HAVANA TIMES, May 5 — One of the things I enjoyed most at the recently held Eleventh Havana International Youth Film Festival was meeting Sachiko (“Sachi”) Tanuma of Japan.
She was previously discussed by Havana Times writer Erasmo Calzadilla in his post A Group of Close Friends Broken up by Migration. Here’s the interview he promised:
HT: How did you come up with the idea of making a documentary?
Sachi: I was under an employment contract that was going to expire in five months. But, if I was to work on a research proposal I could be paid for more three years, though even that wasn’t completely for sure.
At that time I was working on my doctoral thesis, teaching for the first time in my life and editing a book – in other words, I was in a rough situation. I couldn’t think of the future, only the present, the here and now. Since I didn’t have all that much of a desire to really do a research project, I decided to put in to it what I wanted, but it wasn’t going to be anything academic.
I wanted to show some friends that I had first made in Cuba and how they were later living in other countries. I then proposed to follow these people to see how they had changed their minds about Cuba and the world abroad. Filming was secondary; the main thing was to ask questions, to do some research.
They accepted, but since I didn’t have a steady job at that time and the grants you can get must come through an institution, I had to find one to belong to and I finally found a position, without pay, but I had enough money to get started.
HT: So initially it was research for a PhD!
Sachi: No, I already had a doctorate, I just didn’t have a job.
HT: Sachi, you went to see your friends and from that came the documentary. Did anything else come out of it in addition to the film? What I’m trying to ask is whether it produced any scholarly research work.
Sachi: Well I wrote a few things, not what I researched but analyzing visual anthropological theory to support the work. This was because I didn’t want to simply do the filming and have nothing else. I wanted it to have anthropological significance.
HT: So did they finally accept it as academic work?
Sachi: So far they’ve included it in the selection of audiovisual works for the annual meeting of cultural anthropology in Japan.
But before that it was chosen for the Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec, a festival organized by post-graduate and masters students in Montreal, Canada. This May it’s going to be included in the International Festival of Ethnographic Film in Güttingen, Germany, which is much more widely recognized and has a jury that is made up of people who are well-known in the world of anthropology.
HT: Since you mentioned festivals, can you talk about the awards you’ve won?
Sachi: First, in Yufuin (Japan), I won the Matsukawa Prize, which is named after the person who founded the festival. Three critics gave me a special award and later they included me in the Yamagata International Documentary Festival as part of a sample of Cuban cinema that also featured works by such people as Santiago Alvarez, Nicolas Guillen Landrian, Sara Gomez and Fernando Perez.
I arranged everything so that Fernando Perez could see my film, and fortunately he liked it and asked me to get it in the Havana Youth Film Festival. He asked me only two questions: whether I would continue making movies and if I had a copy that I could send back to Cuba. I sent the copy subtitled in Spanish and it was approved by the Youth Film Festival selection committee.
HT: Your film was assigned to a small theater for its showing. How did the audience react?
Sachi: There weren’t a lot of people there but it was a good size crowd for the size of the place. I think many Cubans aren’t interested in things that have “Cuba” in the title; they want to see something new. So maybe that title isn’t the best. I don’t know how it sounds.
Some people told me it’s very beautiful. One critic in Japan who gave me an award also said to me: “You might consider changing the title. I didn’t want to watch it at first. I thought it was something sentimental, romantic, but when I started watching it I saw that is was something different.”
HT: Are you going to change its name?
Sachi: No. The title was decided earlier on. I remember when it came to me. It was at the funeral of the grandmother of one of the friends in the film. We were all very sentimental because we were hurting from her grandmother’s death as well as other things that were happening in life. At the funeral home they talked about leaving the country.
HT: So when you first met and starting living with those guys, you weren’t thinking of ??making the documentary?
Sachi: No, I hadn’t studied visual anthropology with that purpose in mind, nor had I studied film. I’m self-taught. The idea came because in Cuba we were able to watch lots of films together and then we would spend hours discussing them. That doesn’t happen in Japan. People go to the movies alone or in pairs. After intense days at work, no one goes to see highbrow documentaries. They go more for Hollywood flics, so they can relax.
But here in Cuba there isn’t much of reality reflected on TV either. People try to get that out of the movies, it’s where you see more things that are based on real life. Plus, what’s produced abroad is also obtained and shown here, and then talking about all of that is rich and really helped me understand what people think about their society.
Rather than asking what you think about this or that, watching a movie focuses on the ideas, problems and feelings, and then you can talk about all of those things.
HT: What was your impression when you were renting the house with them? What did you think about this bunch that you later became so close to?
Sachi: They let me live there without paying anything, but aware of the risk because such things are illegal with a foreigner, but they didn’t want me to continue paying my money on rental rooms. When I found this group of people I felt like they treated me like a person. I could talk with them beyond things like “Do you like Cuba?” or “would you like to give me a gift?” and other silly questions. That was nice.
HT: But you didn’t lose your perspective as an anthropologist?
Sachi: No, I continued interviewing people who I would meet through other friends. At that time these were about love and migration. I was interested in the issue of couples because it’s so different from in Japan, although that’s actually a short chapter in my dissertation as well.
HT: This is a little off the topic, but how is the situation of couples so different in Cuba and Japan?
Sachi: It may be because of the culture, but it could also be because of the revolution. According to the stories told to me by older people, the revolution changed the concept of love or how love should be experienced. Before 1959, people didn’t know anything about sex education; some women told me that the first time they had a menstruation they didn’t know what it was. Also, the issue of pre-marital engagement was more rigid than it is now.
In Japan, divorce is still frowned upon, and so is being single for a long time. It’s best to marry at a certain age and to have children to avoid pressures from one’s parents and society in general. It’s something that marks us women a great deal because very few think that being a housewife is the ultimate, but the system is based on the model of the man having the most money and the woman only being a kind of assistant.
Maternity leave is mandatory after the first two months, then the woman can choose whether to extend it or not. If you they choose to remain on leave they won’t receive their full salary, only half. If you work for a business and ask for a long leave, when you return you’ll get a lower position than what you had previously. This view of a woman getting married and having children but also being capable in the professional world is very difficult. So it’s common for Japanese women to display submissive and naïve behavior while taking care of their appearances and not getting too involved in work.
HT: Returning to the documentary. Did the group of friends ever think about reuniting and living together again?
Sachi: I heard they were going to try to get together again at some point. For example, one of them proposed a meeting to be held each year in the Olympics host country. But that was a dream from when they lived in Cuba; now everyone’s busy raising kids and trying to bring over their parents. However, some of them still have the idea that it’s best if friends live together.
HT: What do you plan to do next?
Sachi: Many people who saw the film wondered if there was a second part. They wanted to know more about the characters. To me, I thought it would be nice if I could keep up with the life changes they’ve experienced. I also want to bring out something about how this film circulated – how it was received in various parts of the world: Holland, Canada, Germany, Japan… I’d like to do something thoughtful about the acceptance of the documentary, and not only by the different audiences but by the characters themselves.