inspired you to return to USC film school?

Dean: Well, like I mentioned, I did my minor in Film at USC, so I was kind of familiar with the program. So what I saw, I liked. It was my first choice to go to USC so that is why I came back to USC and it really surpassed all my expectations. But in terms how my travels and the time I spent off in between school led me back to film, I'd say that because I spent time teaching English in the mountainous countryside of Japan in a place called Sakuma and I was the only English speaker for miles and miles around, I was really immersed in the culture. When I was traveling home, I took the long way through like Mongolia and Russia. I think that time was like a metaphorical wilderness for me because I was being stripped of a lot of external things. So I was left with my true desires and passions, and realized that film was what I really wanted to do and was really what I wanted to focus the rest of my life on.

Ken: How long were you on this exploration?

Dean: I went to Japan for a year and taught English, so I was in that small town for a little over a year. I took the next couple of years traveling. I took the Trans-Siberian Railway to get to Russia and Europe. After I got home, I still had time because I was going to apply to film school, so I decided to go up to Lake Tahoe and teach children how to ski. It was really a time of fulfilling my desires. Before I went back to film school, I wanted to experience life and become a richer person.

Ken: I'm sure it was an experience of a lifetime.

Dean: Yeah. I mean for example, just being in the grassland in Mongolia was amazing. It was just an untouched, beautiful place. Things like that really inspire me. The film "The Nisei Farmer" was shot where I grew up in Davis, and there are some scenes out in the countryside where it was really inspired by that part of my life.

Ken: For your documentary, "Not Black or White," why did you think it was important to make a film about Asian American women making a difference in the western media? What is it about the western media that needs change?

Dean: "Not Black or White" was a USC documentary and my producing partner, Lelani T. Abad and I got behind this project because we really believed in the director's vision. She really wanted to show how some Asian American women, Ming-Na, Amy Hill, and Lela Lee, were really making strides to change the image of women in western media. It just gets sickening to watch like the "lotus blossom" image and the exoticized Asian women, and so we really wanted to show Asian American women as just what they are -- as Americans. So that was really the main goal of that, to open people's eyes who weren't used to seeing strong Asian American women.

Ken: Well, you certainly got some big names among the Asian American actresses.

Dean: That was really the director's work. She really laid the grounds in terms of contacting these people and really getting them on board.

Ken: Did you have any other actresses in mind?

Dean: There were a few others but we decided, through the production core, to eliminate to only three main characters, because it was a half an hour documentary, and it got cut down to twenty minutes. So we really didn't want external things that weren't progressing the story in the documentary.

Ken: "The Nisei Farmer" is based on your father's early life. Please tell us what this short film is about and why you wanted to tell this story to the mass public.

Dean: "The Nisei Farmer" is, like I mentioned, my graduate thesis project from USC and it is actually inspired by my father's life. It is not a factual account of his life. He was a farmer in Northern California. He was interned at Tule Lake during the war. A lot of the story was fictionalized and dramatized to create a good story. I believe it is important for me to tell because it is close to my heart because farming is in my background and my dad was a farmer, he actually passed away a year ago. So while I was making the film I also wanted it to be a tribute to his life. I really think that the Nisei generation is a dying breed of people and they really have an extraordinary story to tell. It's just the whole Nisei experience. I think it is important to tell that story so that people know the mistakes that the U.S. government made so that we won't allow that to happen again.

Ken: What are the underlying themes in the movie?

Dean: The story itself is about making peace with the past and finding strength to forgive and to love. The story is about a Japanese American farmer who receives the redress money in 1988. This makes all these memories of his past and of his painful childhood of being interned during the war and having his family lose everything return. These memories resurface, and what he did was he swept them under the rug. He never made peace with them, so that is why when the reparation news comes, he doesn't know how to deal with it. The story is about him making peace with that so that he can move on to love his wife and take care of his wife. So at the heart of it, it is really about love and forgiveness.

Ken: Does everything in the film match your father's early life?

Dean: There are some things that are really based on his life, like the restaurant that he goes to every morning in the film. My dad went to that same exact restaurant because we shot it up at Davis, and it is called "Cindy's Restaurant." My dad actually sat in the same seat for thirty years before the crack of dawn. His fellow farmers and truck drivers would come in and have breakfast and he'd go off and tend the fields. So we actually shot it in my hometown and the seat that the actor comes and sits down in is the same seat that my dad actually sat in for thirty years of his life as well. So it is really a personal work to me.

Ken: How did he respond to this documentary?

Dean: Well, back at the end of 2000, I was actually writing the script for one of my classes and not long after that, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. So when we actually shot the film in October 2001, he was already going through chemotherapy and fighting cancer. So it was great that we could actually be up at Davis and he could come to the set. We had a lot of food donated from local businesses and so he loved to see what was for lunch everyday. So it was a great film to have him there, but then I came back to LA to finish the film and edit the sound, and while we were in the thick of it, he passed away. This was August of last year. So I had to take a little time away from the film and I finally finished the film in December of last year, just a few months later. It was good that I could dedicate the film to him. He never got to see the final film, but he would see the rough cuts that I would bring home every so often when I would come home to visit.

Ken: How do you think he would have liked the final product?

Dean: I think he would really be happy to see it, actually. People get a kick out of seeing "Cindy's Restaurant" and seeing that same seat and just the fields that we shot in. I think he would feel really honored, actually.

Ken: Your father knew that the lead actor was meant to parallel him, right?

