Walking along the five blocks of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, history is everywhere you turn. The restaurants, storefronts, monuments, and plaques that line the streets are symbols of the fierce commitment to retaining the identity of the Japanese American neighborhood. They also offer important reminders of past injustices and triumphs that the community has experienced since its founding over 100 years ago.
Located within this historic neighborhood is Visual Communications, which for over 50 years has developed and supported Asian American & Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists. Its Digital Histories program is geared toward older members of the community. Students have made films about everything from senior love and dating to learning mountain climbing at age 80 to more personally difficult subjects, such as learning their child is gay and finding the resources they need to support them.
“A lot of the participants didn’t come from a filmmaking background or even an artistic background,” said Joel Quizon, a filmmaker who runs the Digital Histories program. “We have accountants and other people who would have never had an opportunity to make films or even considered it,” he said. “Coming to class they realize how doable it is even within their limited skill sets. They just didn’t have the platform or opportunity to have their stories told.”
Steve Nagano made several films as part of the program and finds his inspiration in the Japanese American experience. He told the story of a wedding dress that was used by six different women during their internment at Manzanar. He subsequently found out that his father, a minister, had performed the ceremony for two of the couples. He also made “Home is Little Tokyo,” the story of a mural by Tony Osumi that depicts the history of the neighborhood.
“There are so many stories that I feel need to be shared, such unique stories that are outside of the mainstream, but that represent the universals—a sense of belonging, emotions, and desires that we all have,” said Nagano. “Particularly the WWII Japanese American experience, especially as time goes on, I feel needs to be shared.”
While students develop their stories, Quizon and guest instructors from the film industry teach them about editing tools, sound mixing, lighting, and other filmmaking basics. Some students have access to expensive cameras and software, while others use only their smartphone and free editing apps. Students also get a crash course in film history and the many styles of filmmaking.
“I like to teach that there’s other ways to tell their story than just talking head, B-roll, talking head, B-roll,” said Quizon.
Once the films are completed, they premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which has screened over 5,000 films and videos by Asian international and Asian Pacific American artists.
Patty Fong had hundreds of letters written by her parents during their long-distance courtship and knew it was a story that needed to be told. The letters are earnest, romantic, and offer a glimpse into the Chinese American post-war suburban experience. Digital Histories gave her the tools to tell the story in a way she never expected.
“My parents had an unusual courtship, and many people told them they should write a book or make a movie, but they did not know how to proceed,” said Fong. “This project made me feel closer to them because these letters were meant for only my mother to read—I did not know my dad was such a romantic.” (Watch Fong’s film, “Dear Sally.”)
Once students see their films on the big screen, they’re often inspired to work on their next project, with some students making ten films in ten years. Steve Nagano has no plans to slow down, and is currently working on a film about Fletcher Bowron, a former mayor of Los Angeles who was one of those primarily responsible for the forced relocation of Japanese residents on the West Coast during World War II. Nagano is one of many attempting to change the name of Fletcher Bowron Square, located near Los Angeles City Hall.
Patty Fong also plans to continue making films. For her, the work is personal and urgent.
“This past year has made it clear AAPI voices need to be heard. I would like to tell how Asian American stories are intertwined in history. Our stories are a part of the tapestry.”
Visual Communications is a partner in the Getty Foundation’s Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship program, which provides paid opportunities to work in the arts to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Visual Communications’ Executive Director, Francis Cullado, is a former Getty Marrow intern.