Filmmaker Regge Life on Race, Culture, and 'Doubles'

Life's documentaries explore how intercultural people cross boundaries

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Regge Life, an African American filmmaker who grew up in Westchester County, New York, and earned his MFA at New York University's film school, has made three documentaries that deal with the blurring boundaries of race and culture, and explore what it means to build a human identity out of disparate parts: Struggle and Success: The African American Experience in Japan; Doubles: Japan and America's Intercultural Children; and After America . . . After Japan. The films were broadcast nationally in Japan and America.

How did you get the idea for Doubles?
While I was making Struggle and Success and interviewing African Americans who had married Japanese spouses, I met many of their children. In Japan, such kids were called haafu—halves—which seemed to suggest they were not quite whole or complete. But it soon became clear that these kids had twice the culture, twice the heritage, and twice the language skills. And many of them had strength and courage that came from their daily struggle to define themselves—not so much to find their identity as to create it.

So what goal did you set for yourself with this film?
I wanted to look through the eyes of children who have had to come to terms with two radically different cultures while trying to express 100 percent of who they are as individuals.

And once again, you dug into the history.
Yes. The American military occupation of Japan following World War II produced the first large number of mixed children, some born to married parents, others out of wedlock. Some grew up in America, others in Japan.

Each society, in its own way and to different degrees, values conformity or uniformity. We Americans speak a lot about multiculturalism but, in my experience, still look at each other based on race, not culture. If you're dark, you're an African American, no matter that your mother or father is Japanese. And if you look Asian, then that is what you must be, no matter that one of your parents is Caucasian. Many Americans have trouble accepting that you can be two things at once.

In Japan, on the other hand, the buzzword is internationalization, or kokusaika. The word half at least recognizes that these intercultural children have a Japanese part as well; no one is going to deny them that. Most of the kids I interviewed were happy about the way they are. What makes them unhappy is having to make the world understand. After getting to know lots of doubles, I've come to feel that the future is theirs. They have the most to teach us about crossing cultural boundaries, something more of us will have to do in the years ahead.

In making Doubles, did you meet any intercultural offspring with serious identity confusion?
One guy in the film, as he was taking me back to my hotel in Hokkaido, reached over to the backseat of his car and pulled out a New York Yankees baseball cap. He put it on, looked me in the eye, and said, "I'd really like to go to America one day, but I probably never will because I can't speak English and I don't even know that part of myself. But I know it's in me."

There was something about the way he said it that made me see what incredible pain a lot of these people feel in this kind of neither-nor experience.

Is race also an essential building block of identity?
We are who we are by means of culture, not race, and we've got to start getting to that page in the book. If we keep playing this other game we will only dismantle ourselves. Race is a poorly used tool in the world. I've met people, particularly people of color, who, for the sake of survival and ease, have completely adopted the cultures where they are living, whether it be Europe or Africa, because it just fits better.

People that I have since featured in After America were nationals of the country where they now lived; but because of their experience in the host country, they too felt double. They could identify with everything these "mixed" people were saying on-screen. People who are supposedly "pure" Japanese or "pure" Americans don't feel like that anymore. They are sensing an affinity for people who are clearly interracial and intercultural.

That was my response to Doubles too.
Yes. People are saying, Wow, I never thought about it through the prism of culture. I was just looking at it as my life, never evaluating it on that level, but now I think this "double" idea is a good way of understanding what this is all about. Once you start to explore that, it dawns on you: That's what we're all going through.

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