Aomori International LGBT Film Festival

By Yuki Keiser November 2007 & August 2008

Aomori International LGBT Film Festival

1. Learning of Harvey Milk

Profile: Yoko Narita
Born in Aomori City, Yoko Narita earned her undergraduate degree at the Keio University Faculty of Letters. After working in Tokyo for some time, she decided to further her studies at San Francisco State University. Later, she decided to stay in California and entered a San Francisco-based Japanese television broadcast company.

In 1988, she returned to Japan and worked for 13 years organizing international exchange programs for a Japanese non-profit. In 2001, she returned to her hometown of Aomori and was working again in the non-profit sector a year later. In 2006, she organized the first Aomori International LGBT Film Festival.

●Official HP (Japanese and English)

Yoko Narita

The Aomori International LGBT Film Festival, held every July since 2006, just celebrated a successful end to its third active year on July 27th, 2008.

Compared with Japan's more urban areas, like Tokyo or Osaka, visibility is still a problem for LGBT people in Aomori. In order to take on organizing LGBT events in regions where queer culture is less apparent, clearly one must be bold. TW interviewed Yoko Narita, the founder and current chair of the Aomori International LGBT Film Festival organizing committee, to learn more about her powerful and inspired work for the Festival. In the interview that follows, Narita reflects on her experiences in the United States, life for gay people in San Francisco in the 1980’s, Harvey Milk’s influence on her life, her current sexual politics and how she envisions having the Film Festival grow in the coming years.

Aomori International LGBT Film Festival

--To begin, I would like to ask you what inspired you to start the Aomori International LGBT Film Festival? What were your reasons?

This is going to be a long answer because I have to go back in time to explain a little bit about my up bringing. When I was a child, I had relatives living in San Francisco and other areas of the West Coast and they would send me American chocolates and other stuff in the mail. For this reason, I grew up with an avid interest in the United States and, after I took my first trip to the US to discover that I really did like it there, I made a decision to study at San Francisco State University in the early 1980’s. This is right around the time that rumors began to circulate about a new disease. People were saying the sickness was something contagious. You'd hear stories of how it could sap you of all your energy and turn you to skin and bones before you die. Thinking back, this was when AIDS was starting to spread in America, and when I think back on the time, I recall the men in leather, slim jeans, and tight t-shirts on Castro Street, San Francisco’s gay district.

--In previous interviews, American lesbians have told me that a lot of discrimination existed in the US against openly gay individuals in the 1970s and 1980s. Did you ever get a sense of such discrimination?

In those days, I didn’t have any friends who were openly gay or lesbian, and nothing particularly struck me as discriminatory. However, after I finished school and started working in San Francisco in 1984, there wasn’t a day that we didn’t hear about AIDS in the newspapers, on TV, or in magazines. In this sense, it was a dark era.

Even still, there was a number of events that influenced my life between the years 1984 and 1988, including the time I saw the documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” at the Castro Theatre. At the time, I had no idea who Harvey Milk was, but I had been a huge fan of films ever since I was in high school. Word had gotten to me that this documentary was very well done, so I went to see it. And there in that theater, it was like someone dropped a bomb on me - for me to learn about this man for the first time. I remember thinking that I’d like to get to know more people like Harvey Milk. And I also remember how I was mostly surrounded by gay couples bawling at the theater. It’s all burned in my memory.

I showed “The Times of Harvey Milk” at this year’s Aomori Film Festival, partly because of the great personal meaning that it has for me. I was really moved when the film got a standing ovation - it took me back to 20 years ago!

Furthermore, in February 2007 I had the opportunity to go back to San Francisco. At the time I managed to attend a shooting for “Milk” (starring Sean Penn), the new film production of Harvey Milk’s life to be released in autumn 2008. I was amazed how they recreated his camera shop and brought the atmosphere of Castro Street right back to the 1970s. Harvey Milk is a very important person to me and you could say he’s a big part of why this Film Festival has come into being.

※Robert Epstein’s documentary film, “Milk” ©Telling Pictures

--I also saw the documentary on Harvey Milk and was greatly moved by it, but how incredible that you saw it at the Castro theater! That’s adding extra depth to the experience.

It’s really true. Something else for me at that time was going to the Amnesty International’s 25th Anniversary rock concert in 1986. It was being held in San Francisco and, being such a big music lover and a big time fan of U2, I went to see them play. At this concert I first learned the meaning of the word 'amnesty'. At the same time, I was also awakened to the existence of Amnesty International and learned about its mission to promote human rights around the world. I discovered that it had a branch in Japan, soon after, began to look into social justice related issues on my own. When I was accepted to work in the OUTFront! Program - an LGBT initiative within Amnesty International New York - as a fellow by the support of the Japan Foundation, it was like a dream come true!

--Interesting. Going back to the topic of AIDS, I hear that the atmosphere of the time was far grimmer than we could possibly imagine now. How did it feel for you?

Actually, just walking around town, I would see people who may have been in the terminal stage, in wheelchairs and with tumors visible on their faces, or I would come across people being attended to by young volunteers or their partners. One memorable event for me was this one time I was riding in an elevator and a very frail-looking man in a wheelchair came on with his caretaker. Seeing how weak he looked and aware of the sarcoma on his face, I thought how hard things must be for him. Yet, someone entering the elevator on the next floor casually struck-up a conversation with the man. They were chatting about something really frivolous like the weather before getting off the elevator. I thought it was great that someone just naturally started a conversation like that without being put off by appearances. It’s off-topic, but that’s one experience I had.

--You were saying that you worked in San Francisco at this time, what kind of work were you doing?

I was working for a company called Fuji Television, which has no actual relation to the Japanese Fuji Television. Our company that put English subtitles to Japanese television shows, like the New Year’s program Kouhaku Uta Gassen and NHK serial dramas, for broadcast in the Bay area. Thinking back on it now, I think my time working in San Francisco probably influenced me in what I am doing now.

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Translated by Kanadah