Chris Tashima is the director and co-screenwriter of, and actor in “Visas and Virtue.” The film will be featured on the X1 Asian American destination in March’s Nisei Stories collection. We had the pleasure of asking Chris what inspired his filmmaking journey and how his Asian American heritage influences his work.
Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month.
Chris Tashima: “Visas and Virtue” celebrates its 20th anniversary of winning the Oscar for Live Action Short Film at the 70th Academy Awards in March 1998. Adapted from a play and inspired by true events, this narrative drama tells of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara and his heroic actions of defying of his own government to issue transit visas from his post in Lithuania in 1940, allowing 6,000 Jews to escape the impending Holocaust.
How did you get into filmmaking?
CT: Initially, in high school, sci-fi, fantasy and adventure films of Hollywood made me want to be a filmmaker. However, after limited success in film school, I began to explore acting, which led me to East West Players (EWP), an Asian American theater company in Los Angeles. Opportunities at EWP allowed me to better understand my Asian American identity, and the need for our faces and stories to be onstage and onscreen. Having the desire to tell more personal stories allowed me to become a more successful filmmaker.
What are some films and/or filmmakers who have inspired you?
CT: In the beginning, as a movie fan, it was George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Later, as a person of color, the work of Spike Lee. More recently, for his trailblazing success and mainstream recognition, Justin Lin. Historically, Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa. Overall and all-around, Ang Lee.
Do you have a favorite Asian American film?
CT: No. I can’t say there is any one film (outside of my own work). In terms of Asian American films, there are too many, and the range is too broad, but I think it’s important to include as wide a scope as possible, under the banner of “Asian American cinema.” I feel it is still being defined. Perhaps my favorite one is the one I want to make. On a personal note, regarding my own work, Eric Byler’s “Americanese” has been a highlight and favorite—in its depiction, what it represented, for my work, and the experience of making it.
How does your Asian heritage influence your work?
CT: It really is everything to me. If there is no element of Asian American experience in the characters or setting, its hard for me to have any interest in telling that story. Those stories are everywhere. Making a film takes so much, in terms of time, resources, money, etc. I really feel it needs to be a worthy story to make that investment. The more that Asian American identity or experience factors in, the more I can get excited about the project. Those are the stories I want to tell.
What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?
CT: Having been in the industry for 30-plus years, it’s always been a fight. There was always resistance at every phase. But now, this is no longer the case. There is much less resistance. It has always been us, Asian American artists, fighting the system in order to try to tell our stories. Now we’re starting to see the system change. TV networks realize they need inclusive content—viewers want that. The studios are just starting to come around, and it’s much slower, but I see that change in movies. It’s slower than we want, but I can see that trajectory forming.
Also, technology has leveled the field, in terms of access to production tools, and distribution platforms. Asian American filmmakers have always been way outside the box, but now those barriers are diminishing. With much less of the traditional limitations, talent becomes the only barrier. I see no reason why Asian American cinema shouldn't explode, sometime soon.
What’s next for you?
CT: My company, Cedar Grove Productions (Twitter: @CedarGroveProds), currently has two feature projects in development for me to direct. There may be a couple of other projects I may be attached to, or involved with, appearing on the horizon soon (fingers crossed).
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