Director Akira Boch Talks Documentaries, Indie Rock, and Asian Culture on the Forward Filmmaker Podcast
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews director Akira Boch. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Max Sanders: Joining us today is Emmy-winning filmmaker Akira Boch, who has been directing shorts, documentaries, and music videos since high school. Growing up in San Juan Bautista, California, he was greatly influenced by neighbors who ran the famous bilingual Chicano theater company El Teatro Campesino. His films also reflect his strong ties to his Japanese heritage and passion for music. They include the PBS documentary Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience; Atomic Café, which delves into the 70s LA Punk scene; and The Crumbles, an indie-rock comedy about an up-and-coming band. Akira is also the director of the Media Arts Center at the Japanese American National Museum. He currently has multiple secret projects in the works. Today we’ll be talking about how he infuses music and culture into film. Akira, welcome to Forward Filmmaker.
Akira Boch: Thank you for having me.
Max Sanders: Oh, it’s my pleasure. So your films have this strong ties to music and individualism, from creating music videos to making docs about Tokyo-based record label owners, or other movies like Giant Robot, which is about art curators and magazine creators. Where does this interest in these subjects come from?
Akira Boch: Well, I actually blame all of my interests on where I grew up, which was in a very small town in Northern California. It’s called San Juan Bautista. Have you heard of it?
Max Sanders: I have not.
Akira Boch: Okay. It’s a tiny town. There’s only about less than 2,000 people there. And it’s famous for a couple of things. One is that there’s a mission there. And another is that Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo there.
Max Sanders: Oh, no way.
Akira Boch: Yeah. So he shot in San Juan Bautista and San Francisco. Those were the two locations. So a lot of filmmakers will make a pilgrimage there to check it out, the film history. So maybe you can do that one day.
Max Sanders: Oh, for sure. The master of the thriller from the ’60s. I got to pay homage at some point.
Akira Boch: Yes. And so growing up in that small town, I grew up right next door to a really amazing theater company called El Teatro Campesino. Have you heard of that?
Max Sanders: I have not, enlighten me.
Akira Boch: Okay. So it was started back in the ’60s by Luis Valdez. And Luis is, well, he’s currently a filmmaker, playwright, theater director, and he started out creating these productions in the fields of Delano, California with Caesar Chavez, along with United Farm Workers. So he came out of that movement for improvement of working conditions for farm workers, and they created agitprop theater, right? And so at a certain point, they moved from Delano to San Juan Bautista. And they opened up a theater eventually that was right next door to my parents’ house.
Max Sanders: Oh my God.
Akira Boch: Yeah. So they took over this old packing shed and converted it into a 100-seat theater. And so every weekend there would be these productions going on there. And I would just walk next door, literally right next door, and check out the plays. And I also had the benefit of being the same age as Luis Valdez’s oldest son, Anahuac. And he has two younger sons, Kinan and Lakin, and we’re all in the same age range. So we all grew up putting on plays, making videos, from music videos to short films to Saturday Night Live! spoofs. A lot of parody, silly stuff, you know, the kind of stuff you do when you’re in high school.
Akira Boch: So that was hugely influential for me. And the other thing that happened during that time period is Luis wrote and directed the movie La Bamba.
Max Sanders: Lou Diamond Phillips. No way! It’s one of my favorites.
Akira Boch: Yep, and Esai Morales, and a lot of other great actors in that piece. And I got to be an extra in that film. So it was amazing to be able to watch the film production process on a Hollywood level.
Max Sanders: Sure.
Akira Boch: Growing up in a really small town was also very inspiring for me. The other major interest that I had at that time was music and playing in bands. And so I started doing that in about the eighth grade and continued to do that all the way through high school and through college and post college. So that’s really where my interests in the arts came from.
Max Sanders: Sure. And I’m going to have to look for you as an extra next time I watch La Bamba.
Akira Boch: Yeah. Check out, I’m in the high school scenes.
Max Sanders: Got it. You’ll get some emails from me. I’ll be like, “Which scene, what exact moment?”
Akira Boch: I look like a completely different person though. That was ages ago.
Max Sanders: We all look different back then. So there’s also this powerful, reoccurring focus on Asian artistic culture in your films, whether it’s woodworking or architectural creators in masters of modern design and various other forms of art and literature. What draws you to stories about Asian artists?
Akira Boch: Well, I’m Japanese American, right? I’m actually half Japanese. My mom is third-generation Japanese American. My Japanese grandparents were born in Hawaii, and my great grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan. So I have that side of the family. And then on my dad’s side, he was Hungarian and Irish. So I’m this mix of different backgrounds, but because of where I grew up again, and essentially being raised by my grandma, she’s the one that took care of me most of the time, I have this very strong Japanese influence in my life. So it’s always drawn me to Japanese culture, Japanese traditions and arts. And I spent a year in Japan in my early twenties. I was teaching English, but I was actually there to explore the culture, explore my own personal heritage, and look into the arts and all that. So yeah, that’s where it came from originally. And of course, I don’t want to isolate myself or my thinking, or my interest to just Japanese culture. So more broadly, I have an interest in other Asian cultures as well.
