The Cats of Mirikitaniis a beautiful documentary on Jimmy Mirikitani. Eighty-year-old Jimmy Mirikitani survived the trauma of WWII internment camps in USA, Hiroshima, and homelessness by creating art. But when 9/11 threatens his life on the New York City streets and a local filmmaker brings him to her home, the two embark on a journey to confront Jimmy’s painful past. An intimate exploration of the lingering wounds of war and the healing powers of friendship and art, this documentary won the Audience Award at its premiere in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
Produced by Lucid Dreaming inc. in association with The Independent Television Service (ITVS) and The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) with funding provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding provided by The Japan Foundation, The New York State Council on the Arts, and private donors.
Linda Hattendorf has been working in the New York documentary community for more than a decade. Her editing work has aired on PBS, A&E, and The Sundance Channel as well as in theatrical venues and many festivals. She edited the award-winning documentary 7th Street, directed by Josh Pais; Julia Pimsleur’s Brother Born Again; Christina Lundberg’s On the Road Home: A Spiritual Journey Guided by Remarkable Women, Nancy Recant’s Jin Shin Jyutsu, and Danny Schechter’s In Debt We Trust. She was Associate Editor on Frontline’s The Choice ’96, and on Barbara Kopple’s Bearing Witness; Contributing Editor on POV’s American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii; a cameraperson on William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2, and a researcher on the Ken Burns series The West. She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and holds degrees in Literature, Art History, and Media Studies. This is her directorial debut.
Sergej Stanojkovski: How did you decide to make the film on Mirikitani?
Linda Hattendorf: Well, it was really an organic process. When I first met Jimmy Mirikitani on a street corner near my apartment, it was January, freezing cold, and here was this very elderly man bundled in layers of coats, hat, and scarves, drawing pictures of cats. I was curious, and concerned, and I like cats, so I struck up a conversation. He gave me a drawing of a cat — and asked me to take a picture of it. I returned the next day with my video camera and asked if he’d like to tell me any stories about his art. He had lots of stories to tell. I began to visit every day on my way to and from work, and if I had the camera he would talk to me. It was a small Sony TRV 900 that I could easily pop into a bag. A friend loaned me a good mic.
The more I learned about Jimmy’s past, the more I realized there was a really important story here. He had lost homes in such a profound way due to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the internment camps — I wanted to explore the link between those events and winding up homeless on the streets of New York 60 years later. I thought I would document four seasons in his life on the streets and interweave his past through his art. Then in the autumn, on 9/11, the World Trade Center was destroyed less than a mile away. The neighborhood was suddenly engulfed in a toxic cloud of smoke. And I found myself unable to just passively document Jimmy coughing in that smoke. Suddenly the walls between his world and mine no longer made sense. I just impulsively asked him to come inside. And so then, of course the story changed…No matter what was happening, Jimmy just kept drawing. And so I just kept shooting.
Sergej: How long did it take you to make the film including pre and post productions?
Linda: There was no pre-production; I started shooting the day after I met Jimmy. I documented a lot of my own research process and that became part of the film. I shot for about a year, ending up with about 200 hours of footage. Then it took four more years to raise enough money to edit.
Sergej: Did you do research and then write a screenplay?
Linda: No. I just started shooting, and kept shooting as the story changed. I wrote treatments as I shot; those changed over time as well.
Sergej: How would you describe your approach to documentary filmmaking?
Linda: In the case of CATS, my subject was 80 years old and living on the streets. Then 9/11 happened. There was no time to wait for funding or a polished script. I had to just shoot first and edit later. I always had a sense of the big picture — where I wanted to go emotionally, connections I wanted to make — but the details changed as unexpected events unfolded. In the end, these events made the underlying story stronger. Jimmy’s WWII stories took on greater resonance after 9/11 as we saw history repeating itself in the bias against Arab and Muslim Americans, and the wartime hysteria.
William Greaves, a filmmaker I worked for, once told me, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans.” That was the case for this film, and I think is often the case in documentary. You have an idea of what the story is and what you’re after, but then the footage you get may show the story unfolding in a way you hadn’t expected. As an editor I think it’s important to try to listen to the material, to let it be what it wants to be.
For my next project though, I am definitely planning a longer research and development phase, and hope I can raise enough money to have the luxury of writing a treatment before I begin shooting!
Sergej: What equipment did you use when shooting the film?
Linda: CATS was shot on mini-DV 3CCD cameras — Sony TRV 900 and VX 2000 and edited on Final Cut Pro. When I started, I logged all the footage on my laptop Mac using my camera as a deck. Eventually I upgraded to a more sophisticated system and a whole array of drives to hold as much footage as possible. We did the online on an Avid at Duart in New York and used Sync Sound for our sound edit and mix. Doug O’Conner at Zpost did a fantastic job of supervising post, so I’m really pleased with the final look. Thanks to an incredibly generous patron, we were able to create a 35mm print, and it looks great.
Sergej: How did you finance The Cats of Mirikatani?
Linda: Initially I paid for everything with credit cards and by working other jobs as an editor. (I don’t really recommend this method; I’m still paying off the credit cards!) The first support was in the form of artist’s residencies. These really helped me carve out time to work on the project. Several generous individuals donated money that kept me going while I wrote grant proposals, and eventually I received funding from The New York State Council on the Arts, The Japan Foundation, The Center for Asian American Media, and Independent Television Service (ITVS).
Sergej: Which locations were used during filming?
