Seattle filmmaker finds herself in her Tanzanian family
African and Korean, Seattle documentary filmmaker Eli Kimaro seeks to find herself and discovers so much more.
SOMETIMES A journey begins with a song.
In the case of Seattle documentary filmmaker Eli Kimaro, it was a transporting version of the classic lullaby "Summertime" from the African-American opera "Porgy and Bess," this one sung by the Benin-born artist Angelique Kidjo as a West African spiritual, full of cooing background vocals and soul-tapping percussion.
Kimaro's father is Tanzanian. Her mother is Korean. She'd always been comfortable with her mixed-race background, but something about hearing that song eight years ago sparked a longing to better understand the people she came from, particularly the relatives on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, in a Chagga tribal region, where her father grew up and where she'd visited many times as a child.
It dawned on her that she should make a film about her father's side of the family, even though she'd never directed a movie in her life.
The result, "A Lot Like You," debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival this past year to positive reviews.
The film helps raise the profile of a population in the United States that many people who identify with just one racial or ethnic group scarcely understand.
But Kimaro, 40, learned that she had barely scratched the surface of her own heritage.
"I was trying to understand what it means for me to be Chagga," Kimaro says one day over coffee near her home in Seattle's Seward Park neighborhood.
"Of course, when you go searching," she explains in the film, "there's no telling what you might find."
What she found would change her life, change the course of her film project and add a fresh dimension to the multiracial experience that anyone can understand: The search for self can lead in some unexpected directions.
ELI KIMARO is part of a new wave of multiracial pride, discussion and activism rooted in a very real demographic shift.
America is, in fact, more multiracial. According to the 2010 U.S. census, more than 9 million Americans identified themselves as belonging to two or more racial groups, or about 2.9 percent of the total population, up from 2.4 percent a decade ago.
Since 2000, the census has made it easier than ever for people answering its surveys to pick more than one racial group; and Americans who have mixed-race backgrounds, long a cause for derision and marginalization, are ever more comfortable checking all the boxes that apply to them.
Interestingly, some of the greatest increases in the multiracial population since 2000 have been in Southern states, many of which banned interracial marriages before the 1967 groundbreaking Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision legalizing them. But it's hard to say why or whether the public as a whole looks at multiracial identity differently.
In a 2003 New York Times article headlined "Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous," writer Ruth La Ferla suggests the popularity of "racially indeterminate" Hollywood stars, for instance, is rooted partly in "the tease over whether they are black, white, Hispanic, American Indian or some combination."
Among young people in particular, La Ferla concludes, "ambiguity is chic."
It's not clear whether the people who must wear this label actually feel so fashionable and sought-after.
President Obama's famously casual description of himself as a "mutt" because of his black and white background does suggest an embrace of an identity that really doesn't fit into a single box.
But Kimaro says she never felt as if she belonged either to the Korean or African-American communities growing up in Washington, D.C.
Her parents, Sadikiel and Young Kimaro, married in 1970, three years after the high court's marriage ruling. In a way, they were cultural pioneers.
Still, walking around campus while at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Kimaro didn't feel so alluringly avant-garde. If anything, she says, her college peers saw her brown skin and African features and just assumed she was black.
What can't be denied is that people with mixed backgrounds have begun to tell their own stories and are doing so in ways that confront the complexity of who they are head-on.
The Internet has connected this population like never before on sites like MixedandHappy.com, a blog written by a Florida-based mother of four mixed-race children, Mixedheritagecenter.org, an information clearing house for multiracial people launched by Seattle's MAVIN Foundation, and author Heidi Durrow ("The Girl Who Fell from the Sky") and Fanshen Cox's weekly Mixed Chicks Chat podcasts, which are downloadable on iTunes.
On one level, Kimaro says, it really doesn't matter that she's mixed-race. As she has seen, people will make their own assumptions anyway.
"Who cares," she wonders, that her mom is Korean and that she grew up eating kimchee? Why would a prospective employer be interested in her Tanzanian roots?
On another level, of course, cultural details matter deeply.
KIMARO'S DAD always had a very strong sense of what it meant for him to be Chagga and what his responsibilities were as the youngest son in the family. He understood how being part of that culture shaped his sense of self and governed his choices in life.
Kimaro wanted to understand that a little more, so in the first version of the film that she tested on an audience in 2009, Kimaro focuses on her dad's connection to Tanzania, his ancestral village of Mwika and his rise to success from post-colonial Africa to college and marriage in America to a position with the International Monetary Fund.
But interviews with some of Kimaro's Chagga relatives, included in the film, made it clear this family had some unresolved issues. Her dad's siblings didn't even seem comfortable sitting in the same room.
In one harrowing scene, two of his sisters, Awonyisa Elialisa Ngowe and Ndereriosa Goodluck Shao, reveal for the first time as they sit together in a hut that as young women they had been married off to men who routinely sexually abused them, a practice that was commonplace though seldom discussed in the tribal areas. The aunts had never disclosed their struggles even to each other.
It is a dark moment in an otherwise feel-good film. The interview with the aunts begged questions that Kimaro's film didn't answer. For one: Did her father know that his sisters were treated in such a brutal way? If so, why had he never spoken about it to his daughter?
Seeing that first draft on the screen, Kimaro wasn't impressed. "I felt nothing" from it, she says.
The glaring lack of elaboration left at least one other member of that early viewing audience wanting more, too.
In attendance was local documentary filmmaker Ward Serrill, who profiled Seattle's Roosevelt High School girls basketball team in the acclaimed 2006 documentary "The Heart of the Game." Kimaro's film editor, Eric Frith, also edited Serrill's project.
