Tadashi Nakamura’s first love was not documentary film; it was sports. The filmmaker, educator, son, husband, and dad said that when he was young, growing up with parents involved in Asian American politics and academic studies, and media, filmmaking just seemed like work.
Today, Nakamura is a documentary filmmaker dedicated to telling Asian American stories, for the Asian American audience. His films, such as the now-classic PBS documentary, Life on Four Strings: The Jake Shimabukuro Story and Mele Murals, range from focusing on Japanese American culture and history to larger stories about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Unlike many younger Asian American filmmakers, Nakamura’s parents both work in the documentary field: Nakamura’s father is Robert Nakamura, nicknamed “the Godfather of Asian American cinema,” and his mother is Karen L. Ishizuka, an author and documentary producer. Nakamura grew up watching his parents edit in the garage and attending screenings with them.
Having both parents being part of the Japanese American and Asian American activist movement and working in creative fields gave Nakamura the confidence and skills to pursue filmmaking.
“The biggest thing was that I always grew up knowing that Asian Americans made films, and could make film, and there was a lot of them making films,” Nakamura said. “I always knew it existed, which I think a lot of people who didn’t have the privilege or community I did, didn’t know it was possible, that it existed, and that you could do it.” He witnessed first-hand, through his parents, that “you could have a good career and raise your family.”
In high school, Nakamura was more of a jock, playing on the school football team, where he wanted to one day play at UCLA and be drafted on the Raiders. He also ran track and played basketball. When he attended UCLA, he began taking Asian American studies courses—including a course about Asian American films taught by his father. “I took my dad’s class, mainly because I wanted to get an easy A. I did well in it, and ended up liking editing.”
The film he made from that class, naturally, focused on one of his passions. Yellow Brotherhood is about a Japanese American basketball league in Los Angeles that Nakamura once played in. When he graduated from UCLA, he completed the film and started submitting it to film festivals. When he was accepted to the festivals and attended the screenings, the idea that he could become a filmmaker professionally was cemented in his mind.
Even then, he didn’t think of himself solely as a filmmaker. “For a long time, I identified as a student or a community activist.” His interest in filmmaking as a way to make a living grew as he pursued documentary filmmaking. He attended UC Santa Cruz’s Social Documentation program and was under the tutelage of both Renee Tajima-Peña and Spencer Nakasako, two legendary filmmakers who have dedicated much of their body of work to films about Asian Americans.
“He makes films from the inside, and he’s an essential cinematic voice of the Japanese American community,” Tajima-Peña notes. “Visually, Tad has a really fresh and dynamic style. He’s very deft at working with archival footage and using subtle effects to transform the image so it feels cinematic rather than expository.”
At UCSC, he made Pilgrimage, a multigenerational story about Japanese Americans who, in the late 1960s, visited Manzanar, one of 10 camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II; the film screened at Sundance in 2008, where Nakamura was the youngest filmmaker at the time, and a group of his UCSC classmates flew out to Park City, Utah.
Nakamura also completed A Song For Ourselves, about the musician and activist Chris Ijima. With three films under his belt, he began thinking of himself as a filmmaker.
The trilogy of films focusing on the Japanese American experience played at various film festivals, including the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, now called CAAMFest. The films also received funding from CAAM. The first SFIAAFF festival screening impacted Nakamura. While he grew up knowing about the Asian American film festival in the SF Bay Area—his father Robert co-founded Visual Communications in LA, which organizes the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival that also started in the early 1980s.
“[SFIAAFF] was the second festival screening I had ever had,” Nakamura said. “It was huge as a young filmmaker right out of college to get my film in SFIAAFF. It’s still pretty competitive to get in.” Yellow Brotherhood was a part of a shorts program in 2003, screening with other young filmmakers such as Michael Siv (Refugee, Daze of Justice). “The screening itself helped me meet other filmmakers and validate myself as a filmmaker. I felt lucky as a first-time filmmaker to get in.”
