Articles

A SONG FOR OURSELVES: A tribute to Chris Iijima

By Vanessa Gentry

If asked to think about folk music and the political activism of the 1960s and 70s, people often come up with names like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. In contrast, most people probably haven’t heard of Chris Iijima, probably have never heard his lyrics about the Vietnam War and growing up Asian American in the 1950s and 60s, and probably don’t know that the legendary John Lennon once introduced a performance of his musical-activist duo group, Yellow Pearl, on national television. In the 2009 documentary, A SONG FOR OURSELVES, director/editor Tadashi Nakamura’s traces the life of Iijima through his work as an activist and traveling folk singer in the early 70s, to his teaching career and family life in New York and Hawai’i.

Iijima recounts his early years of activism: joining with others to protest the Vietnam War in groups like Students for a Democratic Society and yet ultimately feeling alone in organizations filled mainly with white students. Claiming to have had “no community growing up in New York,” he admits to “watching war movies with the next-door neighbor, secretly rooting for the other side.” His first sense of belonging, the beginning of what he and his family later called their community, came in 1970 when he joined other Asian American activists in the group Asian Americans for Action. Soon after, he and fellow activist Nobuko Miyamoto actively redefined mainstream perceptions of Asian American identity by writing and performing music with determinedly honest lyrics accompanied by a simple, accessible acoustic folk sound. Backup musician Charlie Chin, who joined Yellow Pearl a year after its conception, voiced his surprise after the first time he heard them perform: “I’d never heard Asians carrying on like this… They refuted what the mainstream was saying about us.”

The sense of connection and community that drew Iijima, Miyamoto, Chin and other Asian Americans together in the 1960s continued to sustain Iijima, even when he changed his career path and started a family. Iijima’s decision to settle down was not a relinquishing of his activism, however; it was an expansion of a viewpoint, a realization that his family life and his activism need not be mutually exclusive. It was the ultimate understanding that family and human connection need not be sacrificed for political change.

A SONG FOR OURSELVES is now available for educational, institutional, library and community group purchase or rental. Special features on the DVD include ‘Farewell Chris: Los Angeles Memorial,’ ‘Mother of the Movement: Kazu Iijima,’ Chris Iijima extended interview and additional photos and music.

NOT BLACK OR WHITE

By Misa Oyama

“I wait for the day that television replicates my life. I feel like it will.” Ten years ago, comedian Amy Hill made this prediction in Anna Kang’s documentary NOT BLACK OR WHITE, which profiled three Asian American women working in the entertainment industry. Since then, Amy Hill as well as cartoonist Lela Lee and actress Ming-Na have continued to negotiate their roles in an industry which has not yet reached the full diversity of Amy Hill’s dream, although it may be getting closer.

The concerns and issues raised by NOT BLACK OR WHITE have remained relevant today: the pigeonholing of female Asian roles, the burden of model representation, and the difficulty of maintaining an authentic artistic voice. As Lela Lee, the creator of Angry Little Asian Girl, put it, “I don’t want to be a role model, and I don’t want to be representative, and I don’t want to be a spokesperson. I just want to do my stuff.” This year Lee published her fifth book in the Angry Little Girls series; she is currently producing a weekly strip on her website angrylittlegirls.com. Similarly, Amy Hill and Ming-Na have appeared in film and television roles that are far removed from the exotic/erotic images they grew up with. Hill has played everything from psychics (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under) to doctors (General Hospital, Boston Legal), and most recently a character in the animated series The Goode Family. For her part, Ming-Na had already finished her five-year run as the first Asian American leading role on ER by the time Sandra Oh began appearing in Grey’s Anatomy. Since her starring role in Mulan, Ming-Na has branched out into the genres of comedy (Two and a Half Men), horror (Prom Night), and science fiction (Stargate Universe).

Behind the Scenes: The Story Behind the Documentary OUT OF THE POISON TREE

In 1977, director and producer Beth Pielert was sitting in a Hebrew school class reading about Anne Frank who perished in the Holocaust and was told never to let something like the Holocaust happen again. But even at just age seven and 13,000 miles away, genocide was happening all over again in Cambodia.Years later Pielert met a former Nuremberg prosecutor who sparked a theme for a film – people who were creators of justice after a great injustice had occurred. After being introduced to one of the founders of the Yale Cambodian Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, Pielert began researching films that had been made about Cambodia and discovered many detailed accounts of the genocide, but none that explored the forgiveness or reconciliation process – this was 1998.

Fast forward to 2006 where the subjects and characters of Pielert’s documentary, OUT OF THE POISON TREE, take us on a journey toward understanding what happened in Cambodia and how people have come to forgive after ‘The Killing Fields.’ It follows Thida Buth Mam, an American survivor of the Khmer Rouge, as she returns to her home country with hopes of unlocking the mystery of her father’s disappearance in 1975. Mam’s quest intersects with many silent voices: widows, survivors from remote villages, monks and even former perpetrators. Her search for the truth stirs up fractured pieces of one family’s nightmare, unearths an unimaginable heartbreak and ultimately shines light on a people’s broken silence. OUT OF THE POISON TREE is even more relevant today as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal proceedings continue on, prosecuting those who committed serious crimes during the 1975-1979 regime.For more information and related classroom activities, download or print the nine-page OUT OF THE POISON TREE Educator’s Guide . The documentary is available on DVD for educational purchase or rental from CAAM Educational Distribution.For other similar films about Cambodia, check out REFUGEE, THE FLUTE PLAYER and MONKEY DANCE.

Linking Classroom Learning to Social Action

Linking Classroom Learning to Social Action

At the Association of Asian American Studies annual conference this past spring, I had a chance to preview a remarkable film, SENTENCED HOME, co-produced, directed, and written by Nicole Newnham and David Grabias. Like other viewers, I was struck by the power of this film to put a human face on a critical problem facing immigrant and refugee communities today—forcible deportation. Since 2001, over 1.5 million U.S. residents have been deported, many for minor felonies or misdemeanors. Deportation has not been limited to undocumented “aliens,” but has also targeted permanent residents.