Megumi Sasaki | The Love of Art and Herb & Dorothy

Posted by Jocelyn Gan & filed under People to Watch.

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A chance encounter changed everything.

How many encounters do we let pass everyday without realizing its potential? When I moved to New York City this past spring, one of the first people I was introduced to was Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, a Japanese-born New York resident of 23 years. We met at a coffee shop in Soho and clicked immediately. Who knew that two months later I would be working with her on a film campaign?

Megumi’s life is one defined by chance encounters. The ability to transform those encounters into life-long relationships, I’ve learned, is the difference between a successful storyteller and an ordinary one.

“A very, very fortunate encounter,” is how Megumi describes meeting Herb and Dorothy Vogel, beloved subjects of her award-winning documentary, Herb & Dorothy.

The story of a postal clerk and librarian who amassed a world-class art collection with their modest salaries captured the hearts of millions when it was released in 2008, winning numerous awards at film festivals and enjoying a worldwide theatrical release. The quietly unassuming Vogels had but two rules in their collecting methods:

  1. That the art they purchase be affordable.
  2. That the art fit into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

“But other than that,” Dorothy Vogel says in the film, “we had no restrictions on what we bought. We didn’t say it had to be a certain size, a certain medium, by a certain type of person. We just bought what we liked.”

megumi 2 indepth.jpgA drawing here, a sculpture there, purchased from personal relationships built with young and mostly unknown artists in 1960s’ New York City, began to accumulate in the couple’s home until, “we couldn’t even put another toothpick in (the apartment). Then the National Gallery came to the rescue.” The collection had expanded to 2,500 works.

A collector with dollar signs in their eyes might see their collection as worth millions and sell a piece or two to be more than comfortable for the rest of their lives—not Herb and Dorothy. In 1992, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., an art institution that provides art to the public free of admission, became home to their entire collection. The Vogels’ generosity was widely recognized by the art world and media, and the couple’s status grew even as their egos did not.

Megumi’s life is one defined by chance encounters. The ability to transform those encounters into life-long relationships, I’ve learned, is the difference between a successful storyteller and an ordinary one.

It was filmmaker Megumi Sasaki’s fate then that she would meet the Vogels by chance at a gala for artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude. She caught sight of Herb and Dorothy among the well-dressed, champagne-toting art crowd, dressed in everyday clothes and looking quite like “ordinary, humble people”. However, people were drawn to them like magnets. Sasaki went to introduce herself.

JAPAN TO AMERICA—FROM VISION TO REALITY

Sasaki was born in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, Japan, known for its long, snow-capped winters. The young Megumi had always been interested in America and the English language. “My generation grew up admiring the American culture. Everything made in America was the best, from clothing, music, films, fashion, everything.” It was during a time when Japan underwent dramatically Western-influenced changes in the way they lived, thought, and learned.

Having lived close to an international school, Sasaki remembers, “I grew up with a lot of foreign kids. When I went to their houses it smelled like cinnamon spice, as opposed to a Japanese house that usually smells like soy sauce. I really envied those kids from early on, and I was dying to be able to speak English,” Sasaki says.

Many young Japanese teenagers dream of leaving Japan and “making it” in the world, but few actually make those dreams a reality as Sasaki has. I asked her if she’s become something of a hometown hero with the enormous hit of Herb & Dorothy.

h&d 2.jpg“I don’t think so!” Sasaki shakes her head. “I don’t really want to call myself a hometown hero. It’s not something that I wanted to be, but when I released my film in my hometown Sapporo, it was amazing how excited people were about the film, and everyone supported me tremendously, from my junior high school classmates to the local media, my neighbors, everybody. I got the sense that they were really proud of me, that I accomplished something outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido, or Japan.”

In her own way, Sasaki is as unassuming as Herb and Dorothy are, in her quest to become a filmmaker. Prodded, Sasaki talks about the most important ingredient in filmmaking.

“I see that a lot of young aspiring filmmakers now are very knowledgeable technically. But film is about telling a story. I think they’re driven by the desire just to become ‘filmmakers’ and they try to learn the technicalities, but they’re not focused on how to tell a story. Or how to find a story that they want to tell. If you have an urge to tell a story, something that comes from the root of your heart, you just cannot sit here and hang out.”

But how do you go out and find these stories? Megumi speaks from her own experience.

“I might have that sensitivity towards interesting stories and interesting people because as a reporter for NHK (Japan’s National Broadcaster), that was my job. Once a week I had to create a two-and-a-half minute report for the national primetime morning program, which sounds small but was a pretty big assignment. I had to come up constantly with an interesting story, which I think I did pretty well, and I really enjoyed that.”

I grew up with a lot of foreign kids. When I went to their houses it smelled like cinnamon spice, as opposed to a Japanese house that usually smells like soy sauce. I really envied those kids from early on, and I was dying to be able to speak English.

But she had never come across a story like Herb and Dorothy’s

“(When I met them) I was vaguely thinking I might make a proposal for a television program. What I found out after I did some online research was that there was tons of coverage of Herb and Dorothy when they gave their collection to the National Gallery, but it was all very superficial. It was just ‘postal clerk and librarian happen to build a world-class art collection.’ A story of luck.”

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb & Dorothy on Vimeo.

Megumi knew the story had nothing to do with luck.

“The story is about passion, about how we live life. They just happen to be art collectors.” Quickly, she learned the message was much deeper than anything that could be explored in television. “I knew the limitations of TV programming (from her years as a reporter and producer for NHK), and thought this was something that I had to do as a film. But a short film, not a feature film. I thought it would be less than one hour. I don’t like long films. I don’t have the patience myself.”

