High Museum of Art: Films


An Interview with the Director of The Harimaya Bridge by Linda Dubler

This interview with Aaron Woolfolk, the director of The Harimaya Bridge, originally appeared on the Eleven Arts website.

The Harimaya Bridge will screen on Saturday, March 6 at 8 p.m. as part of the High’s Japanese Film Festival. Learn more about the screening and read a film synopsis here >

Harimaya Bridge

Q: How did The Harimaya Bridge come about?

A: After college, I went to live and work in Japan as an English teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. After that I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate film school. It was while I was in school that I started to think about how I could establish a career as a filmmaker, and what could make me stand out. I had loved my experience in Japan and it was still very much apart of my life, so I decided that I should do something with that.

I started thinking about and writing The Harimaya Bridge in film school. But I knew I had to demonstrate that one day making a feature film in rural Japan wasn’t a crazy notion. So for my thesis project I wrote and directed two short films in Japan…a comedy called Eki (The Station) and a drama called Kuroi Hitsuji (Black Sheep). Those shorts were very successful, and I was on my way.

Q: You are the first African-American to direct a feature film in Japan. Talk about how that influenced the project, and how the main American characters being African-American influenced the story.
A: When I originally started writing The Harimaya Bridge, one of the things I wanted to do was get the point across that “American” does not automatically equal “Caucasian”…though I think things have come quite a ways since then, what with the popularity of hip-hop and stars like Will Smith. And, of course, President Obama has really cemented that. Mostly, though, I really wanted to show how there are a lot of African-Americans and Africans out there experiencing all the world has to offer, whether it’s living and working abroad or something else.

I think me being black, and the American characters being black, gave the project a certain edge. A lot of people in Japan were attracted to it because they had never seen anything like it before. Ultimately, though, the people who made this happen told me they liked how having black characters made it unique, but that they fell in love with the script because they thought it was a beautiful story that was universal to everyone regardless of race or nationality.

I like how the main characters being black are an important factor, but the audience isn’t hit over the head with it. It’s not forced down your throat. I guess it reflects my own experience in Japan. When I first went there and got in front of a classroom of students, the first words out of my mouth weren’t, “I’M BLACK!! Now, let’s study verbs. And did I mention that I’M BLACK?!” Because I didn’t need to say it. That’s just the way it was. And that’s how the American characters are written and acted.

What’s funny is how some people come to the film with pre-conceived notions. Like, it’s a film by a black director with black characters, so they assume the film will have a hip-hop vibe and characters taking urban grittiness to Japan. Hey, I like hip-hop and gritty urban movies as much as anybody. But this project was inspired in part by the quiet, pastoral Japanese films I saw and fell in love with when I first got into international cinema. It was always my intention to make this film in that style. So those people who think “black” always equals rap and inner city madness…they might not last through the first 10 minutes. <laughs>

Director Aaron Woolfolk

Q: You spent many years trying to make this film. You said there were a lot of false starts and dead ends. What was it that took the project from being a dream to being an actual finished film with theatrical distribution?

A: Over the course of several years I managed to get some things for the project: writing the script, directing awards for my short films that made me seem viable as a first time feature director, some logistical support from Japan, Danny Glover and his star power, lead actor Ben Guillory, and a commitment for the first $100,000. But I still couldn’t seal the deal.

Then I met producer Ko Mori, and that became the key factor. Ko is very dedicated and passionate in the work he does. He’s also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. He has great integrity, which is important. And he instills confidence in people…whether it’s a big Hollywood star entrusting his reputation to him, or a studio head weighing whether or not to put an investment of several million dollars on his and a first time director’s shoulders.

Ko took those elements I had gathered, added many more elements, and weaved it all into a viable project. And he held things together throughout the whole process. A lot of times it looked like the project would collapse…but he held it together every time. This project would not have happened without Ko.

Q: How does this film differ from others about Japan that are made by Americans?
A: I guess much of it comes down to my having lived there, and having spent a lot of time there since. That said, I always emphasize to people that I’m in no way an expert on Japan, and it’s silly if anyone thinks of me as such. I didn’t grow up there. My world-view isn’t rooted in the country or its culture. I can barely even speak the language. At most, I guess I have somewhat of a perspective on Japan that people there acknowledge because of my long association with it.

In making the film, I wanted to avoid many of the things that are often found in American films about foreign places. Like, for example, you’ll have a character from the West who goes to a non-Western country to achieve something. And when he tries to achieve his goal the Western way, the natives stop him and say, “No, you have to do it our way.” So he tries to do it their way a number of times, but fails to achieve his goal. And it’s only when he finally does it the Western way that he succeeds…thus demonstrating to the natives the error of their ways and the inferiority of their culture. Or you’ll have a film set in a foreign culture where 99% of the people are completely of that culture…but it’s only the one person who was educated in the West, or who married a Westerner, or who converted to Christianity, or what have you, that can successfully achieve what needs to be achieved…thus demonstrating that the natives are unable to save themselves, and must rely on the Westernized person to save them.

I was always bothered by movies like that. The arrogance, and the sense of superiority and imperial entitlement. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with promoting Western culture. But you don’t have to do that by looking down on and denigrating other cultures. With The Harimaya Bridge I wanted to make a film that DIDN’T do that. So you have an American who goes to Japan, and when he dismisses it and tries to do things his way, he fails. It’s only when he shows respect to the place and culture he is in and the way things are done there that he gets what he needs.

Q: You are American, the lead character is American and most of the film is in English. But most of the cast and creative team, financing and release happened in Japan. Is this an American film or a Japanese film?

A: That’s a very good question. Of course there are the surface things, like me, the location, the cast and crew, the money. You could find a way to label it based on those things. I think the answer lies with the sensibility of the film, though. As I said before, when I first started working on the script, I was inspired by Japanese films I loved that had a very pastoral feeling, and that weren’t afraid to take the time to tell their story. Films like Ikiru, Tokyo Monogatari, and Maboroshi.

The Harimaya Bridge has been a fascinating journey because you had two different film aesthetics — American and Japanese — kind of competing to get their way. You had that in me…I of course grew up with the American film aesthetic, but my inspiration for this was Japanese films and trying to achieve what I liked about them. But you also had it with the people around me…Japanese and Americans.

What’s interesting is that the shorter, more music-heavy cuts of the film came about when I was working on post production in the U.S.; and the longer, less music-heavy cuts of the film came about when I was doing post in Japan. I don’t know if that means that I take inspiration from what’s around me, or that I’m a weak sponge that’s easily influenced. <laughs> One cut of the film was nearly 15 minutes shorter than it is now, with a lot more music. In the end, though, it came down to me remembering the kind of film I originally wanted to make: a film that isn’t afraid to take the time to tell its story, just like those films I took inspiration from.

For example, there was one scene that I really loved, but I took it out to better move the story along. And people in the U.S. were like, “Yeah, definitely take that out. Losing it keeps things moving.” But folks in Japan were like, “Are you crazy? You should definitely keep it. It gives so much more depth to the film.” In the end it came down to me thinking about why I wrote the scene, and whether the reason for me writing it has a place in the actual movie. And I decided that yes, it does, and while it might delay the main character’s journey a little, it achieves something that I think adds to the texture of the overall movie. So I put it back in…and now I can’t even imagine the film without it.

Quite a few people in Japan have said to me, “Wow, you’ve made a Japanese film!” <laughs> And actually, in terms of the pacing of and the sensibility of it…I think it might be a bit closer to a Japanese film than an American one. Some Americans have said that too, though I’m not sure if they mean it as a good thing. <laughs> But it’s the choice I made, and I have no regrets about it.


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