Documentary filmmaker Matthew Hashiguchi doesn't shy away from hefty topics. In his last award-winning documentary, The Lower 9, the 28-year-old dove into the racial politics playing out in post-Katrina New Orleans. For his follow-up, Hashiguchi is tackling the history of racism against Japanese-Americans and the changing nature of racial identity in America. The filmmaker doesn't have to stretch far for his source material. Born to a Japanese father and Italian mother and raised in Cleveland, Hashiguchi's own homelife will serve as a petri dish out of which the filmmaker hopes to cultivate his insights. In May, Hashiguchi moved back home to begin filming. Titled Good Luck Soup, the film is anchored in the optimism and experience of his 87-year-old grandmother.
You just moved back to Cleveland from the East Coast. Do you find a lot of like-minded documentary makers in town doing similar work?
Not that I'm really aware of. When I was in Boston, every fourth person was a filmmaker. Here it's not very common, and it's a little bit harder to find people to collaborate with. I've been speaking more with journalists to work with them. Those are the kind of people I've always worked with and would love to continue working with, just because they think about story and they're trained to find a story. A lot of filmmakers look at equipment — they love the way things look, they put a lot of time into how something will look — and as a journalist I was trained to figure out what the story is. The camera is just a tool, the pen is just a tool, it's what the story is that matters.
How did this recent project come about?
I always wanted to tell this story. It started out as a story about racism and the experience of racism through all three generations of my family. My grandmother was in the internment camps. My father, aunt, and uncle were Japanese-Americans living in Cleveland who experience a good amount of racism. And surprisingly, my brother, sister, and I experienced racism. But that didn't seem like it was enough; it was kind of a one-note story. And then I was thinking about the multiracial aspect of my identity. That's something that was a little more unique. The story of racism is something that's been told over and over again in the United States, whereas the multiracial identity and experience is emerging now. So now the film is about the transition of the family identity from Japanese-American to Japanese-Italian-American, and how each person has their own grasp of that. It's kind of a look at the future of where identity is going in America.
Your earlier film was about post-Katrina New Orleans, and now you've swung the camera around on your own background. Why pivot into the personal?
The New Orleans piece was my way of working up to this story. Let's think about what happened during the internment camps. These people were removed from their homes, their possessions were taken, and they were treated like second-class citizens. I saw that same experience in New Orleans, specifically with the people in the Lower Ninth Ward. Their homes were destroyed, they were pushed out of their neighborhoods, and now they're scattered and can't go back home. It was the destruction of a culture. The same thing happened to the Japanese-American communities in California. They scattered around the U.S. as a result of the internment camps because they could not or would not go back to the West Coast. So I had to prepare myself to hear these stories from my family members — specifically my grandmother. You don't want to hear your grandmother tell a sad story.
It's got be hard to put on the inquisitive journalist hat when the subject is your own family.
It is very different. My family members, you can tell they're a little nervous when they're sitting down. There's a camera and all this stuff looking at them ... that's intimidating for anyone. I think sometimes it's just hard to motivate myself to turn on that professional mindset, turn on that filmmaker approach, because when I'm around family, I'm in a comfortable spot. Whereas when you turn on a camera and you're working, you have to be "on" and attentive to everything — and that sense of comfort is not really there anymore. But everyone has gotten used to it. And my family is not afraid to call me out if I'm being annoying with a camera. So it's turned into fun.
How has the experience of racism changed across the three generations?
Well, my grandmother's is probably the most basic. She was born in Sacramento, California, so she was an American citizen. Then, because she had Japanese heritage, they sent her to the camps. My father has told me of going out to get burgers with friends and a group other guys calling him "Jap" and telling him to leave. Myself, I went to Gesu, which is a very Irish-American community. All my friends were Irish, so it was pointed out many times that I wasn't Irish. I was called "Jap" and "Chink." I was spit on. There were fights. Stuff like that. It was daily. That was where I learned what racism is. I'm half-Italian, half-Japanese, and I don't think I look that Japanese. But my last name is sort of a giveaway. I didn't have that Irish-American name to save me. I wasn't a Murphy or a Doyle or an O'Reilly.
How does that hybrid identity play out for you?
It's hard to describe because you say you're 50 percent Japanese or Italian, but it's not like my holidays or identity is split up 50-50. I don't really relate to Italian kids. I don't really relate to Japanese kids. And I don't think they would relate to me. I don't really feel part of those communities. For me, the cultural experience of being Italian or Japanese is a family thing. But I think I know how to interact with people on both sides of the spectrum.
If your subject is hard to describe, how, as a filmmaker, do you illustrate that for an audience?
I think by showing the family aspect, you're showing how many different identities make up a family. So I have a different perspective from my sister and different from my brother. None of us has the same point of view. My brother was closer to the Japanese-American side growing up. I was more interested in the Italian-American side growing up. My sister did Japanese dance. We each embrace aspects of both culture, and each person celebrates the culture in different ways.