Though I had not yet seen The Sensei and it had not yet been confirmed in the Frameline line-up, I was nonetheless interested in helping to generate attention to the film's initial screenings.
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Michael Guillén: Diana, exactly what is a sensei? Can you frame what kind of martial arts are being depicted in your film?
Diana Lee Inosanto: Sensei simply means "the teacher" in Japanese. The martial arts in the film are a metaphor. Karen starts off with the traditional martial arts taught by her family; but—after a five-year absence—she comes back to her hometown, at which time you can see that she is using diverse martial arts. The metaphor is about diversity. I tried to use that metaphor throughout the film to express my theme of tolerance.
At the screening last night someone in the audience likewise noticed that Karen was using multiple martial arts techniques and asked how that was possible. I explained that—because she was a woman—she had been denied the right to earn her black belt. In anger and frustration, she left home for five years and—during that time—she learned other forms of martial arts.
Guillén: The film's theme of tolerance is expressed in multiple narrative threads, not only how the martial arts community has excluded Karen as a woman, but how they have excluded the film's young protagonist McClain Evans (Michael O'Laskey, II) as a gay male. Can you speak to where the martial arts community stands on these issues of tolerance?
Inosanto: Even though martial arts are in the film, they're the background of the story, which is really more about Karen's relationship with McClain. The issue of the movie is about bullying and what it's like to be a gay teenager who's ostracized for being different. As the film goes along, this woman is able to help this kid achieve a peace with living. In McClain's back story, he had tried to commit suicide and Karen—through their relationship—is able to help him understand the wonders of living vs. being absolutely distressed with life.
Guillén: To further underscore your theme of tolerance, you've set the film at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic when—out of fear—the general public was at its most intolerant. I don't know if you're aware or not, but I seroconverted in the mid-'80s and have been HIV+ close to 25 years now. It was during the mid-'90s that this particular fire seared my life. I lost my longtime partner of 12 years and several close friends. It was an excrutiatingly painful time, not only to lose loved ones, but to face the apathy and/or the intolerance of people around me, even here in the mobilized Bay Area. The thesis of your film enunciates perfectly just how much more horrible it would have been to weather this period in a remote rural area.
I would like to say that in the 10 years since then my grief has dissipated; but, in fact, I live perpetually in the gravitational grip of what I call the Death Horizon. But I want to stress that this is a spiritual space for me that informs my life with consciousness and resonance. One thing I have become quite conscious of, especially in the last year or so, is an ongoing complacency that has seized the public consciousness. There are many who act as if the AIDS pandemic is overwith and who have already forgotten what so many of us endured and lost. That's frustrating for me to witness. Thus, I must commend you for re-creating the spirit of that crisis as a reminder that these issues are still very much with us and far from over.
Inosanto: Thank you, Michael. Oh my gosh, thank you very much. The inspiration for The Sensei was obviously a combination of the stories of Gilbert Johnson—who was the co-author along with my Uncle Bruce [Lee] for the Tao of Jeet Kune Do as well as my father's book, and of course the Matthew Shepard case—but, what really impacted me was when I went to the Ryan White Conference in Washington, D.C. one year after 9/11. I was shocked to learn that 30% of the people in New York who donated blood found out they were HIV+ or had full-blown AIDS and didn't even know it! This data wasn't even posted in the newspapers until 2005-2006 because national attention was on what was going on in the Middle East. That's insanity! I became fascinated, when talking to a doctor in D.C., when he said that the gay community had the support systems under control; it was the straight community that had gone underground and was trying to mask and disguise the disease as something else because they were afraid and didn't want anyone to know.
I found the same problem in Colorado when I went to go film in this small town called Sterling in the northern region. This woman who runs an AIDS organization was telling me that the people there are in hiding. We needed extras for our film and her organization helped to provide us with the red ribbons and all that and I said, "Bring people out here to be extras" and she said, "They would love to but they're so scared. They don't want to ID themselves. They just don't want people to know." This was 2005!
Guillén: Very sad. One aspect of my activism has always been honest disclosure of my condition so that people remain aware that this is something I fight with every day. I ask people to remember, to remain vigilant, to not forget.
You mentioned the influence Gilbert Johnson had on you. Could you talk a little bit more about how he was the inspiring heart for The Sensei?
