Sunset, Tacos, and the Film Subjects: Production Notes of A New Film “Talking Back: Theater for Breaking the Silence” (Tentative Title)

Kaori Sakagami

(Documentary Film Director)

             Stories move from the shadows to the limelight. And though the stage too often presents
                    the drama of our powerlessness, the shadows offer the secret of our power.
                                                                                                         Rebecca Solnit, writer (1)

“Talking Back: Theater for Breaking the Silence” (tentative title), a documentary film in progress, is about “The Medea Project: Theater for Incarnated Women (henceforth the Medea),” a group performance intervention to empower women on margins, which started in the San Francisco County Jail with the support from an artistic organization, the Cultural Odyssey. I have been working on the film project approximately for eight years since 2006, and it is to be completed this fall. In this episode of the series, “Production Notes of A New Film “Talking Back,”* I will write about my recent visit to San Francisco to hold work-in-progress screenings (including one for my film subjects) as well as how I developed my relations with the Medea especially at its transitional period – shifting its target from the incarcerated to the women with HIV/AIDS. 

(* This episode is the fifth one in the series by Kaori Sakagami)

A few minutes past 6 P.M. on August 10, 2013, I was standing in front of an apartment of Cassandra, who has been an active member of the Medea, all women’s theater company in San Francisco. I was going to hold a work-in-progress screening in her room.

I had had similar screenings in Japan between June and July and in U.S. from the end of July, three times for each part, but it was the first time to expose it to the subjects of my film and it got me very anxious.

I rang the bell of the familiar apartment, feeling a bit uptight. The door was suddenly opened, and Cassandra with red-dyed hair in a tank top appeared with a big smile on her face. She threw her arms over me and hugged me tightly, saying in a husky voice “Kory, I’ve been waiting for you!”.

I saw her about a half-year ago, but I felt like I had seen her more often. Because we communicate with each other often through Facebook and e-mail, I did not feel the distance from each other -- Japan and the U.S. I even knew that she had been camping out with her friends till the previous day. I also learned that her live-in-six-year-old granddaughter, “V” begged Cassandra to let her stay longer and “V” ended up remaining there with her friend’s family. The source of information was Facebook.

Cassandra is an African American woman who is HIV positive. In her late 50s, recovering from drug addiction with a long history of substance abuse since her teens, she had been in and out of jails and prisons for countless charges including illegal drug possessions, thefts, home-invasions, and forgeries. She was diagnosed of HIV in jail in the mid-1980s, but she had not revealed her status to anybody else except her own mother and sister until recently. However, they did not receive well and it discouraged her to do further disclosure. For instance, her sister treated her badly by banning contact with her children and giving Cassandra disposable paper dishes and utensils. Cassandra told herself “Since my own blood relative act like that, imagine how others would react! I would never, ever, disclose to anybody!”

It was around 2008 when Cassandra started getting involved in the Medea, based in San Francisco County Jail and marking 20 years from its inception, but it left the jail for various reasons. In the meantime, it has just started a new program, collaboration between hospital and theater, initiated by an inquiry to Rhodessa Jones, the founder and the chair of the Medea, from Dr. Edward Machtinger, who is an HIV/AIDS specialist and the director of the Women’s HIV Program at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF-WHP). He had an interest in the Medea from the perspective of promoting wellness of his patients (not only for the absence of disease or infirmity but also for physical, mental and social well-being). He wondered whether or not the approach could be applicable to HIV/AIDS-positive women. Cassandra, a patient at (UCSF-WHP), was invited by Dr. Machtinger to participate in the collaborative program with the Medea.

In the early summer of 2008, when the Medea shifted its direction -- the focus of the program shifted from incarcerated women to women with HIV/AIDS, I finally received o.k. from Rhodessa to start shooting for a film. Two years had passed since my initial contact with her.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, I asked Rhodessa a permission for participatory-observation in early 2006, and by the summer, I was given an opportunity to attend a women’s jail in San Francisco as an “artist-in-residence” and my task was to help document their activities. I had expressed my will to make my own documentary film to Rhodessa from the very beginning but she had been reluctant to respond me but instead, she kept saying “Let’s see how it goes”. Over the course of next two years, I visited San Francisco every few months for a brief period and tried to build a relationship with Rhodessa and the core members of the Medea. I did all that because I was determined to make the film.

