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>

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Revisiting the Depression on Screen by Linda Dubler

by Eleanor Ringel Cater

Now that some of us are experiencing the worst depression since THE Depression, I figured I’d offer up some thoughts on a few more-or-less contemporary films set during the period. (Currently on view at the High is the exhibition, American Scenes: Art From the Depression Era, works from our permanent collection.)

In the new movie, Amelia, starring two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, there’s a brief glimpse of a soup line as she cruises by in her expensive car. She’s on her way to make another commercial (for which she’ll be paid big bucks). She says something like, “Oh, those poor men.” The movie is similarly superficial, and not just about the Thirties.

Annie had much more luck on stage than on screen, but the movie version isn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, the TV version is more often shown. It’s an entertaining, very old-fashioned musical, with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as the comically villainous Miss Hannigan. They give the picture more than enough professional gloss to overcome John Huston’s (!) apparently disinterested direction. Annie‘s real problem is numbers — not just the much-publicized production costs, but the elephantine production numbers, which are all show-stoppers — as in stopping the show dead in its tracks. But when the screen is cleared of the zillion dancing clowns and butlers and maids and Rockettes, this story of the blank-eyed orphan (Aileen Quinn) who finds happiness – if not a compatible hairstyle – with billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Finney) is pleasant enough. A good kids’ choice, if nothing else.


Nicholson and Streep in Ironweed

Though riddled with flaws, Ironweed‘s overall effect is poignant and powerful. Provided, that is, you’re willing to sit out its two-hour plus of sepia-toned seediness. Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson at the top of his game) is a former ace ballplayer, now boozed-up bum, who has returned home to Albany, the city he fled decades ago after accidentally killing his infant son. Based on William Kennedy’s best-seller, the picture is essentially a couple of days in the lives of a couple of lost souls (Meryl Streep, equally good, plays Nicholson’s flophouse mistress). True, the movie moves at a snail’s pace, but the stars are both phenomenal, showing us a sodden spiritual sadness – a kind of DTs of the soul. And you have to admire a movie made during the feel-good Reagan years dares to be a bummer about bums. Both stars were Oscar-nominated.

Do you have a favorite?