Dean: Yeah definitely. We actually used my dad's clothes for the protagonist, so he knew that this character was inspired by him.

Ken: After winning the Rhode Island International Film Festival's Best Short Grand Prize, "The Nisei Farmer" is now eligible for consideration for an academy award. How do you feel about this?

Dean: I am really ecstatic about it. When I first heard the news, I was just so honored. That was a humbling feeling to receive this honor and just the fact that it could be nominated for an Academy Award, that's really the icing on the cake because just the award itself is a big thing for me. It's nice to know that a film I made about my dad and that was dedicated to my dad can be honored in this way.

Ken: Do you think "The Nisei Farmer" has potential to be nominated?

Dean: I think it has a good a chance as any other film out there. But there is always politics involved and if it comes down to maybe who you know, then my film has less of a chance. But I think anything can happen, because in years past, films have come out of nowhere and been nominated and had actually gone on to win. So the way I see it is, if it is my time, it will happen. If it is not, then it wasn't meant to be yet.

Ken: Are you happy with the final cut?

Dean: I am really happy with the film and the festivals it has played in.

Ken: Do you personally hold bitter feelings toward the American government, especially after making this film and finding out the gruesome details of the incarceration that you may not have known before?

Dean: I don't feel any bitter feelings toward the internment, because they did apologize and make reparations. That is something that the U.S. government rarely does. But it is easier for me to say this because I wasn't actually interned in those camps and I didn't live through three years in those bad conditions. My dad didn't have any hard feelings toward the government and there is no reason why I should at this point. But in regards to the current global situations with the treatment of Arab Americans, that is a completely different story and that is something the U.S. government needs to work out.

Ken: Don't you think it might have been even harder to adjust to life outside of the camp, rather than being inside?

Dean: I think that is true. Coming out of the camp was even harder than being inside the camp for my dad because when you are in the camp you are kind of contained and he was a kid. But when you get out, you have to re-assimilate. It was a lot more difficult because there was a lot of racism and hatred outside, so it was something he had to deal with. I think that it made him a really introverted person and really affected the way he led his life. In turn, it affected who I became as well. So making this film was a journey to understand myself as well.

Ken: How long was your father interned?

Dean: He was eight-years-old and he spent about three and a half years of his life there.

Ken: You seem to like working on documentary-type films. Is your personal style this non-fictional story telling narrative?

Dean: I love documentaries but I wouldn't say they're my passion. I wouldn't say it is my personal style as well. "The Nisei Farmer," although it was inspired by my dad and has a historical backdrop, it is really a dramatic and fictional work. That is where my passion lies, making films that are not only entertaining but really dramatic and have the ability to move you. Documentaries do that all the time, but I like creating a world where people can enter and feel moved by a character that you can take a journey with.

Ken: Do you plan to explore more styles in the future?

Dean: When I first came to USC, I had to take classes where I made short films and I think I did a lot of exploring with the visual, like what they would call a "MTV" style with quick cuts or different camera angles. I'd like to do more stuff like that but "The Nisei Farmer" is like a classical piece. It's more historical. It would take you out of the moment to have these other cuts or have these other styles going on.

Ken: Who are your role-models in the film industry?

Dean: I have a lot. I really admire a lot of people, but two who come to mind who are making films today are P.T. Anderson, who did "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love," I think he is really gifted as a director and writer, and Darren Aronofsky who did "Requiem for a Dream," a film that I think is just visually stunning.

Ken: Do you have any feature scripts in the works?

Dean: Absolutely. My writing partner and I are writing some scripts that deal with completely different things. I still have a desire to continue to tell stories about the Nisei and the Japanese American experience. But my writing partner and I want to tell stories about the Asian American youth and different aspects of the Asian American experience as well.

Ken: What else are you working on?

Dean: We are working on a couple of dramas. We are working on some stuff that we would like to take ourselves and go out and shoot, whether on DV or raise the money to shoot on film. We are also working on a couple of other films that we might think about selling, if possible. But our real passion is in dramas. I think in all good dramas there is humor and just everything about life, and that is kind of what we are doing right now.

Ken: You are still in school?

Dean: My senior thesis was my last requirement.

Ken: So you graduated last year?

Dean: In December.

Ken: Congratulations. So you've been making your rounds in film festivals and winning numerous awards. How has your life changed from the start of your journey until now?

Dean: Well I think that the awards and honors are just the icing on the cake. I think that the real award to me is just being able to create something meaningful and to be able to do what I want to do at this point in my life. In terms of the future, my writing partner and I are preparing for USC's Film Festival, where they showcase all the thesis film projects. So my writing partner and I both have films that we are going to show and we both want to have scripts that we can send out after that showcase because industrious people come and they want to know what your are working on next. So we are just prepping for that and hopefully, the awards will just pay off and people will notice us a little bit more because of that.

Ken: When is your film going to be shown next?

Dean: Well, it is going to be shown next in Temecula Valley at the Temecula Valley International Film Festival in a couple of weekends from now. From there to Oakland, it will be shown at Oakland International Film Festival on September 20th. Then, to San Diego, as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Then it will be at USC's Film Festival in April.

Ken: Do you know when these showings will be?

Dean: I don't have specific dates, but it should be in early April. You can catch screenings at the Director's Guild of America Theater and screenings at Norris Theater at USC and it's free.

Ken: Great. Thank you for your time.

Dean: Thank you