Linda: It was mostly shot in New York City, just a few blocks from my apartment in Soho (about a mile from the World Trade Center). At the end of the film, I accompany Jimmy on a pilgrimage to the West Coast, where he revisits the site of the Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California.
Sergej: What made the strongest impact or impression on you shooting this film/subject?
Linda: Learning details about an unknown history of my own country from someone who experienced it firsthand. Jimmy’s story showed me the lasting effects of war and discrimination and the healing power of humanity and art. He helped me really feel history with the heart, not just think about it intellectually and this is what I hope the film shares with others.
Sergej: How were your feelings on finding out about US Concentration camps in the 20th century?
Linda: Like most Americans, I knew little about the camps before making this film. I knew it happened, but had no idea of the scope of it, didn’t know that 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to these desolate locations, that they were forced to live in cramped tarpaper shacks for over 3 years, and that 2/3 of these people were American citizens. I had little concept of the lasting damage caused by this — how families were torn apart, property lost, careers destroyed. Their ancestors are still coping with the fallout of these events today.
Sergej: You were director/producer/cameraperson on the film, what are the advantages and disadvantages of such an experience?
Linda: Doing so much myself certainly helped with the budget (I shot 90% of it without paying myself anything). But ultimately, filmmaking is a collaborative art, bringing others to a project can only make it stronger. I was fortunate to find Producer Masa Yoshikawa, Editor Keiko Deguchi, Composer Joel Goodman, Archivist Chris Cliadakis, and advisors like Roger Shimomura and Deirdre Boyle, all of whom were crucial collaborators in this whole process and in creating the final film.
Sergej: Was the documentary successful after its completion? Have you visited film festivals? Did you find a distributor or sell the film? Did the film bring you fame and make it easier to finance new projects?
Linda: Well, I was happy just to have finished the online in time for our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, so the fact that critics and audiences liked the film so much was a bonus, and winning the Audience Award seemed like a dream. In the year and a half since then, The Cats of Mirikitani has been selected for dozens of festivals, and won more than 20 awards worldwide, including the Norwegian Peace Film Award at the Tromso International Film Festival, the Spirit Award at EIDF in Korea, Best Documentary at Big Sky, Bermuda, Galway, Philadelphia and Durban and Best Picture in our category at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It’s also been really gratifying to me to win the Audience Award in festivals as diverse as Paris Cinema in France; EDOCS in Ecuador, Biografilm in Italy, and Durango, Colorado. It’s wonderful to experience the film with different audiences and find that they all laugh and cry in the same places. Creating a site where community can occur is what cinema is all about for me.
In May 2007, we were broadcast on PBS on the series Independent Lens, and thanks to a very generous patron, were able to make a 35mm print and do a theatrical roll out in the US beforehand. We sold the rights to distributors in Japan, Scandinavia, and Germany (without a sales agent). Arthouse Films will release the DVD in North America, and the Center for Asian American Media, one of our early funders, will be our educational distributor.
For a former editor who rarely left the dark sanctuary of the cutting room, this has all been an amazing journey, an incredible opportunity to meet audiences, peers, critics, and distributors around the globe. But now I’m ready to stop traveling and begin writing the treatment for my next project, so I need to carve out the time to write and fundraise. Hopefully the success of CATS will make it easier to fund for the next project. It took four years to raise the money for CATS.
Sergej: What is your filmmaking background and where are you located?
Linda: I’ve been working in the New York documentary community for over a decade. Until this film, which was my debut as a director and producer, I worked primarily as an editor of long form documentaries. I have a Master’s Degree in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research in New York and undergraduate degrees in art history and literature.
Sergej: Was your previous experience useful for the work on Cats of Mirikatani?
Linda: I certainly learned a lot from working on productions by seasoned filmmakers like Barbara Kopple, William Greaves, and Ken Burns. At the New School, I studied with Deirdre Boyle (author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited) and she was an important influence. She became an advisor on The Cats of Mirikitani.
But I was also influenced I think by my family. When I was a child, my mother loved to show us old home movies that her father had shot in the 1930’s in Wyoming: images of herds of antelope and buffalo, my grandmother as a young bride carrying a rifle, my mother as a tiny toddler riding a huge horse. Those films were a window into another world for me. My grandfather died before I was born, and I grew up in Ohio. So these little fragments of film were such a treasure. Although I never knew my grandfather, I felt as if I could see the world through his eyes in those films. I could know him through what he chose to document. So from this early experience I think I developed a love for film, and a sense of its power and mystery.
Sergej: Can you make a living by directing documentary films?
Linda: We’ll see. Somehow I am surviving, thanks to the generosity of a few individuals, cash prizes from festivals, some theatrical revenue, and a rent-stabilized apartment. I still do a little editing from time to time to make ends meet.
Sergej: What advice would you offer to young filmmakers?
Linda: It sounds corny, but “follow your bliss.” Choose a subject that you are passionate about, one that will challenge and stimulate you for several years. Try to capture what it is that moves you and audiences will feel it too.
Sergej: What are your future plans?
Linda: I have a new project in development now. It will deal with peace. We have plenty of histories of war, but not so many about peace. As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve met so many people who are hungry for some hope, some good news, and some stories about what unites us rather than what divides us. I think that if we want peace to be more than an abstract slogan, we need to know what it looks like, create a language for it, and develop a model for this history too. I look forward to this new challenge and am excited about the prospect of involving many people I’ve met around the globe, as well as those who helped make CATS such a success.