Japan Cuts 2015 Interview: OUT OF MY HAND Director Fukunaga Takeshi Explores The Liberian Immigrant Experience

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Japan Cuts 2015 Interview: OUT OF MY HAND Director Fukunaga Takeshi Explores The Liberian Immigrant Experience
One of Japan Cuts' more unusual offerings is the story of a Liberian immigrant living in New York, directed by a Japanese immigrant living in New York. Already fêted at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival, director Fukunaga Takeshi brings his multi-continental feature debut, Out of My Hand to his adopted hometown.


The Lady Miz Diva:  Please tell us how OUT OF MY HAND came to you?

Fukunaga Takeshi:
  I was involved with a documentary about the same subject; the lives of the rubber plantation workers in Liberia, and I was really struck by seeing the dignity and the strength of the people enduring severe working conditions.  That whole experience kind of reminded me of the very simple fact that there are always people behind everything we use every day, on a day-to-day basis.  That was a very, very strong experience and I thought it would be something meaningful to share.

Tell us about filming in Liberia.

First, I planned to stay there for only two weeks, mainly to do casting and location scouting, which were big questions for us; to figure out if we could actually make this happen.  When I got there, I connected with the Liberian movie union and then did the whole preproduction, which went really well, so I decided to shoot and do the rehearsal for about two months by myself, and then the crew from New York came, that was about nine people, and then we shot it for about three weeks with help from the movie union, who got us key grips and line producing and things like that.

How did you choose your actors?  Most are not professionals. How were you able to judge the quality of the performances?

In the audition I had with the movie union, we saw about 300 people and most of them were not actors.  To me, when I did the audition, it was clear whether they were comfortable or not.  Then after that, I did callbacks and then I saw them and asked them to do specific lines and then that's when I figured whether he or she was ready to perform.

It was more like seeing whether the person was very comfortable being someone else, or himself, but like just to be on camera and be exposed in front of the camera.  During the rehearsal, even with people who had some experience, the biggest challenge was to tone down their acting, because they're so used to an overdramatic style of acting.  Everything they see is either big budget Hollywood movies or local productions, which are mainly Nigerian or Ghanaian films, so they see mainly overdramatic performances and that is the kind of acting that they were very used to.  That was my key for the film, to bring it down.

What was the reception like for you in Liberia?  Here is a Japanese filmmaker and a crew from New York.  How did they feel about a movie being made in their midst?

They was super excited about us coming to shoot the movie, because there are some documentaries that were made about the subject of Liberia, but there are hardly any narrative films.  That factor alone, that an American production was coming to Liberia to shoot a movie was very exciting to them, but also what really excited them was how this movie was not specifically about the war; that it had more of a positive message.  Because everything you hear and see about Liberia is always negative; war, or now, Ebola, and they are very, very tired of that kind negative portrayal.

There is such a feeling of being immersed in the lives of those people. How long were you there just to observe the flow of life in the villages before you decided where or how to start shooting?  Did you have people on the shoot to ask whether you were representing aspects of the culture correctly?

When I finished writing the script here in New York, I had never been to Liberia, but I did a bunch of research and I did a bunch of interviews with Liberian people living in New York.  My actual stay in Liberia was a total of three months, including the shooting for three to four weeks.  But during the pre-production, I changed a lot of stuff in the script that was different from what I actually saw in Liberia, and also it was very, very helpful to actually work with Liberian script writers to change the dialogue to more natural sounding lines.  So, in a way, I guess they were consultants to give us the realistic aspect of the movie, if it was true to fact or not.

Was it mostly natural light you used in Liberia?  The opening scene in the darkness before Cisco goes to work and then when the men are returning from the meeting with only the flashlights was very effective.

Yes, because that's what really struck me once I got there.  In the countryside, when you're driving in the road, it's pitch dark, and people are still walking with no light, and it was really shocking to me.  And when you actually go to those villages within the plantation, the only light you see is either a bonfire or those small camping lights.  So, visually, that was really striking to me and I wanted to re-create that in the movie.

How did you learn about the Liberian community in New York?  What initially piqued your interest and how did you immerse yourself here?

When I started doing research, considering making a movie about the subject matter and the people, I came across many articles and stories about refugees who came to the United States during the war. Then I learned that many of them came to Staten Island in New York, and that they had this big community, but they also had many, many issues like victims and perpetrators were living next to each other sometimes.  

Once they came here, it was almost like they were put into the same building, and that was really complex and interesting to me how once you cross the border, it's also closing the gap of social class amongst the people.  It forces them into an interesting situation where they have to confront each other with no choice.  One of the Liberian people I interviewed here in New York, said that America is like a great equalizer, that sometimes people from a very different social class come here and they live next to each other and they all have to kind of start over.  That was very interesting to me and that's how it started building the story.

Were they welcoming to you as an outsider in their community?

Well, it was a rough neighborhood.  It still is rough. Those people who we got connected to were very welcoming and then really helped us a lot as far as finding locations and introducing us to the right people, especially when they knew that our intention was to tell a very positive story and to bring more attention to the Liberian people.  

But then there were other sort of crazy people in the street, but I don't think they necessarily picked us for any specific reason, they wouldn't have liked any outsider, especially when we had cameras and equipment around, but I never felt like the community itself was not welcoming us.

