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Last night I went to a film screening of “The Grandpa From Brazil” plus the Q&A with filmmaker Nanako Kurihara. In a way I was killing two birds with one stone, both watching it in order to critique it for this blog (and therefore for my documentary class) as well as an alternate event assignment for my Asian American Religions class. But I had long wanted to see this documentary, at least since I first heard about it about two months. What I thought about it? Well, read on. The documentary critique is first, followed by a reflection/reaction piece.

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Nanako Kurihara’s “The Grandpa From Brazil” tells the story of a 92-year-old Japanese man who emigrated to Brazil in search of work in 1931 at the age of 19. In the past seven decades, he has experienced hardships and success and then struggles again, and is now experiencing peace and stability as the patriarch of an integrated Japanese-Brazilian family. Even in his 90s he continues to make trips to Japan and ironically now gives advice to Japanese-Brazilians who have emigrated to Japan for employment opportunities.

 The technical aspects of the film are a little hard to critique because it is difficult to tell whether the director meant to shoot it in the cinema verite style or if the technical components were simply poorly executed. For a good part of the documentary the filmmaker is on a road trip with Mr. Konno, thus resulting in a cinema verite effect. Yet there is also extensive use of archival footage as well as some A-roll. The camera work is poor, with some parts looking like they came out of home videos. The dolly shots were often shaky, the exposure is amateur with many shots being overexposed, and Kurihara rarely follows the rule of thirds.

In the editing suite, it seemed like Kurihara wanted to show too much in the 58-minute film. There was an immense amount of archival footage and stills placed throughout the documentary, most of which were relevant. On the flip side, the B-roll was often poorly placed and irrelevant in relation to the audio or simply boring. The most jarring issue with the editing and consequently the whole film is the prevalence of jump cuts. Right from the beginning one jump cut after another almost makes the viewer dizzy and most definitely confused as to what was going on.

There was also a lot of confusion in the narration. Subjects in the film generally spoke either Japanese or Portuguese and the narration was in Japanese. While there were English subtitles (otherwise I’d only be able to understand 1/100 if I had to depend solely on similarities between spoken Portuguese and spoken French and between written Japanese and written Chinese!), there was no way to determine the tone of the narration, which unfortunately may have detracted from the overall film. My major disappointment with the film in terms of the story is that this documentary employed an erratic form of storytelling and therefore lacked a solid and coherent story arc. It seemed to jump from one thing about Mr. Konno’s life to another and the lack of adequate transitions at times made the story very confusing, especially when it was hard to tell whether the scene was taking place in Japan or in Brazil.

For this documentary the director, editor, cinematographer and producer were all the same person – it was an one-woman crew. The subject choice was most definitely interesting, yet Mr. Konno’s story would have been better told if a more cohesive story had been formed. Unfortunately the result was more like a broadcast video package with mediocre footage than a well-produced documentary with fluid storytelling. Although the film was pleasant, I was personally disappointed with it, perhaps due to the expectations I had built up around it. Nevertheless, watching it was not only educational but also helped me note potential mistakes to avoid in making my own documentary. It also grounded me in the realities of making documentaries. “The Grandpa From Brazil” will be more like the sort of documentary we will be making than “Planet Earth.” But we’ll definitely (hopefully) be bringing more professional camera work, better editing and more engaging storytelling.

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I first heard about “The Grandpa From Brazil” about two months ago in my Asian American Literature class. The story of this elderly Japanese émigré in Brazil intrigued me. Just a few years ago I had met Chinese friends whose families had lived in Guam and previously, Brazil, before moving to the States. Thus I knew of an Asian population in Brazil, but I’d never really thought about Asians moving to Brazil in the 1930s. I suppose this is one of the results of the very ethnocentric history we learn in U.S. classrooms.

Yet despite this ethnocentric history, the documentary showed that the immigrant experience in Brazil paralleled many of that in the U.S. Like many immigrants who made their way to the United States in search of the American Dream, Mr. Konno had been told by the Japanese government that everyone who went to Brazil could own a farm. There was still the struggles of assimilation, whereby first and second generation immigrants often do not fully become part of their new societies. Second generation individuals are especially impacted, as they are left in limbo, being neither fully Japanese nor fully Brazilian. The same is a struggle for immigrants in the United States who are pulled both by the forces of cultural assimilation as well as the strength of their ethnic backgrounds.

What was perhaps most surprising to me was the fact that there was a sizable population of Brazilians in Japan. Many of them are of Japanese descent or of mixed Japanese and Brazilian blood, individuals who grew up in Brazil as Brazilians and despite their facial features, are no more Japanese than a Japanese tourist in Brazil is Brazilian. It was also very interesting to find out that there is a shortage of labor in Japan and a lack of jobs in Brazil. With Mr. Konno’s visit to Fabio and Douglas and their parents’ home, it was clearly visible that they had brought the Brazilian cultural love of soccer with them to Japan, an interesting cultural “cross-pollination,” if you will.

While I have issues with the technical filmmaking aspects of the documentary, perhaps due to a comparison with other films the Asian American Studies Department has screened, such as “A Village Called Versailles,” I did enjoy watching “The Grandpa From Brazil.” It was pleasant and educational and provoked my thoughts on viewing topics such as the Great Depression and immigrant experiences with a more international stance.

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