Beating the Cheat

Make it a rule – don’t ever watch six Steven Okazaki films in a row. It started at around 9 am when I hunkered down and suddenly found myself on a journey led by stories of Japanese American survivors of internment camps; stereotypes of Asian men in America; big businesses displacing native Hawaiians in their homeland; and weary heroin addicts in San Francisco.

These dense, often controversial, and opinionated films have come to define Okazaki’s work and his Berkeley, California-based production company, Farallon Films. His documentaries are both inviting with their intimate portraits and distressing with their overwhelming sense of loss, paralysis, and sorrow.

As I enter Video Arts, the upscale post-production house in downtown San Francisco, a shock of cool air hits me before I am greeted by the serene focus and warm smile of Academy Award-winning director Steven Okazaki. Some weeks earlier, at the opening of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Steve Yamane, Okazaki’s longtime employee, tells me it wasn’t always about film for his boss. “He used to be a musician, you know,” Yamane said, and with a smirk, tells me to ask him about it.

"I am a really mediocre musician,” Okazaki answers, as we sit down for our interview. “I played in rock-and-roll bands from junior high until I was about twenty-seven, and then thought I should do something else—because I am not very good.” As a teen Okazaki often strayed from the “in” crowd—while other bands played the Beatles, his covered the less mainstream Kinks.

Perhaps owing to his musical beginnings, Okazaki’s films are filled with rich and sometimes overpowering soundtracks—as if the music is another character—in some instances interrupting the scene rather than pushing the story forward. These soundtracks regularly incorporate contemporary music with punk and rock roots. The melodic, leathery, and sultry voice of Chan Marshall, lead singer for Cat Power, is used in Black Tar Heroin (1999). This HBO documentary follows five poor and displaced young adults on a downward spiral of addiction. Cat Power is also featured on the soundtrack of Okazaki’s new HBO film, Rehab, which tracks another group of drug addled youth, but this time as they struggle to get clean. Regarding his use of music, Okazaki says, “I’m uncomfortable with music that just sort of works you [over] unconsciously.”

In ways similar to narrative film, Okazaki’s documentaries are ripe with musical cues that lead the viewer on emotional journeys, which seem at odds with the cinema verité style of his more recent work. In Rehab, for example, two characters are shown in a hotel room shortly after completing their drug program. As they meticulously prepare their needles, shoot up, and talk of getting clean, a mournful Cat Power song swells. The music is a direct comment on the characters’ demise and creates more drama in the scene.

“I am fearful of the cheat,” he says. “I like [the music] to be more obvious. If music upsets people or makes them feel something, that’s great.” This idea of being a “cheat” is a recurring theme for Okazaki, perhaps as the demon that haunts him or the fear that drives him to work so hard—“In everything I do, I want it to be how I experience it.”

Rather than employ common modes of personal documentary such as a voice-over linking the maker to the subject, Okazaki inserts himself with a subtlety that his audiences might not realize. His musical choices are the most recognizable personal touches and provide a thinly coded commentary about his subjects.

Some of his early films rely heavily on voice-over to introduce characters and provide historical context. In the past, he used traditional documentary conventions, such as talking-head interviews with experts and B-roll of related footage. In his later work, though, Okazaki catches verité moments on screen, which become the truth of his films. As audience members, we assume these scenes are accurate depictions of his subjects’ personalities and experiences. “I don’t think I am trying to get the truth. I am trying to get as real a representation of what I am experiencing [as I can],” he says. “[My films] are personal, they are not pieces of journalism. If a subject wants to hide something, it’s not from me; it’s from the person watching. And if they can get away with it, then they can.”

Okazaki’s desire for truth holds a blatant contradiction. While he ventures to attain the fly-on-the-wall status of “true” verité filmmaking, he clearly also fears the potential of manipulating his audience. He prefers to be palpable with his music choices and insidious with his images. In Black Tar Heroin, Okazaki films Jessica standing across a busy street, fidgeting awkwardly as cars pass by—in voice-over she reveals that she is working as a prostitute to fund her addiction. As she talks, a melodic yet droning guitar riff accentuates her tragic tale. While the camera is indeed exposing a verité moment, the music intercepts and in turn inserts Okazaki’s opinion in the form of music. His intentions to represent reality as he experiences it, and to use music that does not “cheat,” seem inherently at odds. His method assumes the elements of a documentary are experienced or consumed separately. But these conflicting goals and the tension they create arewhat make Okazaki’s films so intriguing.