Max Sanders: The way you explore the artistic nature of a lot of different subjects is really neat. You’re not pigeonholed to just, here’s someone’s painting or photography. It’s just basically anyone who’s creative, you seem to make a documentary about.
Akira Boch: Yeah. Well, it’s whoever I learn about, or whoever some producer or curator wants me to do a piece about. So I’ve been very lucky in that respect, and in terms of just being able to be turned on to different artist and meet a lot of different artists.
Max Sanders: So what do you love about documentary filmmaking?
Akira Boch: Meeting new people. Meeting new people, going to new places, shooting in locations that I would’ve never imagined that I would’ve been in before. I think that one of the early reasons that I got into documentary filmmaking was specifically to meet people and make friends. And I don’t think I was consciously doing that, but I was always carrying a camera around with me. And when I moved to Los Angeles in the mid ’90s or so, I was introduced to the East LA music and art scene. And I was always bringing my camera to different events and shooting whatever was happening, from the bands that were playing to different artistic performances, or whatever kind was going on — a lot of poetry, theater, all different kinds of stuff. Being able to interview these people allowed me to get to know them. And eventually with some of them, I ended up making music videos for those particular bands. So it was a great way to become a part of this scene and to make friends, really.
Max Sanders: What was your favorite location that you went to for these documentaries?
Akira Boch: There’ve been a lot, but I would say there’s two. The first one is Veracruz down in Mexico. I shot a short documentary there about the jarocho music scene, which has been going on for decades. And at the time that we filmed that, there was really a resurgence that was happening. And it’s just a beautiful setting down there along the Caribbean Coast, that part of Mexico. And I would say that the other place that I went to more recently was Hiroshima.
Max Sanders: Oh, wow.
Akira Boch: Yeah, so I shot there for about a week. This was right before the pandemic, and I had never spent that much time in Hiroshima. I had been through there before and gone to the Peace Memorial Park and seen the museum and that kind of thing. But just getting to know the city, I really fell in love with the city because it just has an easygoing vibe to it. It’s small-ish and manageable, and the people were really nice. So it was just a great experience. So anybody that goes to Japan, you should definitely swing through Hiroshima and spent a little time there.
Max Sanders: Awesome. So we’ve talked about the good. Let’s talk about the bad. What do you find to be the most difficult part of the end-to-end process of making docs?
Akira Boch: I avoid the bad part. I try to let other people work on the bad part. So the most difficult part I would say is the post-production editing because it’s always said that the writing of the film for a documentary happens in the editing room, right? So it’s definitely the most challenging. You’re piecing together all this material that you’ve gathered into a story that’s hopefully coherent and also compelling, that has a range of emotions going on and has impacted various points. So yeah, I mean, it’s challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun.
Max Sanders: So I noticed in all your movies, there seems to be this theme of rebellion — from Alyssa’s wild rockstar lifestyle in The Crumbles, to Atomic Cafe, which focuses on the LA punk scene, to even the grassroots street vending community in the music video for Coyote Street Hustle. What fascinates you about revolution and uprising?
Akira Boch: Well, isn’t everyone fascinated by revolution and uprising?
Max Sanders: Some people are a little bit more square.
Akira Boch: I know. Just kidding. I’d have to say that it all really stems from again, my time in high school, those formative years between 13 and 17, because the first bands that I was in we were playing punk rock music. And so we had that sentiment. but it was also because we really didn’t know how to play our instruments that well at that point. So we were doing what we could with them. And we had all this teenage boy energy. And of course, if you listen to punk, it’s all about rebellion. It’s all about tearing down the system, overthrowing the man and all that stuff. And that goes hand in hand with my experience at El Teatro Campesino next door to my house and all the agitprop theater that was happening there, the fight for better working conditions — all that just informed how I was thinking about art and what was possible in terms of conveying any kind of message. When you have those kinds of influences early on, I don’t think they ever really leave.
Max Sanders: I’m inspired by it because I’m more of a play-it-safe kind of guy. So it’s fun to watch people interact in these wild and rebellious ways. You have such interesting subjects in your documentaries, like Atomic Nancy in Atomic Cafe or Cesar Castro’s passion for Chicano music. How much does making an amazing documentary hinge on having fascinating subjects?
Akira Boch: Well, I think having a fascinating subject is the key ingredient to making a doc because they’re the main character of your story, right? You don’t really want to make a story about somebody that is square and boring, because I don’t think that’s going to appeal to very many people. But yeah, the more open they are — it’s great to have an open book as a main character, right? Somebody who will let it all hang out, they wear their heart on their sleeves, it’s pretty essential. And if they’re not exactly like that, it is possible to tease out their more personal, individual qualities, the things that make them unique, that might spark interest in viewers too.
