Video-Diary Pioneer Spencer Nakasako

Michael Fox March 17, 2007

Spencer Nakasako gets the credit (or blame, if you like) for starting the still-cresting wave of first-person camcorder documentaries back in 1995, but he claims it was largely an accident. After several years working various local film jobs, he had been hired in the early ’90s by the Tenderloin-based Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC) to teach video production. His approach was straightforward: He gave students cameras and told them to shoot their lives. High school senior Sokly Ny brought back a batch of especially fresh footage, and he and Nakasako proceeded to shape it into a groundbreaking one-hour film. “A.k.a. Don Bonus” won a national Emmy, a Golden Gate Award at the S.F. International Film Festival and several other awards, and opened the floodgates nationwide for a torrent of video diaries. Nakasako subsequently made the wrenching “Kelly and Tony” (1998) with Lao teenagers Tony Saezio and Kelly Saeteum and “Refugee” (2003), a moving portrait of young Cambodians visiting their homeland for the first time. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival saluted Naksako’s pivotal role in bringing previously unheard voices to public television with an onstage interview conducted by director Justin Lin (“Finishing the Game”) this past Saturday. Nakasako, as we discovered on the phone, couldn’t be more self-effacing.

SF360: Looking back, can you see that you were a pioneer of the video-diary format?

Nakasako: I don’t know. I don’t track it that much. There are some people who say, ‘Oh you’re a pioneer.’ I don’t think about it in that way. I really learned on the job; I never went to film school. My biggest teachers were my mentors.

SF360: Take us back to those early days.

Nakasako: One of my big influences was Michael Chin, a documentary director of photography. I learned like a craft rather than like a school. I went on a set-what a gaffer did, what a sound person did. That business was kinda elitist. It was quite expensive, too. The equipment at that time was not very accessible. Then I watched how the independent scene was going. People would beg, borrow or steal a camera. People would make a film out of short ends. It was a very scrappy but creative time. People used their creativity to get their project done.

My next mentor was a guy named Wayne Wang (‘Dim Sum’), which opened up another world for me, the world of 35mm, which was even more elitist. You either had to have money or know somebody [in order] to work. Ten years later, in the early ’90s, the executive director of VYDC asked me to teach video. They didn’t even really know what they wanted. I didn’t have a lot of experience with kids and I’d never taught video. I was coming from a traditional filmmaking/video background where there’s a protocol, a way of doing things. It’s a craft to be taken seriously. You have to work your way up the ranks.

SF360: What impressed you about the VYDC students?

Nakasako: These kids were coming back with footage that was considered amateurish. But what struck me was it was footage I would never be able to get on my own. They were either familiar with who they’re filming or they’re familiar with the geography. One of the things that was very apparent was they had access. Also, it was fascinating to me how they viewed the world. How they chose to shoot something without that whole training — getting an establishing shot and coverage. And kids approached it differently depending on their personalities. Some were very silent behind the camera and collected footage. Don [Bonus] was interactive behind the camera. He would talk to his subjects. You would know that there was not an objective presence behind the camera. It was clearly a subjective camera. I was taught that’s a no-no. Nobody’s supposed to know who’s behind the camera — that was the whole point of objectivity.

SF360: I trust you straightened them out, right?

Nakasako: It made me rethink all the things I had learned for 10 years. Though I was excited about the footage we were getting and the ways a lot of these young people were choosing to shoot their stories, it made me think about the term ‘collaboration.’ It’s not just a word to put on a grant proposal, but seriously, how to work with these kids. People think a lot of what I do is teach technical skills. The more important part is storytelling. One of the fun things about those kinds of projects is just sitting down and talking story. How they felt about a particular person. What they’re trying to say. A lot of times they don’t really know.

SF360: What’s the trick to finding the story in the raw footage?

Nakasako: First and foremost, sometimes it’s just luck, right? It could be a story, a conversation, like when Mike Siv (‘Refugee’) is filming his mom and she’s cooking and she’s telling him his father in Cambodia has another family. It’s a very matter-of-fact way that she reveals some pretty dramatic information, right? Now it’s very subjectively shot, and hard to put together, so the job becomes how do we make this thing work. There’s no reshooting. Mike may have shot four hours but for this particular scene we have only three-and-a-half minutes of footage.

Or when Don is going around his house doing a simple show-and-tell-‘Look out the window, this is where my nephew got shot.’ I’m not going to blow the audience away with how Don lives in the projects. The problem becomes how do you keep this matter-of-fact tone, this mundane everyday tone that Don has, and cut it again and put this whole scene together. There’s no real formula. That’s what’s kind of cool about it, you know? I’m hesitant to look at my batting average of those who succeed and those that don’t. We fail as often as we succeed. It’s important when you work with young people that that’s an option.

SF360: Technology is everybody’s favorite word, it seems. Is it yours?

Nakasako: The technology changes so drastically that a lot of times we focus on how freeing the technology is. I look at it as just a tool. If you don’t know how to build a house, the hammer ain’t no damn good. If the storytelling’s not interesting, who the hell wants to watch it?

SF360: Speaking of equipment, the affordability of cameras and availability of editing software has transformed personal moviemaking. How do you feel about the flood of videos by young people deluging the Internet?

Nakasako: How do you tell what’s good? There isn’t any good. There isn’t any bad. There just is. I’m not sure that that’s a problem for them. It’s kind of like no man’s land out there. What might be perceived as a bad thing to me they might think is a good thing. I do think there is still a value to broadcast, and a value to film festivals. Work is shown in a respectful environment.

SF360: The VYDC’s intent was to give kids who had no voice — minorities from low-income backgrounds — a chance to express themselves. So how do you feel about opening the way for thousands of underrepresented, disenfranchised white suburban teenagers to tell their stories?

Nakasako: (laughs) It would be cool if I could get some of the residuals from the sale of YouTube. I have to admit I haven’t watched a lot of YouTube and I don’t know very much about MySpace. I do know that when I’ve gone to different parts of the U.S, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where some of the kids I work with may live in the suburbs, some of these kids may own their own camera. I work with both sets of kids there, but I’ve had more access to urban kids in the Tenderloin. But those [suburban] kids still have something to say. It’s often a similar theme, like not communicating with their parents, but in an indirect way. ‘We have a nice house and a Volvo but my parents aren’t home.’ That’s a reality, right, that both parents have to work. I do understand there’s a difference between class, but I don’t just write off suburban teenagers.

SF360: One last technology question: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

Nakasako: That’s a good one. I gotta think. I used to just be hooked on these #9 mechanical pencils. I note-take a lot. You can write anywhere anytime and that lead is not going to break on you.

They are tools, and we forget that. Ten years ago, I got over the fact that cameras are going to get broken. If you want something that’s compact and portable, it’s going to get stolen. So you have to appreciate it like a tool. Maybe it’s because I’m a gardener’s son. This stuff has to be like a shovel or rake or hedge clippers. It’s nothing more than that, really.