Conversation with Mark Decena, Writer and Director of “The War Inside.”
The War Inside is Decena’s intimate reflection on his early life, personally narrated to footage from his family’s home movie collection. It is a complex story about his parents’ painful separation, his Japanese mother’s strong will to raise three boys alone, and the negative feelings he had towards his Filipino half; a result of his parents’ divorce.
Originally commissioned as a live performance for the closing night of CAAMFest 2013, “The War Inside” marked the official public launch of the Memories to Light initiative and is the first of many commissioned works to come. It has only been performed one other time at the Asian Art Museum in August of 2013 for Memories to Light: Asian America Home Movies Night. If you missed it, you can see the official online version that Decena and his assistant editor at Kontent Films, Blake Everhart, put together just for the Memories to Light website.
Program Manager Davin Agatep, who also composed original music for The War Inside, recently had a conversation with Mark about the film and what it was like to make something so personal.
Davin: When Stephen [Gong] and I first met with you at the CAAM office, we told you it was just to discuss the Memories to Light trailer. At the end of the conversation, we brought up the idea of you doing a full length program at CAAMFest using the home movies. Considering the time frame, which by that point was very close to festival, what was your reaction?
Mark: I think I was a little bit hesitant because I didn’t know what I was going to do. Would it include all the home movies in the archive? I think that’s what you guys might have expected. But when I finally located my own personal home movies, I realized that we had a ton of footage that spanned a good amount of time and could tell a personal story that had been mulling around in my head for quite sometime. Even though I’m not really a fan of personal documentaries… this was a perfect excuse to do one.
Davin: How did you tell your parents ahead of time that you were going to do this? Did you have to ask for their permission?
Mark: I think I bamboozled them a little bit (laughter). I did ask their permission about putting the films into the archives…it can be a very touchy subject to have personal films put online for everyone to see but I explained the vision of the Memories to Light archive which is to share the Asian American experience and let people see other stories and in turn reflect on their own experiences of being Asian American. They were open to that. They had never seen the movies themselves…they were partially excited to just see the films. I didn’t necessarily tell them though what I was going to do with this project. In a way I wanted them to experience it at the event…the closing night film at CAAMFest.
Davin: Was it weird to have Blake [Everhart, assistant editor at Kontent], someone that you have a professional relationship with, look through your personal footage?
Mark: Yeah, what was even stranger was that… Blake edits – we have a small office and he edits out in the open, we don’t have an editing suite for him – so he was looking at the footage and in essence, everyone [in the Kontent office] was looking at me running around in my diapers. Blake is an amazing talent, he was able to take all the footage and with the script, create a first cut that was pretty close to what we ended up screening.
Davin: What do you remember about the performance at CAAMFest 2013?
Mark: It was nerve-wracking! I knew that there weren’t going to be that many people I knew…I knew that my entire family was there: my brothers, my wife, my kids, both of my parents. Probably I was most nervous about my dad seeing the piece. It might cast some light on him that may not be flattering. I saw my dad after the film and he was a bit shaken up. He actually went into the hospital the next day, I don’t know if it was related or not. It may have stressed him out. One interesting thing is that we went to Japantown right afterwards and my mom who had never met his second wife, they actually came face-to-face in Japantown. They didn’t actually meet, but they saw each other. Small steps…
Davin: Would you do something like this again?
Mark: No! (laughter) You know… I don’t know. I’m definitely more of a behind the scenes, behind the camera kind of a person.
Davin: So a lot of this was really out of your comfort zone. You’re performing when you’re actually more of an introvert and talking about your personal life in front of your family and an entire audience!
Mark: Yeah what the hell was I thinking? (laughter) I guess I saw it as an opportunity to feed my compulsion to get out of my comfort zone.