A Nice Mix of Art and Politics

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A Conversation with Filmmaker + Educator Reiko Tahara

By Rachel Baron | July 27, 2020

Reiko Tahara first realized she wanted to study (and make) personal documentaries as an international grad student in New York City in the ‘90s. Over a decade later, she’s been a regular adjunct at Hunter’s IMA MFA program and at the NYU School of Professional Studies.

In addition to her courses, she is Co-Founder and Curator of the Uno Port Art Films (est. 2010), an annual summer outdoor film festival in Okayama, Japan. UPAF, which introduces cutting edge independent films mainly from or about underrepresented world communities to underserved rural populations in Japan. Now in its 10th year, the festival is changing as they navigate a virtual platform. “I personally want to bring films which are not normally distributed to Japan so they can learn about people and history around the world,” says Reiko.

We are so grateful to have Reiko leading another Documentary Theory workshop with us (starts 7/28), her third virtual one since March. She’s shared some of the formative moments in her journey merging filmmaking and teaching, her influences, and her thoughts on the future of documentary study.

Rachel Baron: What documentary approaches and pioneers have inspired you most?

Reiko Tahara: There are so many. It probably goes back to the 90s in graduate school. One of my classes had The History and Memory, it’s a short film one of the first personal documentaries about the Japanese American Internment camps. That was when I learned that professions like that could exist. It was a turning point for me to start thinking that I can remain in this country and be a filmmaker in my own right. Learning about more personal and experimental approaches to filmmaking was very important to me.

RB: How did that inform your teaching and study of the nonfiction craft?

RT: The way I got into teaching is that I was raising my daughter. She was 8 or 9 years old and I was doing a lot of part time work. I always knew I liked teaching, my father was a teacher. I didn’t know how to get into university teaching, but I felt like I could do it. I got a fellowship from the Japanese government one year. Usually the fellowship is for artists. But at the time, I felt like I knew how to make films and wanted to learn the art of teaching. Under Deirdre Boyle at the New School, I learned so much and it has stayed with me since. Primarily I teach documentary history and I also teach Third Cinema, which starts in Latin America in the ‘60s and ‘70s and travels around to other regions. Third Cinema has been a life-changing experience for me and my students as well. We share a space and we share this feeling of what cinema can be. It’s a nice mix of art and politics. I started wishing that how I live or what I think can merge with my teaching.

RB: Documentary ethics are at the forefront once again, examining who's telling whose stories for whom. How do you personally approach the problematic origins of documentary?

RT: It is a huge problem and one of the things I’ve been thinking over the years. Right now, especially with the pandemic and BLM, there are so many people writing about decolonizing their own workplaces. I’ve been working on my own syllabi for years and documentary history is a tricky one. It’s like learning piano, you need to know the basics in order to change and modify. But at the same time, it really challenged me with how much canon I need to include and how many new voices that existed at the same time, but were neglected. If you have to add new voices, you have to kill the old voices.

For example, the 1930s British Documentary movement has been heavily studied and has been a popular topic for so many scholars, but those same scholars tend to be white and male. I don’t personally enjoy the films. Instead of teaching two films, I might just teach one. Or drop it altogether. I always try to discuss with my students about what they would like to do. My approach to teaching Documentary Theory is that it’s primarily for filmmakers and I hope they can participate in the history by practicing documentary.

RB: In addition to being a filmmaker, you're such an experienced educator. You've taught Documentary Theory with us before. What do you enjoy most about teaching it?

RT: I love the fact that students come from very different backgrounds. I like the fact that they are at DCTV, really hungry to learn the technical aspects. It’s always fun to meet them and hope they can use the knowledge for their own filmmaking. That’s the fun part.

RB: Are there any projects or campaigns you're currently working on that you'd like to share with us?

RT: My husband and I have been working on a documentary for years. "It’s about a problematic figure who was involved in the Manchurian Incident and considered the brain behind the Japanese military government. He was one of the 26 class-A war crime defendants at the Tokyo Trial. He wasn’t really known when I was growing up. We found out that my husband’s late father was a student of his. As we researched, we figured out that there was a spy school run by this war-crime criminal. But it gave us the opportunity to look at World War II from a very different angle.

RB: Anything else you would like to add?

RT: I’m really happy that I’m teaching at DCTV because DCTV has a really amazing history, not only in New York City, but in the United States as a whole. It carries its own history and I have so much respect for that.

Interested in taking Documentary Theory with Reiko or another DCTV filmmaking workshop this summer? Check out our roster of offerings this July–August at dctvny.org/summerworkshops2020.

Photo c/o Matthew Sussman