Three months into shooting, she changed her mind. “I just had no idea it was going to cost me so much money,” Sasaki laughs. 

ON HER STORYTELLING STYLE

There is something about the film that seems almost enchanted, a sensitivity that viewers might not be able to explain in words. I wondered if Megumi’s Japanese background (a culture known for detail, and where “presentation” is an art form) affected her storytelling style.

megumi 3.1.jpg

“I don’t know if it’s Japanese, as there are many sensitive people everywhere,” says Sasaki, “but I realized that this film was a love story. There are three love stories in the film. Herb and Dorothy’s love affair with art, their lovely friendships with the artists, and their relationship with each other.” I would argue that there is a fourth love story, that between Megumi and the Vogels.

But the love Sasaki speaks of is portrayed so subtly in the film, some miss the memo. Sasaki recalls a screening in which an American editor told her, “‘You say it’s a love story, but I don’t get it. Why don’t you have them say ‘We love each other’? and express their love more openly?” Sasaki stops and shakes her head. “This is a love story but we don’t talk about it. It’s not about kissing and hugging, we don’t exactly have to show that, it’s an ambiance.”

I see that a lot of young aspiring filmmakers now are very knowledgeable technically. But film is about telling a story. I think they’re driven by the desire just to become ‘filmmakers’ and they try to learn the technicalities, but they’re not focused on how to tell a story. Or how to find a story that they want to tell. If you have an urge to tell a story, something that comes from the root of your heart, you just cannot sit here and hang out.

To achieve this subtle feat, Sasaki relayed the vision of “love story” to her cameraman, advising him to keep an eye out for when the couple held hands, or Dorothy put her arm around Herb.

Sasaki has another explanation for the gently passionate tone of the film. “Herb, Dorothy and I spent a lot of time together without the camera. Because I didn’t have enough money, it took me four years to complete the film…in the meantime, I would visit them without the camera to just chat, have lunch, dinner.”

“Let’s say if I had a lot of money, a lot of funding, and I could make it within a year, the feel would be completely different.”

It took four years but she completed the film, with help from the writings of Haruki Murakami (who taught her to embrace solitude—”It’s a lonely place, but it’s beautiful” says Sasaki), yoga and meditation for physical strength and mental focus.

THE SECOND CHAPTER—HERB & DOROTHY 50X50

Now, three years after the release of Herb & Dorothy, Sasaki is behind the camera once again. Much like the first time, this was not her intention. When Herb & Dorothy was finally released in 2008, Megumi Sasaki was ecstatic but depleted, both emotionally and financially. She thought she was finished. But the universe had other plans.

HerbDorothy indepth.jpgHer surprise came when the National Gallery announced an unprecedented gift project to a stunned art community: 50 museums (one in each state of the United States) would receive 50 works from the Vogel Collection, which had now outgrown one of the largest museums in the country. The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States gift was launched, and the generous, historical move begged to be documented.

The story is about passion, about how we live life. They just happen to be art collectors.

“It was such a magnificent event, I hoped somebody would document it,” Sasaki recalls. But no other person had the heart-to-heart connection that she did with the Vogels.

She began production on the follow-up film, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 three years ago, and again, the reality all filmmakers must face stood before her, threatening the completion of the film—lack of funding. To bring Herb & Dorothy 50X50 to life, she has launched a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, which runs through November 5th, 2011 at midnight.

“What I love about Kickstarter is that it’s about creating art for the people by the people, just like Herb and Dorothy’s message,” Megumi says.

The production team of Herb & Dorothy 50X50 humbly acknowledge that our film, a story built solely on love and passion, now rests in the hands and hearts of our community. Working everyday on the campaign, I have a front row seat to her struggles and passion as a filmmaker.

“[Fundraising] is always difficult,” Megumi says. “It’s always hard to do the ask. But I realize it’s not just about the film, it’s about anything in life. You have to do a lot of asking. People are not psychic, they don’t have telepathy, so they don’t really know what you’re looking for.”

Hearing Megumi discuss the ups and downs of filmmaking and fundraising with both sensitivity and a tough skin, one sees that this is a film director with an enormous heart, filled to the brim.

In a moment of truth she admits, “There’s a lot of pressure for the second film, yes, because the first film received so much love and support.”

Finally, I asked what she believes her greatest talent to be. She laughed and says, “I think it’s that I don’t give up. That’s something that I acquired. I used to give up so easily. I tried to be a journalist, then a writer, I’ve tried working for a corporation…I took photography classes at Parsons for a semester. I wanted to be a war photographer at one point. I wanted to do a lot of things and I didn’t pursue it.”

Hearing Megumi discuss the ups and downs of filmmaking and fundraising with both sensitivity and a tough skin, one sees that this is a film director with an enormous heart, filled to the brim.

Interestingly, becoming a filmmaker was never on her agenda.

“I didn’t grow up liking films at all,” Sasaki admits. “Film has never been a very important part of my life, and I never tried to be a filmmaker, but throughout my life there were always reminders that popped up, and I would think, ‘Oh why?’ I was always trying to ignore this…force, but finally I was captured by the power of this cinema goddess or whatever. Who basically said, hey, it’s time. You got to face it. You have to make the film.”

It may not have been her intention, but it has been her fate. Her path has been to complete the love story of Herb and Dorothy, of which Megumi now plays a significant role.

Further, Megumi will be the first to say that you now play the most significant role in getting this film made. To all believers of art, following a calling, and living with passion, we hope you can support our Kickstarter campaign to complete Herb & Dorothy 50X50, so people all over the world can take part in Herb and Dorothy’s generosity, and start finding for their own stories of love and passion.

You never know what can happen from a chance encounter. It’s just a matter of acting on it.

Check out Herb and Dorothy’s Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

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