Tiffani and Josh in Okazaki’s Rehab

When Okazaki takes his images to the edit room, he addresses the limitations in his quest for reality by breaking out of realism through the music cues he inserts. In the opening sequence of Rehab, a woman shoots up into her wrist as a soundtrack of violins and a slow-motion effect underscores the scene, reminding the viewer of the constructed nature of filmmaking.

Okazaki approaches the filmmaking process organically. He does not prepare fully for an interview by learning all he can about a topic. Instead he brings his curiosity, his empathy, a yearning for knowledge, and his desire to gain access to different individuals and communities. His subjects find his soft voice and calm aura inviting, and he concedes to genuine shyness. Filmmaking, he says, gives him “license to ask subjects all kinds of questions and to get an exchange going. Ideally, as I am getting to know them, the audience is [too].” It is as if the audience is getting a sneak peak at the pre-interview process. What results is unrehearsed and can be a startlingly candid exchange in the controlled setting of an interview.

Tracey, a subject in Black Tar Heroin, recalls thinking [of Okazaki], “what a cold callous bastard. Don’t you care that I’m sitting here killing myself and you’re there filming it? I thought it was some Fellini-esque touch—everything falling apart in front of the camera.” Tracey has since gone through myriad emotions about her participation in the project. She stopped using heroin shortly after filming ended and was initially angry and confused by Okazaki’s decision not to include this fact. (The film leaves the viewer with the bleak feeling that none of the subjects will ever get off heroin.) Now Tracey understands. “As a piece of art,” she explains, “that’s like Picasso completing a painting and then a year later coming back and adding a brush stroke.” She believes the harsh reality of drug addiction that Black Tar reveals is what makes the film so powerful. In the end, Tracey knows Okazaki does indeed care. “I never realized he was nice until the movie was over.”

Okazaki has clear ideas for himself about the rules of documentary filmmaking. He literally cringes at the likes of Errol Morris. “I just find his early films really cynical. It seems like East Coast intelligentsia showing us how irritating and dumb people from the south and poor people are.” Okazaki strives for some sort of purity in his ability to document events accurately. He encouraged Tracey and all his subjects to take control of the process and reveal only what they chose to.

Okazaki grew up in Los Angeles and began his artistic career as a painter. He stumbled into filmmaking when the art department at San Francisco State University was full. “The registry office called and said, ‘Pick another major.’ And I said, ‘Now?’ I got the catalogue, started at the A’s and stopped at Film, and thought, ‘Huh. That might be good for me.’” As a painter, he recalls that his life felt very solitary. “Film,” he explains, “provided this connection to the outside world that I really wanted.”

He began by making children’s documentaries, and later went on to direct historical documentaries, which launched a ten-year relationship with PBS. He received his first Oscar nomination in 1985 for Unfinished Business, about three Japanese Americans who challenged their internment camp incarceration. In 1991, he went on to win the Oscar for Days of Waiting, a documentary short about the life and artwork of Estelle Ishigo, a white woman who was placed in an internment camp with her Japanese American husband during World War II.

Even as he became successful and garnered awards, Okazaki considered giving up documentary filmmaking. “I was really frustrated with PBS programming,” he says. “The Ken Burns kind of thing—the interview cut to photos and experts standing in front of bookcases. I just felt it was a trap—PBS is so conservative.” Okazaki speaks freely of this much-disputed topic, a subject many filmmakers will only speak about off the record. “When you produce programs for PBS, often they don’t care how good the program is,” he says. “No one says, ‘You can make this better.’ To make a program where the broadcaster doesn’t really care how good it is, is frustrating and disheartening.”

In response to his own dissatisfaction, Okazaki made a leap and left behind the research and the experts required by PBS, and went directly to the source for his next film, Black Tar Heroin. Before locking down any money, Okazaki simply dove into shooting and hoped someone would be interested in funding it. After learning about the project, HBO bit and his career has been changed ever since. He has gone 180 degrees, from fact-based historical documentaries with a heart, to shocking, improvised images of people struggling to live.

Cameras inevitably change a story with their mere presence, but Okazaki (along with many verité filmmakers) has to believe his work is utterly authentic. Documentaries are constructed representations of reality, and as soon as the first scene is framed, a filmmaker is manipulating the story. Instead of seeming naïve or misdirected, Okazaki’s search for truth is inspiring. “I am the vehicle for getting the story—if I can’t get it, we don’t have it. My failures are part of the process.”

About :

Ariella J. Ben-Dov is a San Francisco based writer and the founder/curator of the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival.