By Joel Quizon
Grace Chikui is a long time resident of Little Tokyo, an ethnic enclave in Downtown Los Angeles. Around the age of 12, Grace lost her eyesight due to glaucoma. I first learned about Grace during a brainstorming session at the Visual Communications office in the basement level of the historic Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo. VC was archiving boxes and boxes of old photographs by local resident and avid shutterbug, the late Eddie Oshiro. We eagerly looked through these photographs that depicted daily life in Little Tokyo. Eddie was also the subject of a short film that we also watched that day, Jeff Man’s THAT PARTICULAR TIME. That film also featured lengthy interviews with Grace, a long time friend of Eddie and frequent focal point of Eddie’s camera.
To go back a bit, this brainstorming session involved VC and Form follows Function, a collaborative media group for which I am a contributor. Founded by Maya Santos, Form follows Function is a group consisting of filmmakers, photographers, graphic designers, musicians, architects and artists who are passionate about the built environment, space, place, and place-making. As our press release reads: “FfF seeks to create media that nurtures awareness and engagement with our surroundings, and highlights people with unique relationships to the space around them.” FfF was given the opportunity to create two projects for the 2016 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival that would delve into the world of transmedia narrative or multi-platform storytelling (something new for Form follows Function) and feature the Little Tokyo district, its historical significance and its current outlook. Through this opportunity, FfF Interactive took shape as an initiative for the studio to explore immersive technologies, and FfF Interactive Little Tokyo! would be the pilot collaboration with VC for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
The first project, 312 Azusa Street, will be a site-specific video projection in Little Tokyo. The public exhibition will be located in the JACCC Plaza, adjacent to Azusa Alley, the original site of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) in 1888, the Apostolic Faith Mission in 1906, and the birthplace of Pentecostalism. The projection experience will be on the land originally owned by Bridget “Biddy” Mason, former slave and FAME Church Founder. This installment is in partnership with experiential designer and audio/visual installation artist Eddy Vajarakitipongse.
The second installation is Walking With Grace, a documentary viewable via virtual reality (VR) headsets. Using 360º video and spatial audio, this short documentary will highlight Little Tokyo places and streets through Grace’s perspective. This will be an exclusive preview, in advance of the full interactive launch on multiple platforms in Summer 2016. The documentary will be presented at JACCC on LAAPFF’s opening weekend, and will continue to be on view at various Festival sites throughout the week.
This is when we go back to Grace. As part of the team that would work on the VR documentary, we all left that meeting with lots of ideas, but unsure as to what angle and perspective we would use. After days of ruminating, we all eventually came back to this woman who appeared in countless photos by Oshiro. When we sifted through those glossy 4” x 7” pics of Little Tokyo through the years — the festivals, the businesses no longer there, and the people in the community — we would eventually come upon photos of Grace. Her image: a small wrist purse in one hand, her cane in another, wearing a visor or hat, wearing a simple dress usually in some hue of red left an indelible mark on all of us. Could our venture into VR filmmaking, the newest and most heralded technology in visual media today, begin with a photograph, the foundation of motion pictures? Could our film using the most current, visually immersive and sensorial medium, more so than IMAX, Cinerama, or 3D, be about a woman with no vision? In our minds, we just wanted to tell her story. A person whose only lasting image of Little Tokyo and the surrounding area is that from a 12-year-old child, and whose only image since then, now at the age of 58, is only in her imagination, built from her other senses. Grace’s Little Tokyo now is the change in the air as she maneuvers between buildings, the texture of the ground, the smell from the restaurants, the sound of the water fountain to mark that she’s at 3rd and San Pedro, or the sounds of people speaking in different languages. In so many ways, Grace is the perfect guide for our film. Her unique relationship to the area is rich with memories of the past when her vision was still intact, and now, with her surroundings rapidly changing as development and gentrification takes over. With VR filmmaking, we are able to immerse the viewer in her world. But I wasn’t fully convinced...yet.
As for myself, I went to film school quite some time ago. I mean, I first learned to edit with a Moviola on 16mm. And while most of my recent experience in filmmaking is in the digital realm, I still have an affinity with film and the classic and fundamental elements of movie-making. I am always drawn to films that take full advantage of the concepts of framing and composing a shot, and am also excited when a film takes an adventurous and experimental approach to editing. I still love seeing films shot on Super 8mm. Some of my favorite movies are just people talking a lot. I’m pretty old (school). I get skeptical when it comes to new technology in filmmaking, when I know you can still tell a pretty great story by shooting with the most basic and archaic tools. I just think 3D is as viable a form of storytelling as Smell-O-Vision. As FfF began its mission of sorts to plunge into non-traditional forms of filmmaking, I wondered if I could be on board. Perhaps I’d be the traditional ballast to help us balance new endeavors into state-of-the-art media forms. I was still dubious, but kept an open mind. I had a lot of faith in our Creative Director, Maya Santos, our Co-Director and VR expert Vicki Huang, and the rest of the team that included Eseel Borlasa and Elaine Dolalas.