Max Sanders: So how do you find all these interesting documentary subjects?
Akira Boch: I think every project is different, right? So for example, the Atomic Nancy piece, I was just brought in initially be the camera guy, right? I was just the cinematographer shooting it. But over the course of time, I was pulled further and further into it until I ended up editing it at the end. And so yeah, that’s just one example of how I did not initiate something but got pulled into it. And it was really a perfect fit for me.
Max Sanders: So do you more seek out stuff, or does it more come to you like that?
Akira Boch: Both. If there’s something that I’m really interested in, then I will totally go for it. And other times people will approach me and tell me that they know of this person or they think that whatever story would make a great film. So it really just depends. Ideas can come from everywhere, right?
Max Sanders: Yeah. What’s your favorite story about how a documentary subject came to you?
Akira Boch: Let’s see. Well, I guess I can talk about Masters of Modern Design because that was a pretty major project for me. It was my first longform documentary. I had always wanted to do a longform documentary that involved Japanese American history and culture, right? And so KCET, which is the PBS affiliate here in Los Angeles, approached me with this idea to turn this article that had been written by this design critic in New York, her name’s Alexandra Lang — she had written this article for Curbed, which is an online design and architecture magazine. It was basically about post-war Japanese American artists and the influence that the concentration camps during World War II had on them and their art, right? And so they came to me with the article and basically said, “Can you make a film about this subject?” And they had selected five artists of the many that were included in that article. And I agreed with every one of their choices because there were such amazing artists, right? They chose. Actually at the time it was six different artists. And yeah, I just thought it was an amazing privilege to be able to get into the lives of these artists, to meet their children, meet all the different experts and curators that deal with their particular forms of art. And so I feel like I was really lucky in that respect, that they found me and it was a good match because I had done all this other work about artists, specifically Asian American artists in the past. And so it just worked out really well.
Max Sanders: So what would your dream project be if you had no money restrictions and no time restrictions?
Akira Boch: My dream project, I have too many dream projects.
Max Sanders: Well, mash them all together. What do you got?
Akira Boch: Well, all right, there is a script that I’ve worked on recently, actually with Luis Valdez and his son Kinan Valdez, and it’s based on a play that he wrote called Valley of the Heart. And it’s a play that is basically a love story that’s set during World War II. And the two main characters are Mexican American and Japanese American. And it’s basically all about their experiences during the war: the Japanese American woman being shipped off to a concentration camp and being separated from her husband and their efforts to keep their farm going up in Northern California. And so we’ve written a script, and we’re currently having people read it around town. And so that is the one project currently that I would love to make happen.
Max Sanders: That’s really cool. So is there anything else you’re working on right now?
Akira Boch: Yeah. I’m working on another script, another feature-length script. I have other feature-length ideas. I’m also working on a documentary about the band Quetzal. Okay. So there’s the band Quetzal and then there’s also the person, Quetzal Flores, right? And so I met Quetzal Flores back in the mid ’90s in LA like I was mentioning, when I was first getting into the East LA art and music scene. And we have continued to work together all these years. I’ve made several music videos for his band, and he did the music for my independent feature, The Crumbles. And so now we’re just starting to work on a documentary about the band. And again, it’s another KCET effort initiative.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Sounds great. I love the music from The Crumbles. It totally rocked.
Akira Boch: Thank you. Yeah. Yeah. Quetzal did an amazing job on that. And it was fantastic because he recorded that stuff, and then the same year that we were releasing The Crumbles, showing it in festivals and in independent theaters, the band Quetzal, won a Grammy. So it was just amazing timing.
Max Sanders: What are the key ingredients to distributing a documentary?
Akira Boch: Well, it all depends on how you initially got your funding, I would say. If a broadcaster or a streamer approaches you, then you automatically have distribution. And in my opinion, that is the best route to go because it’s the easiest. If you don’t have those things, then I would say the festival route is definitely a great way to get the film out there, to have it seen, to have people appreciate it and let it build some traction so that eventually, some entity will hopefully take interest in it and put it out that way. If you didn’t really invest any money in it, any real money, I would say just put it out on the Internet. Just get people to watch it, get feedback. That’s the most important thing, to learn from every single project that you make.
Max Sanders: Love it. So I want to end this on a fun note. If you were to get one movie inspired tattoo, what would it be?
Akira Boch: So I would say because of my history with La Bamba, I would have to get a tattoo of Esai Morales’s face, right? And he played Bob, Ritchie’s brother. And my favorite quote of Bob’s is, “It’s not my first or my last.” So I’d get that written right underneath Bob’s face.
Max Sanders: Okay. All right. Cool. Well, I’ll get a matching Woody Woodpecker tattoo if you got that one.
Akira Boch: Let’s do it. We’ll go together.
Max Sanders: Done. Talk about rebellion. So Akira, thanks for being on Forward Filmmaker.
Akira Boch: Sure. Thank you for having me.