Co-Producer/Director Linda Hattendorf talks about meeting Jimmy Mirikitani, inserting herself as a subject in THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI and the power of cinema.
How did you meet Jimmy Mirikitani?
I met Jimmy in January 2001. It was a very cold winter in New York, and snowing a lot. He was living on the streets and had taken shelter under the awning of a deli just a block from my apartment in SoHo. He was wrapped in several coats and blankets, and drawing pictures of cats. I was curious, and concerned, and I like cats—so I asked it I could buy a drawing. He gave me the drawing but asked me to come back and take a picture of it. I returned the next day with my video camera. Soon I was visiting daily on my way to and from work.
What led you to make THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI?
I think anyone in New York is always saddened by the sight of so many homeless people in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. I was especially shocked to find such an elderly man living on the streets. Jimmy was 80 years old when I met him, and it was a time when politicians were talking about cuts in Social Security and Medicare. I wanted to raise awareness about the growing population of homeless senior citizens, and this citizen in particular. Then as I learned more about Jimmy's past—the fact that because he was Japanese American he'd been interned during WWII and lost half his family to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima—I wanted to explore the link between losing homes in such a profound way in the past and ending up on the streets 60 years later. When 9/11 happened in the midst of shooting, the layers of history repeating itself made his stories all the more resonant.
Was Jimmy initially open to the idea of doing a film about his life? What has his reaction been like to the finished film?
Jimmy was actually the one who encouraged me to take pictures of his art, and was eager to tell the stories behind the drawings. In fact, he would scold me if I came to visit and didn't bring the camera. The first time he showed me one of his drawings of his internment camp, he looked straight into my camera and said, “This is history.” I realized that he was an activist in his own way, drawing pictures of the history he had witnessed so that it would not be forgotten. This was a history not generally depicted in mainstream media. So he was glad to find a witness, someone who would help preserve these important memories. I think he feels more at peace now that he knows that people all over the world are learning more about the effects of internment and the bomb through him.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
It’s rare to find one individual whose life touches on so many important issues—Jimmy’s story addresses homelessness, aging, racial discrimination, war and pacifism, art, community and the importance of confronting the past. Weaving all these strands into a coherent tapestry was not an easy task. Another big challenge was having to insert myself into the story after I impulsively brought my subject home after 9/11. I wanted to keep the focus on Jimmy, but had to acknowledge my own involvement too. I was really fortunate to find a great team to collaborate with, especially Editor Keiko Deguchi and Producer Masa Yoshikawa, who were essential in helping me to negotiate all these factors and find the right balance. I couldn’t have finished this film without them. Composer Joel Goodman, post supervisor Doug O’Conner and archivist Chris Cliadakis were also essential partners in this collaboration.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
Well, with 200 hours of footage, there were lots of lovely moments we had to abandon. We have a theatrical version of the film which is 74 minutes long (20 minutes longer than the 53-minute version on Independent Lens). This has been playing in festivals and theatres, and I'm proud to say this director's cut has won many awards. It has some of these moments that were lost in the shorter version.
What has the audience response been so far?
The audience response has been overwhelming. The 74-minute director's cut premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won the Audience Award there. Since then, we have been to film festivals all over the world. We won Best Picture in our category at the Tokyo International Film Festival, received The Norwegian Peace Film Award and in Rotterdam came second for Audience Choice, right behind The Lives of Others. We won best documentary in festivals from Big Sky Documentary Festival, Durango, Port Townsend, Hope and Dreams, and Big Muddy, and were runner up for Audience Awards in Vancouver, Palm Springs and Sedona. What's wonderful is that the audience reactions are the same wherever we go—people laugh together, cry together... an emotional bond is created that continues long after the lights come up in the theatre. You can feel it. That's the power of cinema to me—to create community. That's what it's all about.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Red Bull. And the chance to make a small difference in the world.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is a great opportunity to reach an enormous diverse audience. And the additional support like this website makes it possible for this audience to continue to learn more and to form a community with each other, that's so important.
What are your three favorite films?
It's so hard to choose favorites! I've been influenced by so many great films. I love the honesty in all the films by Cassavetes, especially A Woman Under the Influence. Tarkovsky's works are so magical, especially Solaris. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is something I'll see again and again. Work by Herzog, Maysles, Pennebaker, Kurosawa.
When did filming conclude on your film?
Filming ended in 2002. It took four more years to raise enough money to edit the film; we finished it in 2006.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Follow your bliss. Don't give up. Collaborate with others who share your vision. Pick a subject you can live with for five years; it may take this long to complete your project. Find a way to make time to continue to create impractical things just for the pleasure of it; it's easy to lose that connection as you become more involved in the business of filmmaking.
What sparks your creativity?
Beauty, nature, music, dance, art, a walk in the woods, the faces of ordinary people, tiny moments of kindness, the goodness of the soul.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
View a gallery of Jimmy's artwork >>
Photo courtesy of Peter Wing