Nakamura is committed to telling Asian American stories. While some filmmakers see Asian American festivals as a stepping stone to something bigger, Nakamura said Asian American film festivals are where his heart is. “Some Asian American filmmakers see Asian American film festivals or this community audience as this lower tier, versus a Sundance or Tribeca. I never felt that way. I always knew that my filmmaking was about, and by, the Asian American community.”
CAAM sought out Nakamura in 2011 for a potential project collaboration, for his creative vision, style, sharp editing, and commitment to community, notes Donald Young, CAAM’s Director of Programs. Nakamura was a young talent then, yet to produce a feature-length documentary. CAAM, along with Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC), co-produced Life on Four Strings: The Jake Shimabukuro Story for PBS. Life on Four Strings went on to receive that year’s Gotham Audience Award.
Life on Four Strings’ had its world premiere at the Castro Theater, with a dynamic and memorable screening. Jake Shimabukuro’s family flew out, and his mother and brother graced the stage with him to play some tunes on the ukulele. There was an online ukulele contest, and the winners were also flown out to the festival to meet Shimabukuro. “That was a really special, once-in-a-lifetime screening,” Nakamura said. “It really showed how much CAAM can provide a young filmmaker that a lot of organizations can’t or weren’t willing to do.”
Nakamura feels a special appreciation for Young, who he worked closely with on the two projects, and whom Nakamura cites as a mentor: “We’re both dudes, and don’t have the ‘I love you, man’ conversations with [Young], but he’s done a lot for me over the last handful of years. I don’t express how much he’s meant to me or how much I appreciate him.”
Young said that Nakamura has been a great collaborator, and his work includes “dynamic editing, emotional storytelling, and a real creative vision that was always exciting and dynamic.” Young notes that Nakamura’s vision aligns well with CAAM’s, and “personally, it’s always been a real joy to work with Tad.”
Nakamura also appreciates CAAM as an organization, and stressed how much the organization is true to its mission statement. “CAAM has literally been supportive of all my films from the beginning. At all levels, whether it’s screening my film at film festivals, supporting my films through grants, or more importantly, mentorship and advice. Creating a community for me up in the Bay has been really special for me.” CAAM also funded Mele Murals, a film about two Native Hawaiian graffiti artists.
His dedication to telling Asian American stories has extended to web projects, including with his former instructor, Tajima-Peña. In 2017, he worked with her on the Nikkei Democracy Project, creating short-form viral videos alongside LA-based media strategist Sean Miura, addressing current issues such as the Muslim Ban. “He’s a triple threat because he can shoot and edit as well as direct, so we count on Tad a lot,” Tajima-Peña said.
While his father is passing on the torch to the younger Nakamura, the filmmaker has also had a hand in educating the next generation of filmmakers.
Nakamura has taught and guest-lectured in the same Asian American studies film class that his father started at UCLA, though he is currently taking a break from teaching at the moment. Tajima-Peña, who is now the Director of the Center for EthnoCommunications at UCLA, said that Nakamura is an “amazing teacher” and helped produce video tutorials for the program she runs. “So he’s helped train new generations of socially-conscious filmmakers.”
Today, Nakamura juggles being a father to two young children with his wife, Cindy Sangalang, an Assistant Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
His latest film is perhaps is most personal. Called Third Act, it’s a documentary about his father. His father is also making the film with him. “We’ve always collaborated with all my films,” the younger Nakamura says. “He’s the one who taught me how to make films from the beginning, he’s been my mentor. Part of this film is that we’re trying to show the process of making a film within the film.”
They were in the middle of shooting when the pandemic started, so now they are focusing more on archiving photos and videos.
Robert Nakamura’s documentaries primarily focus on the Japanese American incarceration experience during WWII, using traditional styles of documentary filmmaking, such as sit-down interviews. The younger Nakamura has a similar style in his documentaries, using a sit-down interview format and limited verité style. However, Tadashi’s subjects include different Asian and Pacific Islander groups, and also fuses his generation’s hip-hop aesthetics.
Now, Tadashi’s father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and depression. The elder Nakamura, now 84, was incarcerated at Manzanar as a child, and we hear him speak about current issues, such as xenophobia and more, in the film.
This film, still in production, is, in many ways, a passing of the torch from one community storytelling to another, within one family.