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HIBAKUSHA: Through the Lens of Filmmaker Steve Nguyen | Projekt NewSpeak
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Posted: 2012-08-28
Categories: Projekt NewSpeak

The Mexi-Asian Perspective: A Mexican’s Guide to All Things Latin, Asian, or Both by David A. Romero

I recently watched that classic of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, for the first time. It is strange to watch an old film, chronicling an older event, and feel such a compelling and terrifying sense of anguish and loss with each moving image – – it felt like I was watching the drop and the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb in real time. I realized just how important film can be in helping us to remember, and continue remembering, that tragic day.

Hiroshima survivor 84 year-old Kaz Suyeishi has spent much of her life speaking to audiences about the bomb and its impact. With each speech, Suyeishi reminds her audiences what was lost August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, and spreads a message of peace for future generations. She was a 17 seventeen year-old student when the bomb dropped on her hometown.

Filmmaker Steve Nguyen of Channel APA met Suyeishi and invited her to share her story in front of an audience of college students. As Nguyen heard Suyeishi speak, he knew her story needed to be documented through film. Not waiting for a major Hollywood studio to pick up the idea, Nguyen contacted accomplished animator Choz Belen (Far East Movement’s “I Party”) and the two developed HIBAKUSHA (Japanese word for Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors), an animated docu-drama, that would tell Suyeishi’s story, through their new independent film company Studio APA.

For this Mexi-Asian interview, I was invited to Nguyen’s studio to watch some scenes from HIBAKUSHA. Having worked with this extremely talented writer/director/cinematographer/editor/sound man/producer before (is there anything Steve Nguyen CAN’T do on a film?), I anticipated the level of committment and technical polish he would bring to the production. After this special sneak peak, I can say that I am even more excited to spread the word about HIBAKUSHA and share what I learned about the filmmaker and his upcoming projects.

HIBAKUSHA is set to hit film festivals next month. Where do you plan on screening it? Will Mrs. Suyeishi be attending any of the screenings?

I’m planning to hold a screening in Los Angeles for cast, crew, and media sometime near the end of September and I’m working on another screening in late October. I will most certainly have Mrs. Suyeishi attend any future events related to the film.

Why do you think Suyeishi’s message is so important?

Mrs. Suyeishi experienced one of the worst mass slaughters in modern history and lived to tell about it. She never pointed a finger – never complained about why it happened. As much as it haunts her to this day, she made a vow to dedicate the rest of her life towards spreading peace to as many people as she could reach. Kaz made a believer out of me and to everyone involved in the making of this film. I’ve spent the last two years reflecting on her words, and being a part of this production has enhanced my life in ways I would’ve never imagined.

Was Suyeishi involved at all in the screenwriting process?

The script was outlined based on her experiences in Hiroshima. Kaz has been telling her story for almost 60 years, but we wanted to modernize it through our perspective. In the end, she allowed  us to be in total control as long as it delivered her message of peace in a positive manner.

Do you feel a great sense of responsibility telling her story? Were there any details that you feel as though you had to research or take great lengths to portray to give an accurate portrayal of Hiroshima, 1945, before and after the bomb?

Yeah, we’re aware of the responsibility and the backlash we could get from the Japanese community. Our goal was to get as close to the true storyline and portrayal of 1945 Hiroshima as we could without compromising our artistic approach. Although there wasn’t much documentation done before the bombing, we were able to consult with Kaz in order to focus on key details like her garden and the house that she used to live in.

How did you begin collaborating with animator Choz Belen?

I met Choz in New York a few years ago… right after he released Far East Movement’s “I Party” music video. We briefly spoke about doing a film together because we both wanted to do something innovative and edgy. We just clicked on so many levels, and it turned out to be the best working relationship I could envision.

What has the process of working with Belen on HIBAKUSHA been like? There is a lot of give and take between a director and a cinematographer during the making of a film. What is it like when there is also an animation director, with just as much or more creative input, involved in the process? Did all of you agree on shot selections and the overall flow of the film during pre-production or did the film emerge as you were all working on it?

It’s a process I’ve learned to be extremely patient with. There is no manual for an animated documentary narrative because very few have been done, so we had to experiment a lot and create everything from scratch. During this process, we made a lot of mistakes that ended up costing us valuable production time. Although we had planned it out from the get-go, we had to make major adjustments during the production process simply because we both had to agree on where we wanted the story to go. If we couldn’t come to an agreement with either the script or shot selections, we had our script supervisor and co-writer Ivan Tsang to consult with.