It was a warm day in mid January when I first met Grace. We all met her waiting at the front door of the San Pedro Firm Building in Little Tokyo where she lives. We were to take a walk with her that day to see what her normal day would be like. Her daily walk would be the construct of our film, now titled WALKING WITH GRACE. I never really spent any time with a person who was visually impaired. I knew this was going to be an educational experience. What I didn’t know was that it would eventually open my eyes to a lot of interesting and exciting possibilities when it comes to our new approach of filmmaking.
Grace led us on her route, first to the post office located in the old Los Angeles Mall, an antiquated, almost ghost town-like, underground shopping and eating area located below Fletcher Bowron Square, then back up to street level, returning to Little Tokyo via Judge John Aiso/San Pedro Street. As the walk continued, Grace would mention what it was like in that area when she was a kid, and the businesses and friends that are no longer there. She would also describe and point out landmarks that help guide her so she wouldn’t get lost, and remark on sounds and smells that would tell her where she is. The water fountain with a faint trickle in a parking garage entrance would tell her a right turn to 3rd Street is near. The change in the texture of the pavement tells her that she is entering the lower level of the Little Tokyo mall. We all started to pay attention to everything. Listening closely to cars as they sped through intersections and bikers passing by on sidewalks. I, myself, started to get a little nervous as we crossed the street hoping cars would see Grace and making sure they slowed down before they reach the crosswalk. Grace told us that the intersection of 1st and San Pedro was the only intersection in Little Tokyo that had a beeping sound at the crosswalk for the vision impaired, making crossing all the other streets a stressful endeavor. Especially for me!
We were a little tired after our walk, exhausted after our senses got a full workout. Grace looked as energetic as when we first started. I was feeling appreciative of that time and had an even greater appreciation for those living with blindness. Their courage and fortitude is remarkable. The walk also provided me with a new way of looking at Little Tokyo, a place where I thought I was already familiar with. Most importantly, the experience opened my mind to what we can do with alternative film experiences and in this case, Virtual Reality. What better method to immerse a viewer into what we experienced that day; to be fully engrossed and engaged in such an experience is the best way to tell her story. I was imagining how we can present Grace with the proper perspective and scale as she traverses through the obstacle course that is downtown Los Angeles, with hurdles and challenges coming in all directions.
I was all in. Our equally enlightening and invigorating shooting experience that took place a few months later is for telling at another time, as that also provided lots of illuminating and educational moments in VR filmmaking. But what that first walk we took with Grace did was to give me a wake-up call of sorts with regards to filmmaking (or any creative endeavor). Embracing change — while holding close the history that created it — is a common thread in films of Form follows Function. For any defined space, the uneasiness and fruitfulness that occurs there when history and future intersects eventually define the people that inhabit within. Re-imagining the familiar and presenting it unhindered by convention is what multiplatform storytelling offers. As the consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset becomes available, and as Samsung and Google release their own versions, Virtual Reality presents reality re-imagined and re-purposed for the willing audience. These audiences may not lose it like those first people who saw Auguste and Louis Lumière’s THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT STATION, springing from their seats as the train enters the screen, but it’s all part of the visual medium’s timeline of innovation. I began to see the possibilities.
At age 12, Grace lost her sight. She told us her story of how she had to learn how to walk again. First without a cane, and then with a cane. She said: It’s like when you put the cane on the left side, your right foot goes out. And then when your left foot goes out, your cane goes on the right side. It was like a soldier walking at first, but I had to practice walking and then it becomes normal. At age 40, she decided to move back to the Little Tokyo area and live on her own. She told us how she had to get orientation and mobility lessons so she can walk around her own neighborhood where she spent so much time as child. She had to learn to walk again.
She told us these life events with no ounce of grievance but only merely as an opportunity to re-imagine something familiar, to adapt and eventually thrive. Valuable lessons.
JOEL QUIZON: Los Angeles based/Manila roots filmmaker, arts organizer, and music curator. Contributing member of Form follows Function, a collaborative media studio creating non-fiction, short format, place-based videos.
UPDATE 3/14/17: WALKING WITH GRACE has now been released to the public! View the video below: