A star’s trek is examined in the Sundance documentary ‘To Be Takei’
January 15, 2014
Like many pop-culture fans, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Kroot is a fan of the original "Star Trek" TV series.
She was especially drawn to the character Hikaru Sulu, first made famous by Japanese-American actor George Takei.
"I really became interested in George when he came out as a gay man in 2005, and has since become somewhat of a spokesperson for the gay and lesbian community for civil rights," Kroot told The Park Record during a phone interview from her home in San Francisco, Calif. "I loved his style of activism, which is eloquent and quick-witted. And I appreciated that he didn’t take himself too seriously."
Those interests served as the foundation for Kroot’s idea to make the documentary "To Be Takei" a 93-minute film that will be featured in the Sundance Film Festival as a Documentary Premiere.
"I read [George’s] autobiography that focused a lot on his childhood and being locked away in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, and I was a little surprised, because it never occurred to me that Mr. Sulu could ever be imprisoned as a child," Kroot said with a laugh. "And I couldn’t believe someone could get from being a prisoner of the United States government to becoming one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenon, ever."
So nearly four years ago, Kroot reached out to Takei’s agent and introduced herself and told them about her previous documentary, "It Came from Kuchar."
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That film was about underground filmmaking twins George and Mike Kuchar and screened at SXSW in 2009.
"I was surprised that within a couple of weeks I had heard back from George’s agent, who knew a little about that film and put me in touch with George," Kroot said. "We met and clicked personally early on. I did spend four months, on and off, talking about different ideas and approaches."
One of the things the filmmaker wanted to address was how an Asian-American man could overcome a huge obstacle like racism in his youth and before taking on similar but distinct obstacles as a gay man.
"Nonetheless, he appears to be relentlessly positive, charming and smart while raising awareness," she said.
Kroot said an added bonus to the film is documenting how a 76-year-old man could reinvent himself and become an Internet phenomenon through Facebook.
"I actually began this project before he got on Facebook, and that happened while we were making the film," she said. "It’s amazing to me that someone at his age could do this and do so well and succeed, but still do it with grace."
Right off the bat, Kroot knew the film would be dense because of all the basic elements she wanted to address.
"It includes history, archival entertainment clips, news and things like that," she said. "It was a complicated structure to create in the film, but I knew along the way what all the different subjects would be and which ones we would cover."
When Takei agreed to the documentary, Kroot and her crew started following him and his husband Brad Altman to an array of events.
"The range goes from speaking appointments at universities about civil rights to attending comic cons," Kroot said. "We started with those and found it worked for everyone and just continued on."
Kroot also addresses Takei’s relationship with Altman.
"I wanted people, gay or straight, to understand the meaning of that relationship, which is a pretty big part of the film," she said. "It’s more than just a love story between these two men."
Throughout the filmmaking, Kroot felt the weight of responsibility to correctly tell Takei’s story.
"I wanted to do him, and the things that he does and cares about, some justice," she said. "I felt I really, for whatever reasons, cared about the same issues, that included civil rights, civil liberties and discrimination.
"I was compelled to bring in elements of narrative quality to make it clear how issues have affected George and how they are affecting other people in the bigger picture," Kroot said. "I am honored that I could address these issues through George, and I feel happy with the end result."
Jennifer Kroot’s "To Be Takei" is one of the films in the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premiere category and will screen:
Saturday, Jan.18, 9 p.m., at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City
Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City
Monday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m., at the Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
Saturday, Jan. 25, 9 p.m. Temple Theatre, Park City
For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org/festival.
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