By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07) for JQ magazine. Renay is a freelance writer and associate program officer at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Visit her blog at Atlas in Her Hand.
Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story is the latest work by filmmaker and Global Film Network founder Regge Life, who has been making groundbreaking films for over two decades including the acclaimed Doubles: Japan and America’s Intercultural Children, and most recently Reason to Hope, which chronicles the events surrounding the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Live Your Dream not only shares the story of JET alum Taylor Anderson (Miyagi-ken, 2008-11) who tragically lost her life in the 2011 tsunami, but it also seeks to celebrate the lives of those who live their dreams and inspire others to make a difference. JQ caught up with Life to discuss the film, which is being prepared for a November release.
Your relationship with Japan spans over two decades. What stirred you to first go there, and how has this relationship grown over time?
This is a question with a very long answer, so let me try to be brief and to the point as possible. Japanese film has always intrigued me, so as a young filmmaker I would watch marathons of Japanese films at a cinema on Eighth Avenue called the Elgin. After years and so many movies, I was introduced to the Creative Artists Program of the NEA and Bunka-cho, and that is how I went the first time to witness the making of Tora-san #43.
How has it grown? Well, leaps and bounds. Four completed films, almost four years in residence in Tokyo, and a current feature project in development for almost 10 years.
What inspired you to make this film and document Taylor’s story?
Like most people, watching what was happening [during the time of the tsunami and earthquake] was mind-boggling and devastating. I have never been to Ishinomaki before, but I have been to Hachinohe, Morioka, Ichinoseki, and other parts of the region; so when I saw water rushing over rice fields like that and trucks and cars being carried—I just couldn’t believe it. It was devastating [to watch] for someone who has never been there before, but when you have been there, you [can better understand] the magnitude of what was happening. So at that time I’d just finished the film about Haiti, and from my work there, I realized there was probably going to be a story that needed to be told: something that no one would cover.
I don’t remember where I saw the fist e-mail about Taylor’s story or how it came to be, I just remember reading about her online. I made a few calls and one thing lead to the next, and slowly but surely, I was able to get in touch with Taylor’s family. And even still, it was all about timing. As a parent, I would have completely understood if no one got back to me. Then suddenly, I got this email from Andy, Taylor’s father. Giving him credit, he did his due diligence and did some research on me and became familiar with my work. [This all happened] at a time when they were swarmed by the media, so I took my time and we worked as they were comfortable.
Every step of the way, I checked in. Andy connected me with some of Taylor’s friends from Ishinomaki, so when I went back to Japan, I carved out some time to spend with them. One of her friends picked me up from the train station and that’s when it really hit me. At that time [the devastated area] was pretty much cleaned up—but even still, there was a lot to be done. Visiting Ishinomaki and meeting [Taylor’s] friends solidified it with me. I knew I needed to share her story.
Since this is a documentary about a JET participant, what cooperation did you receive from JET Program itself for the making of the film?
The CLAIR office in Japan was very generous to the film and made a remarkable pledge. We also received support directly from one of the people on staff! The JET alumni chapter in New York City (JETAANY) was also very generous, as well as JETs from all over the U.S. and even abroad.
What is it about Taylor’s story that is different from any other story or any other JET participant?
Not taking anything away from anyone else or any other JET participant, but everyone who speaks about her talks about what an unbelievable kind of person she was, about her passion for life, her passion for Japan. For instance, the story behind one of the photos we’ve used for the website is inspiring. Earlier that day, she and all her friends had done a huge bike ride scavenger hunt where they had rode their bikes all around Ishinomaki finding different things just for fun. It was summer, so you know it was very hot!
When it was done, everyone was tired and all they wanted to do was go back home, take a shower and chill. Taylor wouldn’t allow it. She told everyone that one of her kindergarten classes was having a summer matsuri and they all were going! So she made them all put on a yukata and go over to the school. Apparently, this is what she did. She just grabbed people and said, “come on, this is what we are doing’” and “let’s do this and let’s do that.” That passion and zest for life, that “let’s not waste a moment of this precious thing called life”—that’s just inspiring to me!
It reminds me of not only my time in Japan, but also my first time abroad when I went to West Africa. I realized the meaning of being in the “present”…that it really is a gift. It also makes me think about how much we take for granted. Think about if you find yourself somewhere where nothing is taken for granted, it makes you really look and appreciate life, every moment of it. That’s the impression I get of Taylor. That’s the kind of stuff I want to celebrate and let people know about.