Even early on, Rhodessa mentioned that the Medea might step out of jail in any minute. Though the system of Corrections in San Francisco was considered as one of the most progressive ones in U.S., it was obvious that they could no longer escape from the tide of punitive criminal policies especially after the mid-2000s, and more regulations and less funding put the Medea, which advocates “the personal is political”, in a difficult spot.

Between 2007 and 2008, I was told that the Medea was no longer working in the jail and starting a new program with UCSF-WHP. But, during the initial year of the program, I was not allowed to contact any participants who were HIV positive including Cassandra, neither given chance to learn about the program itself. But somehow, I believed that the Medea would go back to the original activity in jail and that I could make the film. So I kept pushing my film proposal to Rhodessa.

After a couple of years of multiple visits, meetings and constant e-mail exchanges, Rhodessa finally gave me o.k. on the film project so I immediately arranged and brought my film crew from Japan before she changes her mind. But, when we arrived there, everything was vague. Rhodessa told me that it was still not possible to shoot their activities with women with HIV/AIDS because she had so many concerns. It took time for the women to speak out about themselves, and some of them suddenly stopped coming because of the fear of being known their status of HIV/AIDS to the public. Majority did not stay and the activity itself was unstable, so she was afraid that our presence would scare them off. I found out later that at the initial stage, seventy women came to the workshops, but a few weeks later, everyone was gone except one. That was Cassandra.

I understood that was not the best moment for the Medea, so I started questioning myself why Rhodessa gave me o.k. to the film project at this particular moment when everything seemed to be uncertain. After some talks with her and her colleague, I realized that they may just have given in because of my persistent and constant requests for the film project and perhaps she did not see how this situation would affect my film. Under such circumstance, all we could do was to shoot interviews with Rhodessa and a couple of other core members as well as supplemental footage of their daily reality.

“Why don’t we call off this film project?” This frank and honest remark by my film crew made me upset. Although I talked back decisively, “I will never give up,” I felt discouraged and worried. I had no clew on how to continue this project. Not even a bit. Yet, my passion for the film project remained firm.

In another year or so, I made multiple visits--only a few days for each. I just had coffee and chatted with a couple of original members of the Medea at best, for I was not permitted even just to make contact or to observe their activities. Still, I was trying to figure out how to make the film happen.

I knew how people with HIV/AIDS would react toward a filmmaker like me because I had had done a long-term TV project on the positive people years ago. At the same time, it was true that I was worried that our film might never be made.

Meeting Cassandra for the first time was at the crucial time. It was the spring of 2009 and one year had already passed since the program started. In those days, workshops were held once or twice a week at a large warehouse in a bay area. I was finally allowed to attend the workshop. Six or seven HIV positive women along with familiar faces were there. Cassandra was one of them and I thought she was shy and polite.

In a circle of discussion called “Check-in” held at the beginning of the workshop, participants spoke honestly about everything from health concerns to personal issues with their boyfriends and family. I was moved by their courage and intensity and I could feel that they had already established trusting relationship which had taken a long time. And it took me another year or so to get to know of Cassandra and other positive women.

To be honest, even at that point, I had no idea whether the Medea’s program with the positive women itself would survive or not, but my anticipation of making the film has been enhanced by seeing the actual women, whom I had heard about for quite some time; they were actually dancing and talking in front of me. But at the same time, there were many concerns such as gaining trust from them and keeping the relationship in a distance between Japan and U.S.

From the left: Marlene, Cassandra, and Shae 
in the work-in-progress premiere
Let’s get back to the beginning about a work-in-progress screening.