In light of your intention to tell a positive story, did that affect how much you exposed about Cisco's past?  I could tell it wasn't good but it felt like you were holding the full revelation back.

It was intentional in the way that it's not too specific.  We left some room in that particular story for the audience to decide whether he actually did it or not.  Our intention was we treated in a way that that's actually what happened, although we have some ambiguity there.  It wasn't so much about putting in some graphic lines, or just giving a flashback of that history, because at its core, this is a portrait of this man who is trying to go beyond his limit, and you see him trying so hard for a better life, and then you realize the man you thought you knew might be a little bit different from the kind of person you thought he is.

That's, I think, something that I feel there's some truth to; after all, we're all incapable of understanding each other fully.  We never know what kind of past each person has, or really if that person has tried to leave it behind.  So it wasn't really so much about the war itself; it was more a portrait of this person, how complex he is and to make the audience realize he wasn't just trying to also escape from this past.  As far as the war element, it's mentioned a little bit in the movie, as well, in the Liberia part.  

When I tried to make a story about Liberian society and its people, it was inevitable that we had to mention the recent history of the Civil War, because it's still something that's there.  When you go there, you see that it still exists in people's minds in different ways, so I felt that it was natural to incorporate that into the story.

Did you worry that viewers who weren't aware of Liberia's recent history might not have fully understood the references in the film?

From a scriptwriting standpoint, some people asked us or wanted us to insinuate a dark side of his personality or past in Liberia, but to me, it's much stronger when you find out as a total surprise, instead of hinting at it early on, because then you find out, and it's just like, 'There you go, I knew something was wrong.'  In reality, it's not like that about people.  Often times, you think you know the person, but in reality, it's impossible to fully understand each other and then you have to keep trying and trying.

Are we supposed to have any idea of how the family is doing after Cisco moves to New York? I wasn't sure during the phone call if they were better or worse, or how long he'd been gone.

In my idea, he has been sending the money, but their life is not necessarily drastically different, because they still have to save money for the school and the other things that they have to pay.  I didn't want to make it so clear how much time had passed, either, but he has been sending the money and he will keep sending the money.

This is the story of a man who comes from a different continent and culture to make a better life in the US, that was created by a man who came from a different continent and culture to make a better life in the US.  Did you find similarities in Cisco's fictional journey to your own real-life journey?

Well, as far as {being} an immigrant, I guess I can relate to some of the things that Cisco is going through in the New York part, like being away from home and just trying to have a better life.  Still, so many things catch up with him and makes it difficult just to do what he's really trying to do.  That's, I think, not just me, but something I hope other people can relate to, as well.  

I know it's not necessarily expected that someone coming from a totally different background making a story about someone else, but what I was trying to do was to focus on universal themes in a portrait of a human being, really as another human being.  That was always my focus to find similarities as a man.  I hope I could convey some of those universal themes through the movie.

What does the title OUT OF MY HAND mean?

That means a couple of different things.  One is his work as a tree tapper; it refers to how he uses his hands and he touches the trees.  It's him making things out of his hand is one thing.  The other is how the reality of this huge corporation {on the rubber plantation} exploiting people's lives; taking something out of their hands.  It is lightly insinuated with that expression "out of my hands" that things are out of his control, like whatever he does, he can try his best, but there are things that he has no control over, like his past or something as simple as a flat tire.

Please talk about Mr. Murakami Ryo, who was your director of photography in Liberia, who sadly passed away from malaria.

First of all, this project wouldn't have begun.  I only learned about the conditions and the lives of the workers in the rubber plantations in Liberia only through his documentary.  And that was just the start point, but still, that was the original and huge inspiration for me to start working on this project.  

I think that was really inspiring not only because I saw the actual conditions of the people behind the things that I use every day, but the way he portrayed them and what he tried to convey through his documentary was very, very compassionate and coming from a very humane perspective.  That was his quality as a person and also the big reason I think that inspired me.

He, himself, was also a very big inspiration for me as a person and as a filmmaker, and I hope whoever watches this movie now and in the future, they can still see him and see his eyes and perspective through the finished feature.

OUT OF MY HAND has received wonderful acclaim; its world premiere was at the Berlinale and it won the U.S. Fiction Award at Los Angeles Film Festival.  Does that put pressure on you as to your choice of second feature?

I guess it gives a different type of perspective or sense of whatever I'm going to be making next.  Because the more people who watched the movie, the more people who like the movie want to see what I do next, naturally, they're going to make their own connections from this movie to another.  In that sense, which is wonderful, but at the same time, yes, there is some pressure, but after all, making a movie is so difficult and it takes so much out of my life.  The hard part is finding a story idea I believe in.  In that sense, the process is the same.  I guess I will feel some pressure, but the process is the same and how I'm going to shoot the project is going to be the same.

I have two projects in mind; ideas that I'm interested in exploring further.  One, I started writing the script for.

What would you like audiences to take away from OUT OF MY HAND?

It's kind of a tricky question, because when I decided to make this movie, this portrait of this character, there's so much of me that's in the movie; from all different values and perspectives and things that I'm not necessarily asking people to agree with.  So, I guess I'd be happy as long as they see the movie and they feel something in their own way, whether they like it or not. 

Other than that, if with this movie I can bring more attention and bring a positive influence to Liberia and its people, especially in the movie industry, that's I think the best thing that the movie can do.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

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