Many thanks to our friends at Jade Magazine (March/April 2013 issue) for taking the time to talk with us about our film journey.
When Eli Kimaro set out to make her first film, little did she know how different it would turn out from her initial idea of capturing her father’s return to Tanzania and their Chagga cultural heritage. A Lot Like You, the resulting award-winning film, covers so much more, including gender violence and race. Eli was kind of enough to take time to answer a few of our questions.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I’m a mixed, 1st generation American — Mom is from South Korea, Dad is from Tanzania. We grew up in Rockville, MD–the ‘burbs of DC. Most of Mom’s siblings also settled in the DC area, so we spent all our holidays, birthdays, and just about every weekend in between with the Korean side of my family.
Dad was the only one of his siblings to come to the US, so my connection to his family was more remote. We returned to Tanzania every other summer and stayed on the same coffee farm on Mt Kilimanjaro where Dad was born and raised, and where his siblings live to this day. So while I grew up feeling very connected to the land, my relationship to our Tanzanian family was strained.
Where did you go to school? What was your major?
I studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music before heading to the University of Western Ontario (Canada), where I graduated with an Honors BA in Psychology.
You have worked as an activist, educator and counselor. How did you make the jump to filmmaker? Was that always a passion?
Movies have always been a passion of mine. But I never dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. Growing up, that wasn’t even a remote possibility.
But as fate would have it, the idea for this project hit me just when high quality digital video cameras were becoming more readily available (and affordable).
The inspiration for this film came from a song. Driving to work one day (I was working with survivors of rape and domestic violence), I heard Angelique Kidjo singSummertime for the first time. I had a vision of my summers in Tanzania…the view out my car window as we drove from our Kilimanjaro farmhouse down into town. That vision was followed by the panicked realization that one day, it would be up to me to pass down my Chagga cultural heritage to our future kids. But I had no idea what that legacy would be. And then, returning to the montage sequence playing out in my head, I had an Aha! moment. I could make a video about life in Tanzania. Video would be the perfect medium for capturing Chagga culture and preserving our family’s stories in KiChagga (our tribal language that’s on the verge of dying out).
Do you identify more with your father’s culture or your mother’s? Or do you feel equal influences from both? If so, please explain.
I identify equally with both, but in very different ways. Our family’s brand of Korean culture permeates my life now. Seoul food is my comfort food. When my daughter turned one, our family celebrated her Dol. My connection with my cousins and my extended family runs deep, even though we’re now spread out all over the country. But I’ve never been to Korea…
Meanwhile, I’ve returned to our farm on Mt Kilimanjaro 15 times. I love the mornings, lying in bed, listening to the sounds of our farm waking up. So I have deep sense of connection to the farm and the land. But prior to making this film, my connection with our family was very distant.
A Lot Like You started out originally about your father but evolved to be about so much more, including gender violence in Tanzanian culture. How do you feel that the film has helped you personally?
You’re right. Our original film title was “World Apart”, and the story focused on Dad’s struggle to fit back in with the family & culture he’d left behind 40 years earlier. But when our story unearthed hidden truths that we could not ignore–mostly centered around the gender violence experienced by the women in my family–my editor and I realized we had to shift our focus from Dad’s journey to my own. And so we had to overhaul the script we’d spent the past seven years writing.
By far, the toughest part of my eight-year film journey was believing I had the right to take up space with my story. That what I thought—as a queer, mixed-race, woman of color who’s the daughter of immigrants—would Matter to anyone but me. But as we re-worked the story, I found that my writing, my storytelling, was starting to come from a more fluid, integrated place.
I was able to politicize the personal, and personalize the political, telling a story that captures this process of unpacking culture…and of the love and compassion that emerges when we allow for the beauty, the brutality, the messiness, the grief…telling the story of this culture through the real lived lives of my family.
In your director’s statement, you say “After every screening, audience members feel compelled to open up and engage in dialogue, considering how the themes of identity, history, contradiction, and migration have played out in their own lives.” Was this something you expected/hoped to happen with your film when you started?
The thought never entered my mind, because when this film started, I was aspiring to make a home-video that I would hopefully show my kid one day.
It took me seven years to fully realize just how prescient my aunts’ commandment was (“Now that we’ve shared our stories with you, what are you going to do about it?”)
I’d been grasping to Dad’s story, trying to make it work. But it turned out, the only story I was really qualified to tell was my own. And when we ultimately dialed in to this deeply personal, honest story, told from my own point of view…that’s when we tapped into the heart of our film. And I think it’s this vulnerability and openness that the viewers respond to.
My favorite movies are the ones that I’m still ruminating over the next day. So seeing how people are connecting so deeply with our story, our family, and this journey of discovery, and still talking about this film days/weeks later–that’s truly the greatest gift for me.
Because you have a bi-cultural family, how do you blend multicultural teaching into your parenting?
We’re fortunate enough to be raising our kid in one of the country’s most diverse zip codes (98118!) So I’m grateful that her norm is being surrounded by kids whose families come from all corners of the globe. My goal is to raise her with a deep understanding of what it means to be a global citizen. That our fates are inextricably linked. That who we are — our well-being, our suffering, our triumphs — who we are and how we live on this Earth Matters. Our stories matter. And that our words and actions can set forth a ripple effect that can impact the whole world.
What are you doing now? What is next for you?
We’re so grateful that the 53-min version of A Lot Like You had its national public television premiere earlier this year on AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. The feature-length version is continuing its successful film festival run. We’re currently distributing both versions of our film directly from our website, and exploring options for international broadcast later this year.
Our long-term goal for A Lot Like You is to use this story as a springboard for deepening discussions about the key issues raised in our film. So we have been partnering with national/global non-profits who are finding innovative ways to use our film to further their organizational missions. And I am currently on the campus and conference lecture circuit, engaging communities across the country in discussions about mixed race and multicultural issues, cultural identity, gender violence, and the power of personal storytelling.