Inosanto: Gilbert Johnson was a straight martial arts expert who contracted AIDS. Most people would have assumed at the time this news came out that AIDS was a gay disease. We know obviously that's not the case; that it can infect anyone. Gilbert was in a horrible car accident in Morocco and contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. What was amazing when he came back from Morocco was that he jumped into activism. He became an activist and stood beside the gay community. As a straight man, he said, "Listen, this is not just a gay disease but a disease that can affect anyone and we need to do what we can to stop it." He was like John the Baptist trying to forewarn everyone. I remember seeing him on local TV when I was a teenager and I remember thinking it was so gutsy of him to come out because the martial arts community is still very conservative. I hold him in such high regard for what he did while he was alive.
Guillén: Is the martial arts community still conservative with regard to—not only AIDS or gays—but their lack of parity in advancing women through their hierarchy?
Inosanto: Absolutely! They sure are. I know of many cases where women have not received their black belts or have not been allowed to advance that far. In fact they are often discouraged to discontinue their training and not participate in many of the systems out there. There are thousands of different styles of martial arts; but, yeah, to this day, there are still many systems that will not advance women and will not give them the credit they are due, which is horrible. It's getting better but still not as fast as I would like. I come from a very famous martial arts family who are wise.
I used to work in Hollywood as an actor and a stuntwoman; but, on the side, I would have to teach martial arts with my husband and so I would travel all around the world and visit all kinds of different martial arts schools. The subject matter came up a few times at some schools where gays wanted to learn martial arts because they were being picked on and some of the owners of these martial arts schools wouldn't allow gay students who were "out" because they were afraid of the repercussions that the community could turn on them and they could lose business. I thought that was fascinating and horrible at the same time. Here we are in the new millennium and this, for me, is horrible when a martial arts teacher—who in my eyes is supposed to teach people how to defend themselves—denies training to someone who needs the help. That became the heart of The Sensei. Along with secrecy. Karen's family—who won't teach McClain because he's gay—forces her to teach him secretly so he can protect himself.
Guillén: It appears The Sensei is trying to restore martial arts as a spiritual discipline and not just the action choreography that most people associate with martial arts.
Inosanto: Oh good, I'm glad you got that! Yes, that's my point. Absolutely. Through the characters of McClain and Karen, though they are very different individuals, they're able to find an inner peace, especially McClain, through martial arts. The film has no wire-fu, no flying or anything like that. We tried to make everything grounded and realistic. In fact, my husband Ron Balicki—who did the choreography for The Prodigy—also choreographed the martial arts in The Sensei.
Guillén: It's my understanding he sought to present the martial arts in the film as real and as something that could actually happen on the street?
Inosanto: Exactly. But that's the same thing he did in The Prodigy. Once you have the chance to see the fight scenes in The Sensei, you'll see that Karen is not completely the best martial artist because—even as well-trained as you are—sometimes you do get hurt; but, you have the tools to hold your own. Customarily, in most movies, you walk away unscathed. [Laughs.] But I wanted it to be as realistic as possible.
Guillén: McClain, your protagonist in The Sensei, is patterned after Matthew Shepard. Can you speak about your interaction with Matthew's parents Judy and Dennis Shepard and their foundation?
Inosanto: I'll tell you, it's quite interesting how this all happened. My associate producer Erin Quill had a lot of great relationships with people on Broadway because she had been a Broadway actress. Through another actor named Alec Mafa—who had a relationship with Judy Shepard—she told him about how she was an associate producer on The Sensei and how she really wanted Judy Shepard to know about the movie. We had had some political problems. We were really given a hard time by the Colorado School District who wouldn't let us film. Through our contact we were able to reach Judy Shepard and the Matthew Shepard Foundation and—when they heard about what we went through in Colorado and all the politics that went on around our filming—they reached out to us. My associate producer set up a private screening in Denver for the Foundation staff and they loved it. They said, "We're planning to do a film festival. Judy wants to help you. We want to showcase your film and do everything we can to help your movie." It's been such a blessing. From that point on, I've had expressed interest from representatives of the Human Rights Campaign and the Museum of Tolerance. The journey has been unbelievable, as has the number of groups who find The Sensei important—not only because it addresses the AIDS issue but because it also addresses the issue of hate crimes and intolerance.
Guillén: I'm aware you're just beginning to show the film at festivals; but, has there been any word on potential distribution?
