Silk Screen Film Festival celebrates Japanese culture


Devon Osamu Tipp, a Pitt PhD student and winner of the 2018 Japanese Nationality Room scholarship, plays the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute. (Image via University of Pittsburgh)

By Maya Best, For The Pitt News

The typically empty hallway leading to Alumni Hall’s seventh-floor auditorium was filled on Sunday with small children, students, middle-aged parents and elderly women in wheelchairs. Dozens of Pitt students and Japanese families lined up for a special presentation honoring Japanese culture.

The crowd was gathered in anticipation of a Silk Screen Festival film screening, held as part of the University’s Japanese Music and Movie cultural event and sponsored by Pitt’s Japanese Nationality Room. The Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival kicked off its 13th year on Sunday with a Japanese music performance and film screening of Shuichi Okita’s 2018 film, “Mori, The Artist’s Habitat.”

The 10-day film festival will screen films from a variety of Asian countries — including Japan, India, Korea, China, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Taiwan and Indonesia — until Sunday. The films work to create awareness for people from Asian-American backgrounds, highlighting cultural, social, gender, and economic issues prevalent in these societies.

Silk Screen Film Programming Committee volunteer Bhawna Sachdeva, who has come to see Silk Screen films for the past four years, decided to become directly involved in the festival this time around to help promote Asian-American cultural awareness.

“People look different on the outside, but in the end you’re worried about the same issues and things. What better way [to show this] than through film?” Sachdeva said.

The event began with a Japanese music performance by Devon Osamu Tipp and Tamiko Iida. Tipp — a Pitt doctorate student and winner of the 2018 Japanese Nationality Room scholarship — performed on a Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute.

The Japanese Nationality Room was founded in 1999 as the 24th Nationality Room and gives out one scholarship each year to send student researchers to Japan. Tipp, who is pursuing his doctorate in traditional Japanese music and contemporary Western music composition, used the scholarship to travel to Tokyo and interview and perform with various musicians.

He did this to further study Shakuhachi performance and gain a better understanding of traditional Japanese repertoire. That was his fifth trip to Japan, having previously performed his original compositions for Japanese instruments there.

“Studying Japanese traditional music was a way of having a physical and tactile means of interacting with my heritage,” Tipp said.

Tipp was accompanied by Tamiko Iida, originally from Japan, who played a Koto, a Japanese 13-string zither made of pilonidal wood and plucked with a pick or fingers. Iida started learning Koto at 7 years old and now performs at local schools, libraries and community halls in Pittsburgh.

Tipp and Iida performed classical Japanese pieces from the original 36 solo pieces written for Shakuhachi. Unlike other Japanese chamber music, these pieces were lively. But Tipp explained that Japanese chamber music compositions usually have less to do with melody and rhythm, and focus more on the shapes and gestures formed from the sounds produced.

In addition to his musical interests, Tipp also had passions in jewelry and painting in high school, something he has recently picked up again. Through these interests, Tipp became fascinated with the physical gestures that come from painting. He tries to capture this gesture and motion in his music compositions.

“Moving paint in and of itself has become an idea that I work with in a lot of music,” Tipp said. “The [violin] bows are representations of actual brushes or palate knives.”

The screening of “Mori, The Artist’s Habitat” followed the music performance. This film tells the true story of the late Japanese artist Morikazu Kumagai — known as Mori — who spent 30 years of his life staying in the garden around his house and examining the smallest details of nature.

Mori was a highly respected artist in Japan who received a medal from the Japanese emperor. He was uninterested in fame and money and preferred to observe the hidden creatures in his garden.

In the film, Mori is portrayed as an artist with the time and patience to lie in the dirt and observe ants for hours, discovering that these insects begin walking with their middle left foot. When developers want to build a condominium next door, which would threaten the garden, Mori and his wife Hideko try their best to protect it. Director Okita managed to capture Mori’s passion through extreme close-ups of small insects and plants that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Sono Takano Hayes — chair of the Japanese Nationality Room committee and former Pitt professor — introduced the event, hoping this film would bring both Pitt students and the Japanese community together.

“What the director is trying to do is, he wants everybody to appreciate nature and peace,” she said. “And that’s kind of understandable when you think about what’s going on in Japan. We had lots of disasters.”

Hayes, who is native to Japan, spoke about the past disasters in her home country, such as Fukushima and the Hokkaido earthquake, and how they have changed the outlook on daily life for the young people in Japan. She believed the film could help these young people through the protagonist’s story.

“This feeling of threatening your daily life for young people, this is a way to live peacefully and mindfully. I think this was his [film director Okita’s] message,” she said.

Silk Screen will be showing its second Japanese film “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium to celebrate Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara, Pitt’s first Japan Documentary Film Award winner. Pitt students can enjoy Silk Screen films for free with their Pitt ID at various venues on campus until Sunday.