Also, I am trying to build the Monty Dickson (Iwate-ken, 2009-11) story as well—it’s proven difficult because there’s nobody that can really talk about his experience in Rikuzentakata, so I am still looking. Though, the more I learn about Taylor and Monty, the more I am learning that these are two kindred spirits. Whether they knew each other or not, they both were living a dream. Taylor’s happened for her early on when she was a little girl: she just knew this is where she had to be. There was nothing that was going to stop her. For both of them, you realize something really clicked; and it was something about Japan and their life there. After all these years working with Japan, I have a deep appreciation for that, for people who can connect with the country more than the superficial level. I want to celebrate that.
Both Taylor and Monty had this philosophical side to them—they had sayings and expressions that they shared with friends. Without giving it all away, I think these are two people who kind of knew they weren’t going to be here much longer. You will see in the film that their friends have since started to make sense of their pieces of advice and little sayings. It all now has a new resonance; it is starting to come back up. And it makes you begin to wonder, “what did they know?”
It really makes you stop and think, you can’t live life at 30 mph, you have to live at 60 mph.
U.S.-based production starts in June, and you’ll be going to Japan this month. What are your plans there?
In Japan, I am doing more interviews with friends of Taylor and some of the companion stories about the experience of other JETs during the crisis. I am also hoping to get to Rikuzentakata to meet someone who knew Monty Dickson and can speak about his life and times there.
What else do you want to include in the film?
As I just shared, Live Your Dream is principally about Taylor, but it is actually the story of all the JETs who come to Japan, so I really want to look at what the experience is for a variety of people and how that experience changes both the teacher and the students they interact with.
As we know, you were running a campaign on Kickstarter and I see that you have surpassed your fundraising goal, congratulations! Moving forward, what can people do now to continue to support the film?
Kickstater is great, because it does just that, kick start. It is not the entire budget for the project—the goal was about 70% [of the total budget] and was what was needed just to shoot the film. It did not take into account original music, making a Japanese version, and of course all of the things that have to be done to promote and disseminate the film after it is made. The next phase is editing. So if anyone would like to be a part of contributing to the dissemination and distribution of the film, that would be great! For making the Japanese version, helping to see that this film is distributed widely in both the U.S. and Japan, contact me at www.thetaylorandersonstory.com and liveyourdream1 [at] earthlink.net.
You mentioned dissemination. What are your plans?
First, we are going to try and get it distributed as widely as we can, for example through organizations such as the American Association Teachers of Japanese. We would also love to see this get into the Monbusho in Japan. We would love to see this introduced into the Japanese educational system. I think this would be an invaluable tool to help kids to really think outside of the boundaries.
After 20-plus years that I have spent coming and going [in Japan], the thing that I have noticed that still plagues Japan is that it is so insular; and a lot of it [has to do with] the educational system. The educational system is not teaching kids to look outside. We feel this film can be a step in the right direction; a needed step, I feel.
How do you think this film will help kids to look outside?
I think they need a role model in a way. They need somebody from the outside who came to their country and interacted with them, and became a part of their community. I am learning more about Monty, but I know for sure that’s what Taylor did in Ishinomaki. Her mission was to really become part of the fabric of the community. And I think if Japanese kids see that, this whole thing of us and them—the Gaijin and the Nihonjin—will start to break down. To me, the power of the [JET] Program is being able to go out and explore Japan, find out what’s going; not just being the “gaijin on display.”
What about your dissemination plans here in the States?
Most of my films up until now have been in higher ed, so I have to admit this is kind of a new world for me. I am really looking to get into the secondary school world.
You have mentioned tons of takeaways from the film, but for the JET community in particular, what do you hope we walk away with?
I am not saying everyone should try to be Taylor or try to be Monty, but everybody, particularly now, needs to be more open and in some respects humbled at the opportunity of being a JET and an ambassador between two countries and two cultures. Don’t limit the assignment to merely being the gaijin on display. See it as an opportunity, a real chance to be and do more; to leave something behind when you go and encourage those who you may meet, or have met, while in Japan to follow your path in America. Maybe even one day you, would get a call from a kid you taught in a far-off place in Japan or someone you interacted with, saying they are now in America because of you, because of what you showed them.
It’s about reaffirming the mission of the JET Program and the encouraging the new generation of JETs to become the generation that builds the new relationships for “a brave new world.” We know the world is changing. The U.S.-Japan relationship is going to change, too. We can’t do what we did 10, 15 years ago. Times have changed. There is something new going on. The JETs of today and tomorrow have to be part of that newness and part of that change.
To me, the story of Live Your Dreams is not so much what happened to Taylor, but more about the good works. Yes, her story is in it and she is not here with us in the physical sense anymore, but Taylor’s mission is still very much alive.
Live Your Dream premieres Nov. 9, 2012 at Saint Catherine’s School (Taylor’s high school) and CenterStage in Richmond, VA. For news and additional screenings, visit the film’s homepage at www.thetaylorandersonstory.com.