I was already informed that there would be only a couple of people to come to the screening due to the last minute scheduling. Some went on a trip for summer vacation, while others had to care for their elderly parents or to attend family events. Some of those who could not attend gave me a call or email saying that they were sorry for missing the chance, and a couple of them let Cassandra know that they were coming but being late.

Cassandra took me to her favorite Mexican restaurant in her neighborhood while we were waiting for the others to arrive. Cassandra lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, a place where ethnic minorities, mainly Hispanic or Latinos, live and streets are always with full of people. Markets displayed colorful fruits and vegetables. Exotic smells and sounds are streaming out of ethnic restaurants. Cool vintage clothing stores are lined up on the streets, and colorful painted murals are found everywhere. In the midst of this lively neighborhood, you see some stores and buildings with posted signs of “Closed” or “For Rent” which keep reminding us the severe economic crisis.

Cassandra kept talking to me, walking down the busy street where people with different ethnic backgrounds come and go. She told me about her oldest daughter who had been in prison and had been released recently got pregnant while still struggling with her drug habit and old crowd. She is the mother of “V” whom Cassandra has been taking care of for years. “V” has just turned 6 years old and will start the school from this fall but still hoping to live with her own mother and getting excited about having a new sibling. We chatted on the personal matters, type of things which would never go on Facebook.

Entering the Mexican restaurant, filled with spicy aroma and citrus scent, some memories suddenly came back to me -- the 90’s when I directed a TV documentary program about a family living with HIV/AIDS in New York.

A non-profit HIV/AIDS organization introduced Layla to me, and we met at the first time at a small pizzeria in Queens where she lived. I bent an ear to Layla who shared episodes of her daily life while eating pizza with her and her two little sons at the same table. I ended up following her family for one year and captured their day-to-day reality. I learned so much from them and it has helped me face difficult situations in my real life. It certainly was my starting point in my filmmaking career and it made me realize that my attempt to make this film meant to return to origin.

When we left the pizzeria, the sky burned red. Feeling nostalgic, I could not believe that my film was nearly finished and I was walking down the street of San Francisco with my film subject who is HIV-positive, chatting and laughing.

Red sky before my eyes, steaming hot Tacos in my hand, and Cassandra next to me. All of them were actually there, but I never would have imagined them when I started getting involved in the Medea eight years ago and even when I started shooting for the film five years ago. What kind of reality awaits me after this film? What kind of encounter and discoveries would I have? I was no longer anxious but rather I felt inspired. (To be continued later in the Japanese series)

 (1) Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark. New York: Nation Books. 2004. P.174.

Thanks and Notice

We would like to thank Motion Gallery, the crowd funding site where we have achieved our goal. However, the funding for the promotion of our film still falls short. If you are interested in helping our film financially or for promotion, please make contact with us through the following website or e-mail us to outofframe@jcom.home.ne.jp.

“Talking Back” Film Project Fundraising Website:

Facebook Outofframe:

Written and translated by Kaori Sakagami (Documentary Director of “Talking Back”)
Original Article in Japanese: http://wan.or.jp/reading/?p=12100

Kaori Sakagami: independent documentary filmmaker & non-fiction writer based in Tokyo, chair of “out of frame” non-profit organization for collaborative media and art for kids and women with trauma, Visiting Associate Professor at Hitotsubashi University. She directed, produced and edited an award winning film LIFERS: REACHING FOR LIFE BEYOND THE WALLS(2004, out of frame) as well as more than a dozen of award winning TV documentary programs including MILLER ON MONSTERS, JOURNEY OF HOPE, and COMING OUT OF SHATTERED CHILDHOOD. Focused on criminal justice issues such as death penalty and habilitation of violent offenders by putting lights on alternative approaches from the perspective of trauma and recovery; namely Therapeutic Communities, Restorative Justice, collaborative Art programs, and community building approaches. Her current film project on all-women-theater TALKING BACK (tentative title) is to be released in 2014. 

Posted by Naoko Uchibori.

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