Democrat abroad shapes multimedia for export

by Angela Jeffs

Terri MacMillan is marvelous. Funny, outgoing, dramatic and driven, she has a heart of pure gold. Ask anyone who knows her. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine this funky, articulate American has a single enemy — except among hard-core Republicans, who must surely hate her guts.

Terri is the cochair of Democrats Abroad Japan. She is also codirector of the company she set up a decade ago with colleague Tom Toeda. “What does De-i Productions do? . . . Multimedia production and development in English and Japanese. We research clients’ existing video, print and photographic material, localize (change the language) and modernize it,” for example, re-cutting, adding modern material or creating new animation.

This means that clients get a fresh DVD or CD-ROM from their existing material without having to create a brand-new production. “One of the main strengths we have is that we create broadcast quality audio for our clients’ projects. People don’t realize what a great persuader powerful music and sound can be.”

One Japanese client came to Terri and Tom with an educational campaign. They’d tried an English version with subtitles but it hadn’t proved effective. “We pointed out that the way the video was made worked in a Japanese cultural context, but looked and sounded overly sentimental to Western eyes and ears.”

De-i Productions then researched the product, re-conceptualized the material for the U.S. market, added new footage and tightened up the story, and made a complete new soundtrack. “They’re very pleased with the result.”

Terri is responsible for the research and copy writing. Tom handles the technical side. “He’s a great partner, like a big brother to me.” They also work with an international creative team: Johan Rooms for animation/video editing and Daniel Lindholm for music composition.

Hanging out at Fujimama’s in Shibuya (the restaurant-cafe/bar she describes as her second office), Terri relates how she was born in New York City’s Harlem and moved to Queens Village, “a suburban ghetto, one of the places where hip hop started.”

Her father was a Baptist minister — “very tolerant and caring, not like some of the hypocritical so-called religious people getting media attention now.” Accepting of house rules and church on Sundays, all was well with Terri until she hit adolescence. “As the first kid, I became very rebellious, very against being controlled.”

She did well at school and was very into music — singing, piano, violin, composition. “But then in my early teens, hormones made me lose my mind.” Electing to study English at Fordham University, she dropped out after two years. “I just decided there was more to life than classrooms.”

She became involved in a financial commune, renovating Lower East Side tenements and apartments under the name Red Hammer Brigade. Then in 1980, she answered an ad placed by CBS Records for a job in customer service. She was to stay there for 10 years, marrying (and getting divorced) along the way, and working her way into the international business affairs division. “I entered as a small peon and left as business manager, a larger peon.”

All this time, she was obliging the corporate world to support all manner of drug and early AIDS-related community work. “Business has a responsibility towards those not doing well because businesses are part of the community. We can’t all be winners under the capitalist banner, hence the need for enlightened capitalism.”

With her awareness of the international music scene, she developed a taste for Tokyo’s underground music. “Not Japan’s deplorable chart-level rock and pop scene, but the kind of cool stuff you could find in Shibuya in the late ’80s, early ’90s.”

She met Tom as general manager of Kampo Culture Center on New York’s Bond Street, working to create cultural exchange based on Japanese traditional arts. “I thought, bringing over ‘kyogen’ and ‘bunraku’ is fine, but why not Japanese underground/alternative music for more effective cultural exchange?”

The two started an artist management company in New York, with their best-known band being Pizzicato Five. With the consolidation in the music business and a move to Tokyo, they decided to move into a different side of bicultural multimedia work. “With De-i Productions, we’ve found an even better way to be cultural bridges and work in video, music and media, all areas we really enjoy.”

Until the 2004 presidential election, Terri had never voted in her life. “I had no respect for mainstream American politics, none at all.” But in 2003 her increasing horror at the Bush administration made her proactive rather than reactive. “Looking at the U.S. presidential primaries, wanting to identify an ethical public servant with a track record of good governance, Howard Dean began to interest me.”

She met up with Dean supporters in Tokyo and got sucked into the campaign. When Dean asked his supporters to help support Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 run against President George W. Bush, Terri and her Tokyo4Dean friends became determined to turn U.S. politics into “something we could love and not be ashamed of. People are dead and lives have been ruined because the radical right has taken over the government in America. But I feel strongly that the spirit of what is best in America is slowly beginning to rise.”

She and other members of Democrats Abroad Japan worked in Florida for the election. “Losing was very hard, but I think we all did the best we could under the circumstances. The radical right guides the editorial focus of a lot of the mainstream media in the States and it’s hard to get the Democratic and progressive message to the places it needs to be. But we’re starting to change that.”

With her cochair stepping down this year, Terri could well find herself heading Democrats Abroad Japan. “Working for a stronger, more effective American Democratic and progressive community in Japan, I’ve decided to run for chair again.” Quite a move for a “Patti Smith Group kind of girl.” Which all goes a long way to explain why the Tokyo-based music fest Rock for Regime Change that Democrats Abroad Japan organizes is now an annual event.