I wrote a 60-page script based on the research that I completed on Kaz’s Hiroshima experiences and asked three other writers review it. Choz created the storyboards and selected the key frames to work with. Then we had photographers come in to take photos of the characters in different poses and outfits. From there, we were able to transition them into animated moving pictures.

Has this been your first time working with a cast of voice actors and actresses? What were some of the qualities in the voices that you were looking for when you cast the roles?

Yes… what a way to start with a project of this magnitude! But honestly, all of us spent hours in the studio and it never felt like actual work. We had so much fun with the actors and actresses because they made the process more enjoyable and fulfilling.  

How did you elicit the extreme range of emotions produced by the explosion and fallout of the Hiroshima bomb from your actors in the studio? 

Surprisingly, we didn’t have to give the actors much direction. It must have been a challenge working without any visuals or other recordings to reference from, but they were already educated enough on the subject matter going into HIBAKUSHA that when it came time to record, they already had it down.

If there was an emotion or line the actors had difficulty conveying the way we wanted, Choz and I provided them with the situation and the characters they were interacting with in order to figure it out from there.  

Has the production of the film given you any insight into Hiroshima and the impacts of nuclear war? Are there any other stories of historical events that you feel need to be told through film?

The way that Kaz portrays these incidents in Hiroshima has opened up my eyes to something so illustrative that I just had to tell everybody that I could, and all I can say is that I’m fortunate to be able to tell it the way that I wanted to tell it.

I’m always going to be in search of stories with the human connection that bonds people, and I’ve always found that film is the best medium that will let me do it the way that I want.

One cannot help but notice the consistent branding from Channel APA to your latest venture with Choz Belen, Studio APA. Has it always been your goal to expand the network of artists and professionals that you connected from Channel APA into the independent film production company Studio APA? 

We’ve dedicated a great deal of time focusing on the creativity of other people that we kind of lost the opportunity to create something of our own. At the end of the day, we’re artists as well and we also want to create and showcase what we can do. Somewhere down the line, I felt that it was the right time to expand and start showcasing what we can do. Channel APA is always what we’ve been about, but Studio APA is what we’re capable of achieving.

What can we expect from Studio APA in the future? 

Just a lot of creative animated ideas and collaborations that only people with child-like imaginations can come up with.

As an individual, you are by far the hardest-working independent filmmaker out there that I know of. You have a talent for quick filmmaking in the field and studio and the networking savvy to constantly put crews and projects together. How do you do it? What motivates you?

Like I said man… I’m blessed and fortunate to have been in situations where I’ve met the right people that believed in my projects. I’m also constantly learning through criticism and other people’s experiences.

The motivation for me is taking calculated risks and knowing that something hasn’t been done before. How are people going to react to it? What are people going to say? I thrive off of that for some odd reason. In the end, risks are what make life interesting. Without it, why get out of bed?

You like to make cameos in your films. Have you ever given any thought to hanging up your camera and becoming an actor?

I’m in love with the challenges that filmmaking throws at me. I actually started acting professionally as a teen, and then transitioned over to filmmaking. I think this new Studio APA venture gives me the creative flexibility to do both, so I would never have to give up either option.

Asian Latin fusion food has become a veritable phenomenon. Do you think that Asian Latin fusion food is just a passing trend, or the future?

I’ve always seen fusion as the evolution of food culture because it was a different kind of experimental cuisine that blended perfectly together. If you think about it, it’s the perfect combination since Asian and Latinos like to use similar ingredients in their dishes. In my opinion, it’s far from a passing trend because it’s just starting to spread beyond L.A. and people of all ethnicities can enjoy it.

Who is your favorite Latin celebrity, historical figure, or fictional character?

Zorro. Hands down. He was a lover and a fighter. He was the perfect gentleman.

Would you rather date an Asian or someone of Latin descent?

I’ve been in serious relationships with women of both Asian and Latin ethnicities, so I can’t be biased. Gotta show love to all women out there!

Any last words or shout outs?

Thank you Projekt NewSpeak for your time and for letting my voice be heard. You always got my support!


Visit the HIBAKUSHA website for more information on the film and Hiroshima survivor Kaz Suyeishi.


David A. Romero is a cheese enchilada-making spoken word artist who knows something about Mexicans. A lover of boba and a citizen of Diamond Bar, CA, he also knows a thing or two about Asians. http://www.davidaromero.com/

Have any ideas for the blog? Questions? Comments? Hit me up below! Or email me: davidaromero@projektnewspeak.com

One Response:
  1. […] documentary/drama Hibakusha was screened at The Japanese American National Museum. Read more about Nguyen’s project and see the […]