JapanVisitor.com spoke with filmmaker Regge Life while he was in Okinawa. His film Doubles: Japan and America's Intercultural Childrenwill be screened at the upcoming Kansai International Film Festival. Life is an award-winner director: four CINE Golden Eagles, a Sony Innovator of 1991, and he has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy for work on Sesame Street. He is in addition the founder and director of the Global Film Network.
Let's start with a bit about you.
Well, I’m originally from New York, worked in theater, and then attended NYU film school in the‘70s.
In the late ’70s early ’80s I was doing ethnographic documentaries. I returned to West Africa, where I had studied in college, I did some work in the Caribbean and also in South America. For financial reasons, however, I stopped doing the docs—they just don’t pay.
My real background was in the theater, to which I then returned.
What is your connection to Japan?
As a filmmaker I had always had an interest in Japanese film. I then got an opportunity to do a fellowship in Japan. I was a Creative Artists' Fellow with the Japan/US Friendship Commission in 1990, and spent the time working with and observing director Yoji Yamada as he filmed the forty-third Tora-san film.
As the fellowship was ending and I was getting ready to leave Japan, I got a proposal to make a film. At the time, in the early ‘90s, Japan was perceived of as being a very racist and closed place. Through my travels and time in Japan, I had met quite a few African-Americans who had decided to make Japan their home.
Funding was still fairly easy to come by in those days, and that project became Struggle and Success: The African-American Experience in Japan. When the final product came out, however, the sponsors were a bit nervous. NHK scheduled to run it, once, at 3 in the afternoon on a Saturday. Twenty minutes into the program, though, the NHK switchboard lit up: “What is this?” and “When is it going to be shown again?”
All the nervousness evaporated when the film was not vilified but lauded.
This was a big win, and it led to Doubles.
Can you tell us a bit about Doubles: Japan and America's Intercultural Children?
Doubles was filmed around the time of the 50th anniversary of the war, in 1995, a time when people in both Japan and the US were taking stock of what had happened and what might have happened. Part of that was revisionist history.
In my mind, though, the enduring legacy of the war is the occupation, in particular the many children born out of wedlock or in a mixed marriage.
This was a very sensitive topic in Japan at that time. There was still the idea that Japan was a mono-racial society. Some government officials had been quoted on the record as making statements about the reasons for Japan’s success—part of which they linked to the lack of racial minorities and conflict.
In addition, the Japanese economy was completely different in terms of film fund-raising from the time that I did Struggle and Success. Thanks to that film, though, we were finally able to put together the funds to do the film.
And NHK aired it three times over the O-shogatsu [New Year]’s holiday in a highly viewed time slot.
My next project was After America, After Japan, which documents the struggle of “going home.” This picture has been shown at festivals and schools and is perhaps the most popular of my works.
What this film discusses is life abroad—and then the ultimate return. It’s a topic few people like to talk about in the business world. With all of the transfers and sacrifices workers are forced to make—moving from country to country—and the effect this has on families and children and the worker.
What are you working on now?
I’m on my second Japan fellowship. I’m currently fund raising for a feature film based on Cocktail Party, a novel written by Oshiro Tatsuhiro. This is an Akutagawa Prize winner from the 1960s that takes place in Okinawa [which has the highest concentration of US military bases and US military personnel of any Japanese prefecture].
The script is done, and it will be translated into Japanese. The story is about a friendship between an Okinawan who took part in World War II and a younger US soldier.
For the lead role, I am hoping to get an established Japanese actor.
How is funding coming along?
We are raising money in Okinawa, Honshu, the US, and elsewhere. There is one role that features a Chinese, and we are looking into funding from China.
What do you see as the connection between African-Americans and Japanese?
When African-Americans were allowed into the military in 1948, they were sent mainly to occupied areas in Germany and Japan. Black soldiers were given the most menial jobs—a continuation of slavery of a sort—which unlike their white compatriots put them in direct contact with ordinary Germans and Japanese.
This resulted in helping them develop more personal relationships, and again unlike their white peers—who were more insulated on the bases—the black soldiers did not fear the local population. A strong connection was thus made.