Family & Ancestral Stories as Inspiration for Film // A Conversation with Jana Park Moore
This past April, Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking monthly gathering featured Jana Park Moore, director, actress, writer, wife, and daughter. In her talk, Family & Ancestral Stories as Inspiration for Film, Jana shared her way into filmmaking and her adventures of finding inspiration in her mixed-race family and their surprisingly colorful stories.
Jana’s passion and excitement exuded from her talk. Several people in the audience - me included - noticed how "her energy filled the room.” Jana was open, honest, and insightful in presenting how her life has shaped her approach to film and filmmaking.
Born on Oahu, Jana wanted to be an actress since she was a little girl. She participated in a theater program for youth that ignited her passion. A passion that she kept alive even after her family moved to Molokai, where no theater program was available. Nevertheless, she persisted and took it upon herself to rewrite Disney plays, recruit her friends to perform, and have her grandmother create the costumes so she can host the plays.
Rarely a straight line
As she grew up, her passion to perform took her to Los Angeles to become an actress and star. However, as it often happens, life doesn’t always lead us straight to our dreams. Working as a freelance interpreter was time consuming and left her with not much time to pursue her acting career with full vigor. Jana admitted that perhaps she was not ready to fully dedicate herself to film. She then returned to Oahu and began working as a restaurant manager.
She was quite successful as a manager, but did not feel fulfilled and decided to go back to school “to make a difference.” She completed a degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies. Yet, as she was preparing for the admission exam to law school, one of her advisors asked if that was what she really wanted to do. This question brought Jana to a halt. Was it? The answer was an astounding, no.
Jana wanted to contribute to the world in an unfiltered and uncensored way. What interested her most were films and topics related to women’s studies and social justice issues. Reflecting on a film popular those days, she felt that even with her limited experience she could tell a better story. She had the confidence. Yet, her family commitments had her resigned to the idea that she should wait until her young children were older.
Unexpectedly, the situation changed when her best friend moved back to Oahu and asked her to help with a documentary film. This opportunity offered Jana the much needed opening to work in film and pursue projects and goals that she is passionate about. Finally, she felt she found her calling aligned with her life values and goals.
Jana did not apply to film school, but made use of all the resources available to her. She took several courses in filmmaking offered by Pacific New Media, and worked on different projects to hone her skills.
Her resourcefulness and creativity became apparent with the Showdown in Chinatown sweded 48 hours film challenge. A film genre that started in 2008 where the best and worst of the past three decades of Hollywood films are “spoofed” with an emphasis on low-cost production, comedy, and creativity.
At the gathering we screened the film. All the attendees were captivated by the extremely hilarious spoof of Titanic. In the short film, her young son was Jack, one of the leading characters; a large Ariel doll played in for Rose; a small Titanic toy boat was used for the ship; and Jana’s vocals were used for the famous soundtrack, “Your Heart Will Go On.” The room was filled with laughter.
Making these short films allowed her not only to hone her skills, but it also led her to further work on projects she is passionate about, all the while maximizing the resources she has available to her.
Family stories as an inspiration
Jana draws inspiration from her own family stories and ancestry. In them, she finds topics and themes that people can either relate to or bring in a different perspective. She notices people respond to her films more personally when she tells those stories. One of her main inspiration is Arthur, her late grandfather, a charismatic and determined Korean American man rich in life experiences who was at the center of a short film titled in his name that won Showdown in Chinatown, which was also screened as an Official Selection at the Big Island Film Festival.
In Baby Luaʻu, Jana tells another family story exploring the tensions that can exist in a mother-daughter relationship. Creating films based on personal stories allows her to make sense of her own family’s history and how the different issues and topics she is exploring engage her audience. Baby Luaʻu has been officially invited to several film festivals.
Her dream project consists of a trilogy: a film about her great-grandfather’s story, the second about her grandmother, whose mother came to Hawaiʻi as a picture bride from Korea, and then a film about her grandparents love story.
Yet, telling family stories has to be approached in a sensitive manner. Who has the right to tell those stories, is for example, a key question. Moreover, there need to be considerations of how the film can impact the lives of the people still alive, and timing may not always be appropriate.
Jana advises the audience to go outside of their comfort zone to expand their skills and reach. Currently, she is working on River Street, a horror film, which represents a departure from her family-stories filmmaking. Exploring how to induce and portray fear are the new challenges she in taking up to develop even further her directorial abilities. She encourages others to take on challenging projects to continue learning and broadening their own skillset, which is important for learning how to engage not only the audience in new ways, but also accessing one’s own creativity and storytelling approach differently.