After the screening, Serrill gave Kimaro his assessment: "This movie is 'Seattle nice,' perfectly lovely and has no heart," he told her.
She saw his point.
Most scenes featuring women in the film were generic depictions of mothers and daughters that anyone could have shot.
"They were cloying and sweet and saccharine," Kimaro says now. "I'm pointing my camera at everything that looks like culture, and then the real story hits me and it's like, Oh!"
Serrill told Kimaro she needed to dig deeper into the hidden realities among her Tanzanian relatives. And she needed to question her father about those issues — on camera.
Sadikiel and Young happened to be visiting Seattle at the time, so Kimaro arranged a follow-up interview with them for the next day.
"After that interview, I went back and rewrote the entire movie," Kimaro says. "It brought up so much noise and so much pain."
Up to that point, Kimaro's only real connection to Tanzania and Chagga culture was through her dad. But it was clear, she says, that "Dad's journey and my journey are not the same."
Kimaro's connection to Chagga culture winds up being even more problematic because we also learn in the film that as a girl she, too, was raped repeatedly by someone who once worked for her family.
Kimaro told her mom about it when she was 15, and worked as a trauma counselor and advocate for raped and sexually abused women after leaving college, but she hadn't disclosed her experience to her father until the film project.
This was going to be her deepest connection to the people of the Chagga tribe, certainly its women.
In the new version of her film, Kimaro is the narrator, and much of what she says is taken from her own journal.
"I see myself in their faces," Kimaro says of her Tanzanian relatives in the voice-over narration. But "to them, I am just an American with nothing but my name connecting me to this world."
In a pivotal scene in the new film, Kimaro shows footage of interviews with her dad about what she learned from his sisters. Kimaro, watching him from behind the camera, remembers that his face seemed to change. As he speaks, it's clear he's trying to come to grips with the impact of those hidden truths and his own reluctance to think of the women's abuse as anything but a cultural norm.
"He's trying to make sense of something you can't make sense of," Kimaro remembers thinking.
"It was such a big silence to be broken, and for the aunts to speak to Eli, it was astounding to see that," her dad said one day on a more recent visit. "It has filled a void for me."
The silence of secrets has ended.
KIMARO'S PARENTS are trying to bring attention to Tanzania in their own way, helping with development projects there, where they live full-time. Given their careers in international finance and development — Sadikiel at the IMF and Young at the World Bank — they are well-suited to the task.
One of their most important projects is raising money to build a girls dormitory at the Vunjo School so young female students don't have to trek long distances, and put their physical safety at risk, to attend classes. Young Kimaro says the graduation and college-entry rates for girls who reside on campus far surpass that of girls who commute.
Kimaro says she wants to inspire those who see her film to get involved as well.
She says she has much more respect for Chagga culture now — not that everything tribal members experience is pleasant, as her aunts' stories demonstrate. One of the aunts has since passed away.
"In a weird way, it makes me see them as more beautiful, that they can transcend what's happened in their lives," Kimaro says. "There's a strength of spirit."
"Just bearing witness is enough to transform somebody," Kimaro explains. "You're letting them know that their story matters."
If Kimaro could only imagine where her longing would lead after hearing that song eight years ago.
Sitting in her kitchen one day thinking about what she's gained by making the film, another more fitting tune pops into her head.
"I can't get that Rolling Stones song out of my mind," Kimaro says.
She's thinking of the Stones' "You can't always get what you want," about how hard it is to find what you're looking for in life, and how complicated life can be when you do. "But if you try, sometimes," the song goes, "you just might find, you get what you need."
"I actually got what I needed," Kimaro says. "I went looking for something that didn't exist and was misguided. What I got instead — that experience in the hut — just changed my life. My aunts couldn't have known what impact that conversation was going to have on me."
Kimaro had always been skeptical about the ability of confessional documentaries to illuminate larger cultural issues. She often found them self-indulgent.
She's had a change of heart.
She says she's now a fan of "using stories to bridge communities." Of course, "A Lot Like You" has had the added result of allowing her to bridge different aspects of her own identity.
"A Lot Like You" has taken something personal, the story of her mixed-race heritage, and made it feel universal, and she has taken something universal, a yearning we all have to fully understand where we came from and what we're made of, and made it feel intensely personal.
Kimaro dedicated the film to her 4-year-old daughter, Lucy, herself the product of a union between a Tanzanian-Korean and an American of Portuguese and Irish descent, Tom Kenney, a research scientist by day and the co-producer of "A Lot Like You."
The movie, she says, is "an invitation to start questioning and looking at some of those hidden truths and how those truths shape the cultures that we pass down to our kids."
Kimaro recalls an experience with Lucy on the family plot on Mount Kilimanjaro a couple of years ago that induces chills even now.
Lucy had never been to the property, but when the family visited a hut that used to be the home of her late paternal grandmother, the toddler behaved as if she'd lived there for years, taking a seat in the spot where her grandmother sat, pretending to make dinner for the family using the same hand gestures her grandmother would have used, carefully stepping around vegetable plants in the overgrown garden as if some spirit from on high were directing her.
Lucy's comfort with this part of her heritage was eerie, but at the same time beautiful. Kimaro's yearning to explore her Tanzanian heritage began with a song, and now that "Summertime" is featured in the film that Kimaro has passed down to Lucy, so might hers.
"I can just look at her and know what it's like to belong," Kimaro says. "She has a connection to that place that I've never had . . . My work is done."
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.