THROUGH THE FIRE: With a Little Help from His Friends

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By SHARON YAMATO

There are two basic drawbacks to making an independent film: how to get the money to make it and how to get it shown.

Since the demise of the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, which financed a good number of films that dealt with JA themes, it’s been harder than ever to figure out how to underwrite stories that show Asian American faces on the big screen. Fortunately, the snag of getting the films shown has been resolved with the growing number of Asian American film festivals throughout the country.

Following the lead of our own pioneering Visual Communications’ Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (celebrating its 29th year this April), these film festivals focus on stories about the often underrepresented Asian American experience in hopes of opening them up to a wider audience.

After premiering at Asian American film festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Akira Boch’s musical fable about an aspiring girl rock band called “The Crumbles” had its recent Seattle debut before an appreciative and spirited audience at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. Many who’ve already seen “The Crumbles” might know Akira as a faithful member of the Media Arts team at JANM, and his production designer Azusa Oda as a freelance graphic designer (check out her great food blog at www.humblebeanblog.com).

A film that breaks the mold of those usually seen at Asian American film festivals, it features a largely Asian American production crew but its cast members are as diverse as the Echo Park community it depicts. Unlike the often message-driven or social commentary films about the plight of Asian Americans in our society, “The Crumbles” is an exuberant slice-of-life film set in our own LA ’hood, and is carefully shot to include familiar locales from bookstores to taco trucks to small clubs that capture the local color of our neighborhood with people in it we all recognize.

Color was not limited to the graffittied walls. Akira made the point that skin color had no bearing on casting, just as it had no bearing on the subject matter.  Latino, black, Asian, you name it —they were all in there. As Akira put it, “It’s multiethnic because it’s the reality of the world we live in.”

Made on a shoestring budget, it was financed almost entirely from Akira’s own pocketbook. There were no grants, no subsidies, no generous contributions. Akira took money he had saved to purchase camera equipment and turned his own dollars into a project from the heart — an autobiographical tale of the joy and heartache of being in a garage band.

“The Crumbles” director Akira Boch.

If making a film as real as this one takes money, without money it takes a lot of ingenuity. Akira managed to use his own and his producer Gena Hamamoto’s apartments to shoot almost all the scenes. The rest comprised outdoor shots that captured the gritty life in Echo Park with an ambiance rarely captured on film. As the writer who also directed the film, Akira figured a way to pull this off without the film feeling stagnant and enclosed. The neighborhood served not just as backdrop but as important as the fluid world it captured.

Here’s where Akira’s friends come in. It goes back to his childhood growing up in San Juan Bautista, the Central California town best known as the home of the internationally acclaimed theater company El Teatro Campesino. His house was directly next door to the theater, and his boyhood friend was the son of its illustrious founder and theatrical director, Luis Valdez. A little of Valdez’s creative juices must have flowed next door as Akira became involved with acting and music as a child, even performing in some plays with the theater group along with his young Valdez cohort.

Cut to six years ago when the idea for “The Crumbles” began taking shape while Akira worked at his day job of making short documentaries and other media projects for JANM. Akira was able to turn to high school friend Seth Millwood (“Serge”), El Teatro regulars Katie Hipol (“Darla”) and Adrian Torres (“Giovanni”) to bring his characters alive.

The final integral component was the music, and thanks to musical composer/creator Quetzal Flores, whom he met through another El Teatro alumnus Richard Montoya, well, the rest is history. Grammy nominee Quetzal ended up writing and producing the music while he had relocated to Washington with his wife, but the long distance didn’t seem to bother either musical director or director.

With people like Akira’s wife Azusa Oda (production designer and co-editor), UCLA film school friend James Yuan (director of photography), and former JANM intern Gena Hamamoto (producer), not to mention cameo appearances by many people you might recognize from in and around J-Town, the heavy work was borne by those who shared Akira’s friendship and vision.

As Akira jokes, “I didn’t ‘hire’ anyone, which implies the transfer of money.” It was his intention from the start to involve as many friends as he could, and everyone ended up pitching in. It was “Let’s put on a show” all over again, this time with the all-too-familiar Hollywood faces like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland replaced by an array of people of color.

“There weren’t any roles for people who looked like me,” said Akira. “In order to change things, I knew I would have to start writing and producing my own material.”

Fortunately, we are all beneficiaries of Akira’s hard work and imagination, and isn’t it nice that we can support people with his ability to turn dreams into reality? To do that and enjoy yourself at the same time, you can see “The Crumbles” when it runs for a week at the Laemmle Theater in Pasadena starting April 26. The soundtrack is available on DVD and on iTunes, and look for digital distribution of the film in the future.

Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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