Rika Ohara’s The Heart of No Place

Rika Ohara’s experimental feature “The Heart of No Place” imagines the life of Yoko Ono after the death of John Lennon. Rika herself plays the titular character Y. in her feature directorial debut that won accolades on its initial film festival circuit screenings. As the feature drops today on AAM.tv, I have interviewed Rika on her looking back at her own feature film. Stream “The Heart of No Place” on AAM.tv now!

Why were you interested in Yoko Ono and made a fictional imaginary narrative feature about her?

RO: Recently, people have been talking about Swift/Kelce. I even saw someone ask “Is Taylor Swift the new Yoko Ono?” No comparison (sorry Kelce fans – I had never heard of him before Taylor). I also heard someone say TS is the “inspiration for women and girls in America. So is Yoko – just ask women artists, and, especially Asian women artists.

Yoko is someone who asserted herself as an independent thinker – a creative, political AND SEXUAL being (the last point is very important: she posed like Janet Jackson, and wore hot pants and thigh-high boots, antagonizing some hardcore feminists). And it was only 25 years after WWII, when “Japanese women” were supposed to be nonconfrontational and subservient to men. Yoko did not fit into anyone’s comfort zone. You know she even got hate mails from Japanese girls? Internalized sexism and racism: she transcended the barriers of gender, and the culture that was telling women not to stand out or speak their minds.

So I paid attention to her since when I was rather young – and began imagining works in the conceptual, performance and media art that I thought created a dialogue with hers. Using words and images, and creating situations. When you read Yoko’s Grapefruit – which is a collection of her Instruction Paintings mostly pre-Lennon – it reads like scenarios for mini theater pieces. The book itself is a series of many, many movies that you see in your mind. In my film, I call them Task Haikus

Climb on the roof after a hard rain to see the stars. Connect the dots.

Like that. I have a tribute to Cut Piece, too: you only see my bare feet, with cut hair falling all around them. A feminist interviewer asks my character if it’s about rape. She then takes it to a place “she,” a witness and survivor of violence, finds uncomfortable . . .  That was the point I thought hardest before giving myself the permission to “play” her. I wondered if I could step into the mind of a woman who lived through something so unimaginably cruel. Then, I watched a footage of John’s fans gathering outside the Dakota. I realized it was a GENERATIONAL LOSS, just like my generation lived through the AIDS Crisis. I had lost a friend whom I loved like a brother; someone who inspired me, with something like a sibling rivalry – dancer/choreographer Tracy Rhoades, who played Herodias in my MFA thesis project. I think it was he who “told” me I should give it a try. He makes an appearance in a photo on the desk of Charles Lane, who plays my assistant in the film. 

After 15 years of having made the original film, do you have a new perspective looking at your first work? What is it?

RO: One thing I would not do now is to start the film with a monologue [wink]! That’s me after watching many, many kids’ films with my son.   

What was the casting process like? What made you cast the protagonist?

RO: I don’t know if I can even call it “casting.” Because I based many of the characters on the people around me. Like Judith Lewis, who plays an antagonist of a sort, the Feminist Journalist – she was my editor at the L.A. Weekly. I knew she could be no-nonsense and sharply attractive. Or Kateri Butler, the Weekly fashion editor – she first appears hippy-dippy in 1979 (I shifted the time frame from the real John & Yoko saga by ten years). And she returns 20 years later wearing all black, and pronounces her Indian sojourn “boring.” I also met a few young, talented actors around the L.A. performance art scene: I found Sarah Holbert, who plays “Andrea,” phenomenal – she could be 42 one moment, and 18 the next. Daniel Lynch Millner who plays billionaire tech CEO Mr. Mono, I was already working with him, mostly in movement-based pieces, and was such a joy to work with. And of course, Charles – he is my Muse! Without him, my current film, The Giaour, would not have been written. 

What in your opinion is the difference between Hollywood moviemaking and art filmmaking? How does your film place in this spectrum?

RO: Firstly, like we agree, my film is way “experimental” – and part of that is it was no-budget. I had been reading Dogme filmmakers boast they shot their films with “$1,500 cameras.” I happened to be using Digital8 – the first digital video camera to retail for under $1,000 – to document my performances. So I said to myself, yeah, I will make a film with an $800 camera! And, if I may say so, I think some scenes are quite beautiful. It may have had something to do with my youth watching so many guys waste their lives because they had to have their “dream studio.” By the time they could afford all the gears, the inspiration would be gone. Derek Jarman once said: The bluebells are in bloom. You can’t wait for funding. And of course, I found within the film a justification to use the “home movie” camera: quite a few scenes are of “her” memories with “John.” Yoko and John shot a lot of films together; home movie was the right format to re-create and update (at no budget, too) those times, now lost forever. 

As an artist or filmmaker, what inspires you every day to live and try to create?

RO: Fighting! (And as a Japanese woman: I’m not trying to scare you.) 

A lot of what I do is bouncing off of the sh•t that comes my way. After The Heart of No Place, I was working on Carmilla  with a terrible producer who turned out to be functionally illiterate. He was faking that he had worked in Bucharest. I had suspected something like that, so I asked a woman producer who I knew to have worked there to join us. She had to drop out for personal reasons, and this guy asked me, to my face, “what is a Japanese woman living in America doing, making a film about Europe? [Cue groans.] I have seen that a lot in art: funding agencies want your work to match your identity. I happened to be re-reading Byron then – because the woman producer had suggested that I rewrite the ending, which was originally rather depressing, and make “a FABULOUS AFTERLIFE for the protagonist.” I thought: sure, let’s do an opera premiere in Hong Kong – when Chris “Supermarket” Maher, who appears as “Atlas/Geopoliticus Man (after Dali)” in The Heart of No Place, died, he was working on an opera to premiere in Hong Kong. I went online to further research The Giaour – one of the first vampire poems to hit England – and came across Professor Rebecca Nesvet of University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who said Leila, the dead heroine of the poem is NOT dead, but is in fact the Giaour himself dressed as a woman. There, you can reverse the trope of “Oriental violence against women” Byron used to distract from his own sexuality.   

There is love in that, lust for life, and all.

Tell us about The Giaour, your next feature, and how’s it coming along?

RO: This week, our Executive Producer Gareth Jones (Boiling Point, 2021) is going to Berlin and European Film Market. We have a gorgeous cast: our “Hassan” reminds me of Dirk Bogarde, and our “Leila/Laertes” is beautiful as ever – we are back in gear after the pandemic and the strikes. And the locations we have! There is a hotel called Imaret in Kavala, near Thessaloniki. It was used in Jules Dassin’s Topkapi – this is the first time in 60 years that they open their door for filming.  

Why do you live in LA? Does LA inspires you?

RO: It’s warm, and the summer is not murderously hot like Tokyo. Also, this is where I don’t have to behave. Because in L.A., everyone is, at least in theory, from somewhere else, right? 

Do you have any advice for a first time filmmaker trying to make their feature?

RO: Oh, allow me to repeat myself – or Derek Jarman: bluebells are in bloom. And be a little punk

Stream “The Heart of No Place” on AAM.tv now!

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Author: Quentin Lee

Quentin Lee is an international filmmaker of mystery.

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