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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Story of child abuse told in 'Silent Years'

 •  Q&A: Author Yamanaka reacts to the film

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

What happens when you place the force and brevity of Lois-Ann Yamanaka's poetry in the hands of a young film director who's honed his skills shooting commercials?

Julie Nagata, a Moanalua High School student, stars in the locally produced short film "Silent Years," an adaptation of two poems by Hawai'i author Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

Kinetic Films

You get, as Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival patrons soon will learn, a brutal coming-of-age story told in 13 gut-wrenching minutes.

"Silent Years," James Sereno's locally produced short film based on two poems from

Yamanaka's hugely influential 1993 collection "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre," will be screened as part of the film festival's "Hawaii Panorama 7" at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26.

The screening also includes the short films "Amasian: The Amazing Asian," "Agent Orange," "Do Not Disturb," "Lonesome Honeymoon" and "Kamea."

The film festival opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 31.

James Sereno

Lois-Ann Yamanaka
"Silent Years," taken from the notorious "Kala" section of Yamanaka's book, tells the story of a 13-year-old Hawai'i girl caught between her domineering, abusive uncle and her 17-year-old boyfriend, a charming jock who's expecting a special "gift" for his graduation.

It's a disturbing film, even for those familiar with Yamanaka's unflinching style. The piece is faithful in spirit and letter to Yamanaka's pidgin-inflected poetry. Veteran actress Janice Terukina narrates the film directly from the original text.

"It's very dark," Sereno said. "And there's no happy ending. I don't know if that's good or bad, but what we made is what moved me emotionally."

"Silent Years" has been traveling the festival circuit for about six months. In Rhode Island, it won first prize for cinematography; the film was lensed by Paul Atkins.

Sereno, who grew up in Honolulu and graduated from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, has worked extensively in commercials (he directed the state's teen-focused anti-smoking ads) and short film, and has won Clios, a Cannes Bronze Lion, and a Belding for his producing work.


• Play dates: Thursday through Oct. 31 on O'ahu, Oct. 29-31 on Neighbor Islands

• O'ahu screening sites: Signature Dole Cannery 18 Theatres, Honolulu Academy of Arts' Doris Duke Theatre, the Hawai'i Theatre and University of Hawai'i-Manoa

• Number of films: 168 features, documentaries, shorts and animated works, from 24 countries

• Program guides: Free at Blockbuster Video stores and Starbucks locations statewide

• Festival mini-guides: Free at Central Pacific Bank and City Bank locations on O'ahu

• Admission: $8 adults; $7 students, seniors, children and military; $6 film festival members

• Information: 528-4433, www.hiff.org, www.silentyears.com


• A collection of locally produced short films, including "Amasian: The Amazing Asian," "Agent Orange," "Do Not Disturb," "Lonesome Honeymoon," "Silent Years" and "Kamea"

• 7:30 p.m., Oct. 26

With Kinetic Films partner Yuri Biersach, another USC graduate from Hawai'i, Sereno spent the past few years trolling for strong Hawai'i-themed projects.

Sereno's first exposure to Yamanaka's work came when his son read the author's "Lickens" for a school speech competition. Sereno read the collection cover to cover, then negotiated the option for the "Kala" poems with publisher Bamboo Ridge Press.

But Sereno's resolve to make a short film was shaken early when Yamanaka told him the protagonist was a 13-year-old girl, not a 17-year-old as he had mistakenly imagined.

"I was nervous," Sereno said. "That's a difficult role. I thought, 'If we can't find the right girl, we can't make the film.' "

Casting director Nazarine Anderson had a solution. She and Sereno had worked with teenager Rachel Nagata on the anti-smoking ads; her sister, Julie, was the right age and look for the part. "Julie was perfect," Sereno said. "She had these big doe eyes. I kept her picture at my desk because I could just see her as the main image for the film."

