‘LIVES WELL LIVED’ director Sky Bergman updates us on the progress of her fascinating new documentary ‘Mochitsuki’

Last Updated: May 30, 2024By Tags:

Repeated rituals and traditions are one way that subcultures continue to reinforce their own sense of continuity—no matter the difficulty of their external circumstances. In addition to continuing on the traditions themselves, such repetitions also effectively act as defiance.

In the proto version of her new documentary “Mochitsuki,” director Sky Bergman interviews Japanese Americans who were interned during the Second World War, as well as their many descendents. They describe for Bergman’s camera the value of the mochitsuki New Year’s ritual, in which the community comes together to pound rice to make mochi, a sticky dough to celebrate the new year. Typically this involves pounding the mixture with a hammer, with participants from young to old taking part in this unique celebration.

In the short documentary we learn how, even as their government stripped them of their constitutional rights for no reason other than ancestry, these American citizens of Japanese heritage continued to live as close to “normal” as they could behind barbed wire, whether that meant forming baseball leagues or making the mochi to celebrate another year. (Though not discussed in the film, the famed 442nd, a segregated military unit composed entirely of Japanese Americans, voluntarily served the U.S. cause in Europe with distinction even as their Anglo countrymen fought against Japan.)

Bergman’s subjects speak of mochitsuki with a warmth and twinkle in their smile that, eight decades after FDR’s Executive Order 9066 sent their relatives to the camps, is inspiring.

I first encountered Bergman’s work at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2017, where she debuted her documentary “Lives Well Lived,” which asked older Americans to share their wisdom. Her beautiful film sought to anti-other-ize the natural process of aging, with Bergman’s subjects, including her own grandmother, reflecting on life, death (how could they not?), joy, pain and the value of being in the here and now. Indeed, one of her “Lives Well Lived” subjects, Susy Eto Bauman, at least partly inspired the idea behind “Mochitsuki” given her Japanese heritage.

Given her earlier film, it is perhaps unsurprising that Bergman—also Professor Emeritus of Photography and Video at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California—once again allows the older generations of Americans to be anything but silent. Her film includes interviews with Consul General Kenko Sone of Japan, Kristen Hayashi, curator at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Duncan Williams, creator of the Ireicho project at JANM, Lily Tamai, PhD, among others.

In 2020 Bergman and I spoke again as she was setting about capturing some initial footage for what would become “Mochitsuki,” and she was gracious enough to send me updates this week as she prepares to get the short film to a larger audience on its way to completion next year.

“The ancient tradition of preparing Mochi to celebrate the Japanese New Year goes back centuries [and] the film weaves together tales that highlight the Japanese American experience as told through this timeless tradition,” Bergman told via email this week. “Older adults and kids alike reflect on what Mochi means to them, leaving not a cheek untouched by rice flour.”

The full film is slated for release next spring on PBS, but meantime, you can see the 20-minute version Bergman has conjured here. (And, if so inclined, donate to its continued production.) Bergman will be hosting a Zoom Q&A Saturday June 1 with two of the film’s stars and, if you happen to find yourself on the Central Coast, she will also host a screening in San Luis Obispo later this month as well.

“It will be great to see the film with an audience,” she said, adding that it is “necessary to gauge if what you are doing is working!”

Judging by the twenty minute-version, it is working—and how. May she complete “Mochitsuki” soon!

Visit https://www.mochi-film.com/ for more information.


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