By Allan Ripp
Whenever I’m feeling stuck creatively – which happens a lot, judging from the many partial writing projects larding up my personal documents folder – I think of Jennifer Takaki.
Jennifer is my down-the-block neighbor on West 96th Street, whom I first met a decade ago thanks to our sniffing dogs. She recently completed shooting and directing her first feature documentary film, about a photojournalist named Corky Lee, known for his dedication to chronicling Asian Americans in New York and around the country. The movie, entitled, “Photographic Justice” for Lee’s unwavering political and social activism in his work, has drawn positive reviews and strong audience response on the festival circuit and should get a theatrical and streaming release in coming months. It only took 19-plus years to make.
How is that even possible? In an era of extreme distractions and quiet quitting how does one stick with something big and personally meaningful to conclusion? It’s been 40 years since author Robert Caro began researching his biography of Lyndon Johnson, but he produced four books about LBJ along the way. So, I asked my friend how she had persevered, staying motivated and focused to bring her film to life after such a long gestation.
Jennifer was in her early 30s, working in an entry-level position at Princeton Review when she met Corky Lee at an event in 2003. “He showed me where the restroom was,” she recalls. Learning later about his renown for documenting all aspects of Asian American life, she interviewed him for what she thought might make a five-minute video for a fledgling internet site called YouTube.
But the former TV news producer couldn’t put down her own camera, following the Queens-born Lee to parades, protests, Chinatown meetings, and community happenings that drew his attention, in the process earning him photo credits in the New York Times, New York Post, Newsweek, Village Voice and other outlets. Lee’s images — including a series celebrating Asian American women at work, from driving taxis to factory jobs — hang in numerous museums, including the Smithsonian.
As the footage (more than 100 hours) – and costs – racked up, Jennifer took out loans, pursued grants and held down side gigs to support the project. She worked at a gourmet frozen food store on Amsterdam Avenue, shot videos for a Catholic non-profit ,and appeared as an extra in network TV shows. She even flew toy helicopters at JC Penny on weekends. “Corky’s work is monumentally important – I did whatever I could to sustain the film, even if that meant occasionally taking short-term jobs that weren’t entirely fulfilling,” she says.
Production challenges were constant — adding narrative animation, licensing photos, scoring music, endless editing and re-sequencing as new material was added. While her crew evolved over so many years, she credits independent film editor Linda Hattendorf as “the heart and soul” of the film. “She tirelessly worked with me to execute my vision,” she says.
Jennifer also took necessary breaks to visit her aging parents in New Mexico, while keeping her social life to a minimum. She convened constant meetings with her colleagues, including phone sessions while doing her wash at a West Side laundromat. Over a decade of dog walks, I can’t recall a single meet-up where the film wasn’t looming urgently over our conversation.
Meanwhile, Corky wasn’t getting any younger. He endured the closing of a longtime book printing business where he worked, and which helped pay his expenses, a sad milestone captured on film. The pandemic sidelined him for a while, taking away his livelihood and delaying a gallery show. Shortly after getting back in circulation he contracted Covid and died at age 73 in January 2021, just as vaccines were rolling out.
“The start of Covid was a dark hour and I was ready to throw what I had onto the web in the hope Corky’s story could make a difference, especially during the rise of anti-Asian violence,” says Jennifer, who still needed significant funds for final shooting and post-production.
Happily, late money flowed in from donors who believed in bringing the film to a wide audience. She and Hattendorf were able to get to goal, distilling 19-plus years of labor into 85 vivid minutes of Lee and his legacy, including testimonials that came in after his death and a stirring sequence of Lee’s funeral procession with members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community paying final tribute.
Lee’s passing helped raise awareness about her subject. As New York State Senator John Liu tweeted, “Corky Lee is synonymous with Asian American history in New York and beyond. Without his efforts, much of our history may have gone unnoticed and unchronicled.” Lee was even honored with a Google doodle tribute for a day in May.
Not that Jennifer considers her work complete. She is busy pursuing distribution channels, including screenings of “Photographic Justice” at schools and Asian American groups, as well as an upcoming Asian- American film festival in New York.
But she is finally sleeping some, getting more walks in Central Park, and planning to return to another film about her hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, as it relates to her family and the Japanese American experience during World War II (her mother was placed in an internment camp in Arkansas in the 1940s). She started that project in 2009 – I have no doubt she’ll finish.
Read Allan Ripp’s recent article about scaffolding here.