Featured in 2022's BlackStar Film Festival is an exciting world premiere documentary: Wisdom Gone Wild, a non-linear film made by Temple associate professor Rea Tajiri.
In this moving and unique film, Professor Tajiri partners with her mother, Rose Tajiri Noda, to create a film about the final sixteen years of Rose’s life as a person living with dementia. Delicately weaving between past and present, parenting and being parented, the film reflects on the unreliability of memory and the desire to reinvent one's own life when memories fail us.
In anticipation of that premiere on August 6 at BlackStar, we spoke with Rea about the genesis of the film, how the process of making it evolved alongside her relationship with her mother, and what she learned over the course of a decade-and-a-half that has shaped her teaching and artistic practice in the present day.
Can you give us a synopsis of Wisdom Gone Wild?
Wisdom Gone Wild tells the remarkable story of my mother, a Nisei woman who survived incarceration in an American concentration camp during World War II, and developed dementia late in life. Through interactions with me, her daughter and care partner, she bestows a new name and identity on herself, transforming her past along with her present. In its form and content, the film centers on her perspective rather than a disease, telling the story of a life to be valued, not a problem to be willed away. It calls for a societal shift in how we view dementia—one that honors subjective experience, cultural difference, inclusivity, and personhood, to counter the devaluing of age and the dismissal of the knowledge we can gain from someone who has lived a long life.
In addition to contemporary footage, the film includes rare archival photos of my mother as a child growing up in the Japanese American farm community of Salinas, California, as well as color photos from my father Vince Tajiri’s archive. Vince was the Playboy photo editor from 1955-1969 and was a photojournalist for the Nikkei community before WWII.
Why did you choose to present this story in a non-linear way?
We wanted to break certain kinds of narratives around dementia and around aging in general. I didn’t want a simple reading that dementia equals tragedy. Instead, we went for a non-traditional, hybrid format that moved back and forth in time, and, in a way, mirrors how my mother conversed with me. She would go in and out of the past back into the present. At other moments, she re-created her past. She created a new identity for herself, told my brother and I she was never married to our father, and took on what I’ll call a "speculative" re-telling of her history. In her new identity, she was an independent woman who hitchhiked through Europe and eventually became an art historian and a professor.
The ironic and funny thing about this last part was that I myself wanted to hitchhike through Europe as a teen, but she forbade it. She also announced her ‘professorship’ soon after I was hired by Temple to teach. So there was an interesting mirroring of her daughter's identity.
What led you to start documenting this personal, shared journey on film? Was it a project you started from the beginning, or something that you decided to do more recently?
The onset of my mother’s dementia came around the time my first feature was about to have its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1997. I shared the news about my screening with her one day, the next day she had forgotten. She even accused me of being someone impersonating her daughter over the phone. It was devastating, it was destabilizing. We were living on opposite coasts at that point. I spent the whole time at the festival ruminating over what had happened.
Eventually I would fly over to care of her and take over her affairs. I started out going for a week, that would turn into two weeks, then a month, then six weeks. In order to stay in touch with family and let them know what was going on, I’d email photos. A few years into it, I had stopped making films. I was starting to do more photography, mostly of her. My mother’s dementia was very creative, and in between her loss of memory, she’d share these profound insights or tales I’d never heard before. Friends would say, "Are you filming this? You need to make a film from this."
At first I couldn’t. But very late into the process, around 2012, I saw that I needed to turn our story into a film.
I did this because I came to see how much of a performer she was and how she came alive in front of the camera. It was a surprise because, before dementia, she was very private and would shut down in front of the camera. Now she became an incredible model – really conveyed the mood of a given moment. I hired a DP for a days shoot. We went to the museum in Los Angeles, and wandered by accident into the Yellow Spaghetti streamers installation (featured at the end of the film's trailer). She just started singing, no prompting on my part. All these children were drawn to her like a magnet, utterly fascinated by her. We had an extraordinary scene on film – like magic. That only happens when you’re hitting something right. From then on, I knew we had the seeds of an interesting film.
We also got lucky shortly after that. My mom and I were out and we ran into two old friends, David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, who worked with me on the very first shoot I ever did as a P.A. By this time they were a production design duo, who had designed for Wes Anderson ( all his signature work) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs up to Inglorious Basterds!). They loved my mom and said they would volunteer to do a set that I had imagined making inside her assisted living, a magical realist beauty parlor. After helping me out, they got booked to do La La Land, and won the Oscar for Production Design that year.
How did your relationship with your mother change during this 16-year period, both before and during the filming of Wisdom Gone Wild?
One of the extraordinary things about dementia is that you access different parts of someone. Depending on the type of dementia. In my mother’s case, she became less inhibited and became gregarious and lively. For many years, it was really difficult for me and for her. But one day I came to realize that when I would really slow myself down and tune into her wavelength (which took great patience), she would relax and open up and share her insights. That is the wisdom that went wild. Even though she had dementia, she was capable of sharing things. Even when some of the things she said were not true, oftentimes they were metaphors for things she was trying to explain to me.
Can you share some of the memories or moments shared with your mother that were captured in the documentary, or some examples of her wisdom in this time?
One thing she said, which was really profound, was, “I’m just learning to be myself, why I’m this way, why I”m that way. You have to learn to be yourself.” I asked her, “What are you learning?” and she said, “I can’t tell you because I’m still learning.”
It was amazing and optimistic that someone who was close to death and so frail was still learning and ruminating over the meaning of her life. She hadn’t given up yet, and she did have an inner life that was still active.
There was one day when we were leaving the doctor’s office and walking into the car garage. As we approached my car, she suddenly jumped. I said "What happened?" She said "Oh!.... oh never mind, that’s just grandma!" I said "Grandma?" she said "Yes, that’s grandma in the backseat of our car..."
It made me realize that, as she was nearing her death, she was talking, seeing, and feeling the ancestors around her. I was so moved by this, but also felt she was protected.
Is there a specific realization you are hoping audiences will have after watching this film?
My key message in this film is for audiences to consider the possibilities of connection and intimacy with loved ones who live with dementia. With this intimate portrayal, I hope to normalize witnessing and listening to elders, and to value their stories, their wisdom and their lived experience.
Wisdom Gone Wild will premiere on August 6 during the BlackStar Film Festival. The film will be screened at 3 p.m. at the Zellerbach Theater, and be made available for virtual streaming at 4 p.m. For tickets or more information, click here or go to blackstarfest.org.