UPAJ Documentary: Interview with Hoku Uchiyama

By Rupal Shah

Winner of a Cannes Young Director Award while still a student at the Art Center College of Design, Hoku Uchiyama has directed several award-winning films. His short film, Rose, has screened in over twenty-six film festivals world wide, and won awards in twelve. The film was also featured in American Cinematographer magazine. His work has also screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The 2009 tour of India Jazz Suites (IJS) instigated the production of the documentary, Upaj, by The Center for Asian American Media in association with Hindipendent Films.  In addition to Upaj, Hoku is also directing a music video for Evelyn Evelyn, (aka Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls and Jason Webley).

Hoku Uchiyama spoke about directing the documentary, Upaj, his inspiration behind the film, and the greater impact of the documentary.

Many dancers have worked together on collaborations. What about India Jazz Suites struck you as unique? What inspired you to make this documentary?
I grew up around dance so I’m familiar with it. I saw a videotape of India Jazz Suites and it struck a strong emotional chord with me. I’ve always been attracted to Kathak, and the kind of tap that Jason does was new to me.  I thought, “I could watch this forever.”

What was the most exciting part of making this film?
The most exciting part of making this film was also the scariest part. With documentary, you have no idea what’s going on, everything is so speculative. My other films are well planned but documentary is so spontaneous. You have to be open to what’s given and what’s in front of you.

What do you hope this film achieves in terms of its impact?
I think it’s twofold: Stories, at their best, are good company. They give people a sense that others understand them. In fictional film, the stories are similar, but the toolbox is bigger, it’s open. Documentary forces you to honor truth—the stories are still good company but have to maintain truth and stay true to who these people are.

I hope that this film allows people to connect with these artists, with who they are and what they do. And I hope it educates, teaches people about Kathak and tap.

What was the most challenging part of making this film?
One of the other challenging things about making this film was being immersed in cultures that are different. India was definitely a different world for me – and being introduced to that world while trying to make a film was a challenge.  Also even though Jason and I are black, he comes from a different world than I do and I had a lot to learn.

This film took you on your first visit to India. How did that experience affect you and/or your process for making this film?
We talked a lot about where we were going to shoot this film – we could have followed them to places besides India.  But given that, for western audiences, there is more to explain with Kathak then with tap I think actually BEING in India allowed us to say a lot less and show a lot more.

Seeing where Dada comes from, where he grew up speaks for itself. I couldn’t have captured that by talking about it – it needed to be shown.

At first glance, the physicality and the complexity of these two art forms draw you in; what keeps you there? What’s the deeper draw? How did you approach that in terms of capturing it on film?

Both Kathak and Tap are deep and rich dance forms.  There’s a lot of protein in them – whether you have the tools to analyze them or not, you can feel it when you experience them.   The dance in Upaj is presented as an extension of the two subjects.  I think they both do talk through their dance – as much as they can say verbally about themselves and their lives, they say a lot through their dance too – and for me that’s the deeper draw.

These two art forms are different in their traditions, evolution, and cultural contexts, but are similar in their rhythmic complexities and improvisation. What impact does this kind of collaboration have on the individual art forms?

I think the collaboration broadens the spectrum of each art form. This isn’t fusion—I’ve done a lot of research on fusion and this isn’t it. It’s a search for and the finding of common ground where the artists can talk to each other.

It’s very smart. The art forms aren’t changing each other, they’re broadening the palettes.  On the one hand, you want to change with the times and with people, but you don’t want to compromise who you are or what you do. I think the film captures growth on the part of the artists, but it’s uncompromising growth. And that’s very beautiful.

How do you feel the public can benefit from their collaboration being captured in a documentary?
I don’t think of film as a public service. For me, I’ve found so much to love about these two people and what they do.  And if I’ve done my job, audiences will find a lot to love too.  They’ll say “Wow, I want to know more.”

The documentary, Upaj, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival, on March 18th at 7:00 PMAfter the screening, the audience will have a chance to engage in a conversation with Uchiyama, the other filmmakers, and artists.

Click here to purchase tickets to the documentary screening and performance

Posted in: Hoku Uchiyama, UPAJ