Cinema Asian America: A Conversation With Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Chris Tashima

by | February 8, 2011 at 11:49 AM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

As we ready ourselves for the Academy Awards on February 27, Cinema Asian America on XFINITY TV On Demand offers a chance to look back at the ground-breaking film “Visas and Virtue,” which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 1998. The film is available to view all month on XFINITY On Demand, and tells the true story of a Japanese diplomat who risked his own life to save thousands of Jews during WWII. We sat down with its director, the multi-hyphenate Chris Tashima on his inspiration for the film and the state of Asian-American cinema.

“Visas and Virtue” tells the often under-recognized story of Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler” and his role in saving the lives of thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews during WWII. What drew you to this story?
CT: The short film had a unique genesis. It started as a one-act play, self-produced by a group of playwrights, as a writers’ showcase; an evening of one-acts. Initially, I was brought in as an actor for that production. I cannot claim credit for initiating the project, as I was cast after it was written. At that time, it was enough that I was offered a role in a production, even a very small production. But, even at that time, I can say I was drawn to the opportunity of portraying a very complex, heroic figure, something that is rare for any Asian-American actor. As we performed the play, the impact of the story was obvious, which motivated us in making it into a short film.

You won an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1998 for “Visas and Virtue,” which no doubt brought the film and its story to many people. What has been the outcome been for both the historical recognition of Sugimoto, and for you as a director and actor?
CT: “Visas and Virtue” was made at a time when very little about Sugihara was known, certainly in the U.S. Since then, however, there have been several documentaries made, as well as several books published, about Sugihara. It’s hard to say what the Academy Award and our film, specifically, may have meant in terms of recognition for Sugihara, but I definitely feel, as the first film out there, and as part of the mix since, we have done something to help promote his story. I think even just the film festivals we were invited to show in – many Jewish film festivals across the country – helped bring his story to the public. And it continues today. So, it is very gratifying, since that was the mission of the film to begin with, to tell his story, and the Oscar of course did great things to help that. As for myself, as an actor and director, I can’t say it did a whole lot, since I think the Live Action Short Film category isn’t as widely celebrated as some of the other categories, but it did open some doors, and that also continues today. I think I may never stop feeling the affects of winning, for the rest of my career. Thankfully, it is something that people remember.

You have had a lengthy career as a director, film actor and stage actor. Many of your projects are deeply rooted in the Asian-American community, from your work with the Los Angeles theatre company East West Players, to your film “DAY OF INDEPENDENCE,” which looks at the history of Japanese-American internment through the lens of baseball. Where does your commitment to Asian-American storytelling come from?
CT: A lot was learned during my early years at East West Players (EWP). Both in terms of our history in this country, since many of the plays dealt with our experience as Asian-Americans, and also as an Asian-American actor, in an industry that is rather blatantly racist. EWP was founded to combat all the artistic limitations Hollywood places on Asian-American actors, and that was in the mid-sixties. I joined in the mid-eighties, and there was still as much a need for it then. Here we are in 2011, and the need hasn’t subsided. Working at EWP made me realize how limited our representation in the media has been, and how important it is that we fight that. I realized what the impact of growing up on white-washed media has had on my self-image. As a kid, I often wished I was white, since they were the ones on TV and in the movies. After realizing how movies overwhelmingly celebrate white American culture, at the expense of minority communities and people, I decided I had no interest in creating more of that type of oppressive media. So, my interest shifted to wanting to tell our stories, the many, many stories of how Asian-Americans participated in the history of this country.

What direction is Asian-American media going in? So many people seem to be moving toward television work and the online world, and the barriers to mainstream success are still significant for Asian-American actors and stories. Where do you see exciting, dynamic work happening?
CT: I see it all around, which is great. I think the digital revolution has greatly widened the access to media for artists outside the mainstream. A large portion of that group is, of course, minority filmmakers. So, we now have much greater access, both in terms of production capabilities, and also distribution. But, that doesn’t make producing really good films any easier. Making a great film is difficult. I think it’s great that it seems like more Asian-Americans are making films. If nothing else, it increases our odds. The more folks we have in the mix, the better our chances of one person rising to the top. So, I think the playing field is becoming more level. It’s not quite totally level yet, but fairly soon, the limitations will be less founded on any type of oppression – racial, cultural, etc. – and simply based on our own limitations, as artists or entertainers. Which is how it should be.

What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
CT: I will be directing a play in the fall: “happa girl sushi bar after hour” by Perry Miyake, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (www.thelatc.org), where my theatre company, Cedar Grove OnStage, has the opportunity to present Asian-American plays as mainstage works. I am meeting with some filmmakers about possible involvement as an actor in some film projects, and I hope to be getting behind the camera sometime soon, on another project I will produce.