Visual Communications, the nation’s premier Asian Pacific American media arts organization, announced July 19 that it has received one of 35 preservation grants from San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation.
The prestigious federal preservation matching grant from NFPF will enable VC to preserve and restore two of the organization’s signature film productions created by co founder Robert A. Nakamura — “Wataridori: Birds of Passage” (1976) and “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner” (1980).
The films, considered as “classics” in many APA independent cinema circles, have come to exemplify a uniquely Visual Communications “style” that has built upon the development of a uniquely APA “aesthetic” forged almost from VC’s inception in 1970. They have also given a much-welcome voice to the experiences of the Issei to a new country.
“It’s amazing to note that over four decades since their production in the mid-1970s, ‘Hito Hata’ and ‘Wataridori’ continue to be regarded as creative templates for our ever- growing APA cinema movement,” said Visual Communications Executive Director Francis Cullado. “I think it’s safe to say that without the inspiration of VC co-founder Robert Nakamura to produce these works, ‘Asian Pacific American cinema’ as we know it would be in a very different place today.
“We thank the National Film Preservation Foundation for believing in the impact and legacy of our co-founder Bob Nakamura’s pioneering works. We look forward to sharing the results of this vital preservation and restoration effort in 2020 as part of Visual Communications’ slate of Golden Anniversary celebration events.”
“Wataridori” and “Hito Hata” channeled Nakamura’s need to tell the stories of Japanese Americans from his personal perspective. A former internee as a five-year-old at the Manzanar concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, Nakamura later served in the U.S. Army. Upon his discharge, he earned a degree at Art Center College of Design and embarked on a career in photojournalism and advertising photography.
A stint working on the staff of famed modernist designers Charles and Rae Eames influenced his convictions that true creativity needn’t come with monetary extravagance, a work ethic that he carried with him to UCLA as a graduate film major in 1969.
“Wataridori,” Nakamura’s UCLA master’s thesis film, celebrated the pioneering Japanese who immigrated to and settled in America beginning in the mid-1880s. Considered an important milestone production in APA cinema, it offered a nuanced, accessible, and timeless account of the issei spirit and their legacy. Informed by distinct visual lyricism, scholarship, and deliberate, patient storytelling, “Wataridori” exemplified VC’s model of community-based and inspired cinema, and has come to be regarded as a necessary primer in learning about the Japanese American experience.
“Hito Hata” was largely influenced by the 1970s-era struggle around community redevelopment and the ensuing displacement of longtime residents and mom-and-pop businesses in and immediately surrounding Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood. For this project, Nakamura shared directing duties with fellow VC co-founder Duane Kubo, while Nakamura and then-UCLA graduate film student John Esaki hammered the screenplay into shape.
Starring a then-“who’s who” of Asian American acting talents led by Oscar-nominated actors Mako and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, as well as Tad Horino, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Saachiko, and Yuki Shimoda, “Hito Hata” premiered to a sold-out house at the 2,000-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before embarking on a year-long tour of cities with significant Japanese American and Asian American populations.
“Given the amazing achievements and ongoing developments of the APA cinema movement, it’s still vital for us to step back and appreciate the considerable legacy of our pioneering filmmakers,” said Abraham Ferrer, VC’s archives and distribution manager. “‘Hito Hata’ and ‘Wataridori’ are both ‘of their time’ and ‘timeless’ all at once. Most important, Bob Nakamura provided afficionadoes of APA cinema and just-plain folk a means of portraying our lives and experiences in ways that newer generations of APA creatives can celebrate and emulate.”
“Hito Hata” and “Wataridori” are the fourth and fifth film productions in VC’s “classics” (celluloid film-based) catalog that has received preservation support from NFPF. Previous NFPF-supported titles include Kubo’s “Cruisin’ J-Town” in 2002 and “City City” in 2007; and Alan Kondo’s “…I Told You So” in 2007.
For a full list of NFPF 2019 federal grant winners, visit: http://tinyurl.com/nfpf-grant-awards.