California Forum

Exposing your farm life for documentary is humbling experience

Special to The Bee

A documentary about our family and our farm will be aired nationally on PBS in late April and May. When we were first approached by the filmmakers, we asked ourselves: Why us and who would care?

Being the subject of a film builds ego and humbles you at the same time. A camera follows you around. For more than a year and a half, a crew stayed at our home and farm 14 times for several days each visit. We were wired to a mike, a camera stuck in our faces and we were supposed to “act natural.”

All this effort aimed to capture a good story. We were self-conscious at first but got used to the camera and mikes. In a way, we began to perform our everyday life, believing we had something to say.

Yet a fear constantly gnawed: Did our story lack pop? No one in our family had committed a major crime, no wild scandal was unfolding; none of us were in danger, no major injustice drove our film. Our story focused on a family coping with succession as a daughter takes over a farm. Authenticity dominated every scene.

They filmed us in the fields, picking peaches, roping trees, on a tractor. They recorded conversations at the dinner table, using one-on-one interviews during which we didn’t know what the other family members had shared. They followed us to the Gila River Relocation Center where my family had been falsely imprisoned during World War II because Japanese Americans were classified as the enemy. We visited the grave of my father.

All the while, I kept thinking: “Who cares?” We did not represent quirky characters who may be easy to film but can also quickly become boring. I wanted to believe the simple elements of life move us with meaning and can be dramatic. Parsing real life exposes a quiet, subtle, yet powerful narrative. Deeper issues of family history and change penetrated our life story; the film would try to capture the layers of that story as it educated and elevated the viewer.

We had no script. Yes, we like telling stories, but there’s a difference when the audience is unknown. How open and honest could and should we be? They filmed us in the kitchen during morning coffee, out walking in the fields during harvest and during a moment when farm equipment stopped working. But after hours and hours of filming, you let your guard down and begin simply sharing. We were exposed.

At first, I was bothered by little things: the embarrassing mess in the kitchen as it evolved into a realistic stage; the weeds on our farm depicting an organic operation or a lazy farmer, the old tractor that symbolized my aging as it too broke down during a day of filming. Later, I lost track of what I had said. Did I joke too much about my mom? Could a comment about a neighbor be taken out of context?

Then I feared a “gotcha” moment would be recorded: a trick question lobbed and a stumbling, awkward response that would look bad. Conversations sometimes spilled into questions focusing my deeper feelings about my father and my daughter. Later, I reflected: My responses were often anchored in moments of silence, depicting a complex and confusing range of emotions. Perhaps this reflected my Asian culture, my family members were not verbal storytellers; and in our farm community, many neighbors suppress their emotions with a rural stoicism that permeates daily life.

Good for a film? I’m not sure because there’s not much action in silence. A good documentary captures all this, and you only hope later, as you see and hear yourself on screen, you don’t regret what you said. So far, we have no regrets.

Halfway through the first year of filming, I had no idea of the direction of this film. The filmmakers assured us this was fine, the story would emerge from the hours of interaction. By that time, I felt comfortable they did not have a secret agenda; they were not working from a hidden script. We were the narrative.

But the writer side of me grew restless. Typically, I’m in control of my words. We did have an intense discussion with the filmmakers about “rights” and if we had any editorial control. In the end, we had to trust them, remain vulnerable and naked, then ultimately let go. If we strongly rejected a scene, would they change it? Fortunately, that confrontation didn’t happen.

Of course, all this is taken from our point of view. From the filmmakers’ vantage point, they may have cursed at some of our behavior, lamented our shallowness and longed for something more. But they were stuck with us.

Now, with the airing of the film, we go public. We realize the audience may be small, no Hollywood-style rollout. In a way, this reflects our family farm: We remain humble and have learned to live with unknowns. We never imagined a film would document our family. Why us? Who cares?

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”

Documentary on family farm

“Changing Season on the Masumoto Family Farm” will be broadcast at 10 p.m. May 2 and at 7 p.m. May 8 on KVIE.

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