Inosanto: We're waiting. The film is being represented by the William Morris Agency and they seem to feel there are distribution companies that they think will take on this film. From what I understand, the challenge is how to categorize the film. Though the film has a gay character, it can't really be called a gay movie even though it speaks clearly about tolerance. From different angles. On the other hand there's an Asian American family but you can't say it's an Asian American film necessarily. There's also a spiritual inspirational aspect and that might be how the Agency chooses to market it. It's weird how you have to pigeonhole your film to market it. [Laughs.]
Guillén: Since you bring it up, when you were in San Francisco you and I discussed the burgeoning genre of spiritual cinema. Can you speak of your own experiences or understandings of that genre?
Inosanto: I would love to. I do share that in the film. You must be familiar with the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?
Guillén: Yes, I am.
Inosanto: One of her first books was called On Death and Dying. That book really influenced me on how I approached The Sensei. I was lucky enough that one of my good friends, who's something of a mother figure to me, was a protégé under Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a nurse who worked with patients at a hospice center. Spiritually, I wanted the film to address not only tolerance but the inevitability of death. In America we have such a horrible attitude about dying and I wanted the film to approach it spiritually, that death is natural, that death is a transition. That's why I wrote the sequence with Tzi Ma as the Buddhist monk because I knew there were a lot of Buddhists out on the scene when AIDS first hit that were trying to compassionately help people with that transition. Tzi Ma's line—"What would happen if you sat down with Death and offered it a cup of tea?"—is significant about coming to terms with Death and achieving peace. Also, in life, we are each student and teacher for one another. In the movie Karen is learning as much from McClain as McClain is learning from her.
Guillén: Speaking of Tzi Ma, let's talk about your cast. You have some great actors working on this project—Tzi Ma, Sab Shimono, Keith David, Louis Mandylor—how did you secure them?
Inosanto: I was shocked and so happy that all these great people came on board. Mark McGraw—Tim McGraw's younger brother—is making his debut in my movie playing the villain Rick Beard. I'm very fortunate. There are also some very well-known character actors in the film, like Emily Kuroda (Ms. Kim from The Gilmore Girls).
Guillén: Did you do a casting call or did people sign on to the project through word-of-mouth and community?
Inosanto: I did both actually. It was really important in the beginning that I try to get some decent names who were willing to work for a small amount of money because of the indie budget. [Laughs.] The first two people we approached were Keith David and Louis Mandylor. When they both read the script, they said absolutely, we'll do the film. Louis did such a remarkable job and Keith was wonderful.
Then I went to Sab. He was supposed to have a smaller role but he said, "No, I really want to play your grandfather in this." I was like [incredulous], "Really?" He agreed to play the grandfather Taki Nakano. It was interesting because the film was shot in Colorado, not too far from where he was raised in the Colorado internment camps. For him, it was a return to his history as a little boy.
Emily Kuroda auditioned for me and she knocked my socks off. She was amazing. She probably gets the most laughs in the movie. There's humor in my movie too; it's not all just dreary and sad. As a writer, I knew I needed humor in the script so she was wonderful.
Guillén: Since you mention your role as writer, everyone knows it's the script that gets a project going. It's the script that helps a filmmaker solicit talent and financing. Can you speak about developing the script? How long did it take you to write it?
Inosanto: I would say honestly it was probably around seven years in the making. It started off originally as a story about a straight couple dealing with the AIDS epidemic; but, there always seemed to be this missing part to the puzzle. Then the Matthew Shepard case hit the headlines. As a martial arts teacher, I was so upset by that case. I thought, "I wish Matthew had been my student. I could have given him something." I wish that with a lot of bullied teenagers, whatever the cause. I came up with the idea of this paradox. I feel that the gay community gets hit with this double whammy of prejudice. First, they're discriminated against because they're gay and we live in a primarily Judaeo-Christian society and, second, the gay community gets hit with a scarlet letter because of the AIDS epidemic. They're the whipping boy.
It was when I went to the Ryan White Conference in Washington, D.C. that I became motivated to get this done. I had been trying to work on a documentary as well and nothing was moving fast enough because nobody wanted to talk about it. I wasn't getting the results that I needed as a documentary filmmaker. I decided, "Forget it! I would rather put this into a narrative." By 2005, everything was ready. I had written about 10 drafts initially.
Guillén: As a long-time survivor of the HIV virus, I can testify that silence has always been the main nemesis. To this very day. That's why I'm so pleased that you have tackled this issue, that you have broken the silence, and brought this story of human dignity in the face of ultimate crisis back to the forefront. I wish you the very best with this project.