Takeshi Fukunaga draws on his own past for film on the Liberian immigrant experience

by

Special To The Japan Times

Takeshi Fukunaga first came to international attention at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, where his debut feature, “Out of My Hand,” premiered. He is only now bringing the film to his homeland, and at a preview screening at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) last week an audience member asked a question he had doubtless heard many times before: Why did he choose such an unusual subject, for a Japanese filmmaker at least?

“Out of My Hand” follows a Liberian immigrant’s struggles in his own country, where he labors as a low-paid rubber plantation tapper, and in New York, where he works as a cab driver — and encounters a threatening reminder of his dark past.

After debuting in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, the film traveled the festival circuit garnering praise and honors, including a nomination for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. But Fukunaga first had to labor long and hard to not only raise the money, but also shoot the film in less than ideal conditions in Liberia, a small West African country emerging from decades of political turmoil.

His cinematographer, Ryo Murakami, died of malaria upon returning to New York, a tragedy that nearly caused Fukunaga to give up on the project. After a yearlong hiatus, though, he assembled a crew and completed the film.

The backstory is part of what sets “Out of My Hand” apart from the general run of Japanese indie films. Japanese directors of Fukunaga’s generation (he was born in Hokkaido in 1982) tend to choose to work in safe Japan for an almost exclusively domestic audience. Which brings us back to the original question.

“I went to the United States because back then I felt I didn’t belong to Japan,” Fukunaga told the FCCJ. “It’s not like I was fascinated by the U.S., I just wanted to meet people from around the world and learn about them, and the U.S. is the most diverse country.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in film production at Brooklyn College in 2007, Fukunaga found work as a film editor, while directing shorts and music videos.

“I was involved in (Murakami’s) documentary about the same subject — the lives of rubber plantation workers in Liberia,” he told the FCCJ. “I was really struck by the scenes of the severe working conditions behind the daily products we use. I also saw the strong dignity of these workers in spite (of those) conditions. This stuck with me for quite some time.

“Also, for my first feature I always wanted to tell a story about immigrants. I’m one myself, living in New York for the past 12 years. By connecting the two stories (about workers and immigrants) I thought I could make something meaningful.”

To make that “something meaningful,” Fukunaga interviewed Liberian immigrants in New York and spent a year writing the script. He then went to Liberia where, during a three-month stay, he scouted locations, cast local actors and shot the film.

“We did an open call for people with some career and experience,” Fukunaga explains to The Japan Times in an interview following the presser. “Some of them are actually playing their true selves, though. The pastor in the church scene is an actual pastor, he’s just playing himself. All his lines are actually his own words.” (The pastor, Joshua Milton Blahyi, stands out for another reason: He is a former warlord who fought under the nom de guerre General Butt Naked.)

While striving as much as possible for authenticity, Fukunaga says he also inserted his own story into the film.

“I never thought of putting my experience here or there, but it’s only natural to unconsciously project yourself in a subtle way,” he says. “I’m sure the loneliness I felt as an immigrant in New York, or the feeling of being lost, all those things were in the characters and the stories.”

At the same time, he says he consciously rejected anything that might lead the audience to pity the hero and those around him.

“I was very careful not to make a sad immigrant story,” Fukunaga says. “It’s about the strength and dignity of these people. I didn’t want to make them weak and sad.”

More problematic, at least for some FCCJ audience members who questioned everything from the film’s Japanese title (“Liberia no Shiroi Chi,” which literally means “The White Blood of Liberia”) to its abrupt, enigmatic ending, is Fukunaga’s preference for evocative suggestion rather than direct explanation.

This is partly illustrated by the lack of flashbacks that, in a conventional film about a hero with a troubled past, would be standard.

“I want to get people to imagine more instead of showing them too much,” Fukunaga says. “At the end of the day, a movie is something to make you think, feel for the characters and make you imagine what is behind the things you see. So flashbacks, to me, are against the power of cinema.

“I don’t want to sound cheesy,” he adds with a laugh.

When Fukunaga screened the film in Liberia, he says the audience was enthusiastic.

“The people were laughing out loud, they were very entertained,” he says. “There were some cultural differences I found interesting, like they laughed at some parts that I never thought of. They really felt like it was a Liberian movie.”

A film that could cross borders has always been Fukunaga’s goal.

“I could have said I’m Japanese so I can’t make a movie about a Liberian person,” he says. “Instead, I pushed myself and told myself I’m making a universally human story.”

“Out of My Hand” opens in cinemas across the country on Aug. 5. For more information, visit www.liberia-movie.com.