Kimi Takesue, a professor in the Arts, Culture & Media department at Rutgers University-Newark, wins a fellowship that includes $50,000 award and year of professional development
In 2007, inside a small white house in Honolulu, an elderly man was mourning the death of his wife. His granddaughter, visiting from New York City to offer support, was in limbo over her stalled romantic screenplay.
As they spent day after day together cooking meals and pondering their circumstances, the granddaughter, Kimi Takesue, an associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University-Newark, decided to capture their conversations on film.
Shot over six years, Takesue’s documentary, 95 and 6 to Go, was nominated for the 2017 European Doc Alliance Award. And in January, Takesue received a prestigious Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, which includes a $50,000 fellowship, for more than two decades of her work in documentaries.
I was shocked because I had never seen my grandfather pursue anything creative and I had always underestimated him,” Takesue said. “He read the script and it energized and animated him in a surprising way. Suddenly he was generating ideas for the screenplay – and that’s when I started filming.
Beyond the recognition the film has received, Takesue says the project was a personal accomplishment because it allowed her to uncover a side of her grandfather she never knew. Despite visiting him in Hawaii nearly every summer, Takesue never imagined that her grandfather, Tom, a retired postal worker, had a creative dimension, which she discovered when she showed him her screenplay.
“I was shocked because I had never seen my grandfather pursue anything creative and I had always underestimated him,” Takesue said. “He read the script and it energized and animated him in a surprising way. Suddenly he was generating ideas for the screenplay – and that’s when I started filming.”
Born in Honolulu to two teachers who later divorced, Takesue spent her childhood moving between Hawaii, where her Japanese-American father lived, and Massachusetts, where her Caucasian mother was a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Because of her upbringing, Takesue was always fascinated by cross-cultural encounters, and in 2002, she decided to write a screenplay about a love story between a Japanese ice carver and a white American cabaret singer. “I had spent over five years developing the fiction project, which was very large in scale with prominent actors attached,” she said.
Yet despite the film’s potential, financing never materialized. During a visit to Honolulu, her grandfather, who was living alone because his wife had died of cancer, suddenly took an interest in the screenplay and started suggesting changes he thought would make it more marketable. He proposed adding a happy ending, a Frank Sinatra song and a new title.
“The fiction screenplay became a vehicle for my grandfather to reflect on his life of love and loss,” said Takesue, who, at the time, was supporting herself with her Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships. “It also became a common creative project that brought us closer together.”
Right before her grandfather’s death at age 95, Takesue was given permission to produce the 85-minute documentary whereas previously her grandfather had forbidden her from showing the footage publicly.
“Gathering and shooting the footage was, ultimately, an excuse for me to notice and connect with my grandfather in a new way but I never thought I’d have the opportunity to share it with an audience,” Takesue said. “It’s wonderful to now have a distinct family history preserved on film that presents Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and which has resonated with audiences around the world.”
Since its release in 2016, 95 and 6 to Go, has been screened at more than 25 international film festivals and awarded jury prizes for best documentary at three American film festivals. The documentary is the 10th film Takesue has written, directed and produced since her first production, Bound, an exploration of the cultural identity of a British Chinese woman, released in 1995.
Takesue was one of five women nonfiction filmmakers who received a Breakthrough Filmmaker Award from Chicken & Egg Pictures, an organization founded in 2005 by three women filmmakers to support rising female documentarians. Besides the fellowship, the award includes a yearlong mentorship program to help the filmmakers develop new projects.
“The award is unique because it offers a significant financial prize, along with a year of targeted professional development,” Takesue said. “They are investing in your long-term career as a filmmaker and addressing the reality that even experienced women documentary filmmakers have challenges with sustainability, visibility and access into the industry.”
While she never did change her stalled screenplay as her grandfather had suggested, Takesue did follow another piece of his advice – that she find a steady job while working on her filmmaking. As a daughter of teachers, she decided to follow her parents’ example and landed a position as an assistant professor in the Transmedia/Film Program at Syracuse University in 2009.
Three years later, she was hired by Rutgers-Newark and began teaching in the video program on campus. While helping students develop their own films, Takesue has realized that she has become as passionate about teaching as she is about filmmaking.
“I really love teaching at Rutgers-Newark particularly because of the diversity of the student body and the fact that many of them are first-generation college students,” she said. “My students come from varied life experiences and bring their unique perspectives into creative projects in interesting and meaningful ways. It's extremely rewarding to teach such talented, hard-working students and help get their distinctive stories out into the world."
Watch the trailer for 95 and 6 to Go.
This story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.