Sereno's decision to use Nagata ultimately had as much to do with her mother, Lorie, as it did Julie's surprisingly soulful acting.

In addition to the film's themes of abuse and powerlessness, there is a foreboding sexual undercurrent that culminates in a final scene that, while not graphic or exploitative, is disturbing. Sereno wanted to be sure whoever took the lead role could handle the emotional demands.

"Lorie read the script and connected with it," Sereno said. "At night she and Julie read together and talked about it, and I think that's what made Julie comfortable with it. That's the only way we could have done it."

It helped that Nagata, a student at Moanalua High School, did not closely identify with the unnamed character. "She told me once that if (the character) was her friend, she'd take her to one side and knock some sense into her," Lorie Nagata said.

Still, mother and daughter spent much time talking about the role, trying to build a depth of understanding that would bring the character to life while still protecting the adolescent actress.

"I told Julie to think about friends who had come from negligent or dysfunctional families," Lorie Nagata said. "We did a lot of role-playing.

"James would tell us to go into our box and find our own space," she said. "He told her that when you're in there, that's who you are and nothing can change that. When you step out of the box, that's when you're acting. Just be sure to come back afterward."

Casting a young man to play the boyfriend, JimmyBoy, was a bigger challenge.

"There were guys who were tough but couldn't act well enough, and there were good actors who were too pretty for the part," Sereno said.

The decision was made to cast Matthew Miller, then a senior at Mid-Pacific Institute. It was with Miller that Sereno may actually have improved on the text.

"What he brought was a sense of humanity to a character I saw more as a punky (expletive)," Sereno said. "He was charming, so you believed that the girl would follow him and the guys would like him, too."

For the role of the uncle, Anderson recommended Wil Kahele. But Sereno wasn't sure he could handle the part.

"I've worked with Wil before and he's always so nice and sweet," Sereno said. "I had a hard time seeing him as this abusive guy.

"When it came time to shoot, he flipped out. He became the uncle," Sereno said.

Of course, once the scene was over, Kahele went back to his normal smiling, laughing self.

"That's how it was," Sereno said. "We had these intense scenes with Julie and Wil or Julie and Matt, but afterward they'd be laughing like nothing happened. Julie was just great the way she handled everything."

In the end, though, the real star of "Silent Years" may be the narrator, Terukina.

Each of the scenes was filmed with the actors speaking their respective dialogue, but after a lengthy debate among the producers, Sereno opted to let Terukina read the entire script, both narrative and dialogue, as a continuous voice-over.

The voices of the actors are still faintly audible beneath the narration. Rather than awkward lip-syncing, the effect is that of a memory guided by the subject's own inner voice. (In a departure from the text, Sereno bookends the film with shots of the main character as an adult, thus presenting the story as a flashback.)

At key moments, the actors' voices are allowed to push through.

"I think it works emotionally for their voices to bleed in when something important is happening," Sereno said. "It sort of implies how powerfully certain memories come up in her mind."

About 80 percent of Terukina's narration came from the first take.

Sereno said he originally wanted the film to be "more stylized, more tricky," but once the scenes were shot and narration was complete, he realized that none of that was necessary. The performances would carry the film.

Sereno did, however, want "Silent Years" to have a distinct look. So just as he worked with editor Jay Evans to tighten and shape the story, Sereno turned to Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Paul Atkins to help create a visual presentation that would match the intensity of the performances.

They decided on a technique used in the film "21 Grams" that involves skipping the normal bleaching process in the film development, leaving a silvery residue of the film. "It gives the film a stunning yet very bleak look," Sereno explained.

The movie was shot on super 16mm film and transferred to high-definition.

What little money spent on the film went to acquiring the option from the publisher and paying for processing. The actors, crew and producers all volunteered their time. And aside from the coloring process, which was not available here, everything was handled in Hawai'i, Sereno said.

"We busted our butts to make a local story," he said. "That's what I'm most proud of. This is a 100 percent local production."

Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461 or mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.