Public Defender Jeff Adachi Adds Filmmaker to Resume

Susan Gerhard March 13, 2006

Prosecutors get all the best roles. But at least one public defender, San Francisco’s Jeff Adachi, took a star turn when documentary filmmakers Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy (“State of Fear”) showed up to make a film about the Office of the Public Defender in San Francisco in 1998. As it turned out, Adachi was working on the notorious case of Lam Choi, accused of murdering a Vietnamese gang boss. It was Adachi himself who would soon be the victim of another notorious decision: a political firing by his new boss, Willie Brown-appointee Kimiko Burton. After the credits of that public defender film, “Presumed Guilty,” rolled in 2002, Adachi defeated Burton in an election. But the real surprise ending is that a few years down the road, Adachi has actually made a movie of his own. That documentary, “The Slanted Screen,” about the history of roles for Asian American men in US movies and TV, might, at first look, seem to have nothing to do with the job of lawyering. The film plays the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which opens this Thursday. (Though initial screenings are sold out, an extra screening has been added.) I sat down with Adachi at the Office of the Public Defender last week to find out where his day job and side project connect.

SF360: Do you find any similarities between being a public defender and being a filmmaker?

Jeff Adachi: Filmmaking is very much like trial work. I had about 35 hours of footage. I had it transcribed onto paper. Also very much like a trial, you take the interviews and put it together in a story, which becomes the script, the narrative. I’ve always been a big movie watcher, but I’ve never watched as many movies as I had the last year or so. Going through that whole process – refining it once you have a rough cut, showing it to different people, getting responses – I’m just glad it’s over. I’m very relieved. It’s a lot of work.

SF360: How does that 35 to 1 ratio compare with trial work?

Adachi: Trials are much longer. It can be anywhere from a couple of days to six months. With a trial, you’re introducing not all the evidence, but the most relevant. With filmmaking, you might have a great story, but suddenly, it doesn’t make sense to include it. You might pursue a certain area, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. Because it has to fit into a cogent story. And it’s a visual image. In the courtroom, you’re relying a lot on verbal communication. Today, people are just bombarded with images. With the whole MTV generation, people expect to see 20 images in the span of four seconds. With the documentary film, it’s obviously different – particularly my film – you have people talking. But still, you have to have enough images that are going to keep the audience focused on what you’re saying.

SF360: There seemed to be among the interviewed a lot of diversity of opinion about what it means to move forward. What to you is the basic case that you’re making?

Adachi: I didn’t start out with a certain premise I was trying to prove. What I wanted to show is the incredible challenges faced by these Asian male actors in particular. When they wanted to work, first of all, they rarely had roles for Asian males. These are actors who have careers spanning 35-40 years, like Mako and James Shigeta. When they did work, the roles were limited to playing gangsters and laundrymen and waiters. Maybe that great role came around every 10 years. I was involved in producing an awards show called the Golden Ring Awards. It was like a mini Oscar for Asian Americans in between 1995 and 1999, and my dream was to televise it, which we did on cable TV in the last year. We would honor Asian American artists and produce shows with the new artists coming up. It’s amazing – these artists were up against so much, and rarely did they have the support of the community or family members. They were discouraged. You have no future in the arts – why are you doing that? I was interested.

SF360: Your film talks about the dearth of romantic leads for Asian American men. In a sense, you were a romantic lead in the 2002 documentary about the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, “Presumed Guilty.”

Adachi: [laughing] I’m the guy that gets fired on national TV; I didn’t know that was going to happen….

SF360: How did that happen?

Adachi: I didn’t plan it. The filmmakers began following me when I was a line attorney. They were particularly interested in the young Cambodian young man I was representing. It was a notorious case. The documentary was made over a three-year period. I normally wouldn’t have agreed to do that kind of thing – because that kind of access normally doesn’t do anything good for anybody, but I had tremendous respect for Pam Yates and the work she did in the past. In the end, I was happy because it showed what public defenders do, from our perspective. What do you see on TV, “Law and Order” – it’s always this prosecutorial bent. The defense attorneys are always these slick, or incompetent lawyers.

SF360: Why are there no legal shows on defenders?
Adachi: It’s cyclical. In the ’50s, ’60s, you had a few. But lately, it’s been all sort of the triumph….

SF360: Who were your film/TV heroes growing up? Did you watch TV?

Adachi: My generation, we grew up on TV. In lieu of having a babysitter, you sat your kid in front of the TV. But the TV was great then. You had “Twilight Zone.” I liked the science fiction horror films. And shows like “Star Trek.” I don’t think it really struck me until later in life that there just weren’t a lot of Asian faces on TV. Obviously we’re a minority. But to not be represented at all – the Asians that were on TV really stuck out. You know like Sulu, George Takei, was a hero. Pat Morita; I don’t know that I identified him as a contemporary; he was a friend of my father’s. And “Karate Kid” came up. For me it was Bruce Lee that was the most influential. I remember going to the first Bruce Lee movie and I was just blown away. And I think it was a similar experience for a lot of Asian guys or teenagers at that time to see this Asian character on screen portrayed in a powerful light. There’d been kung fu films before then, but nothing with the sort of charisma and martial arts expertise that Bruce Lee brought.

SF360: The section of the film about “yellowface” is disturbing. It’s so bizarre to look at these faux Asian images now. Why did this happen in the first place and why did the practice stop?

Adachi: One thing we don’t really address in the film is the historical backdrop to the changes in the images. Why do you have Sessue Hayakawa treated positively for a certain period of time and then suddenly he’s playing a bad guy? That’s an easy one, that’s the war. The war came along, and Japan posed more of a threat. Suddenly Hayakawa’s positive roles dried up and he could only play bad guys. In a similar way, if you look at the “yellowface” type of roles you have during the Chinese Exclusion Act and the aftermath of that, with Chinese portrayed as a threat. During the Cold War, you had the Fu Manchu persona, where you have the sort of evil bad guy who has a lot of money, a lot of power – and he’s after the women. During the whole economic conflict between Japan and the U.S., Japanese men were portrayed in very nerdy roles, asexual roles, which was a different kind of stereotype. And you see that persisting for a long period of time. Not just long Long Duk Dong in “16 Candles”….

SF360: How did those caricatures affect you?

Adachi: You know you’re not like that. And you know other people aren’t like that. But it does affect you, and it does affect how other people see you as well. I know being a lawyer, a trial lawyer, one thing people are surprised at is that I am very aggressive, and you have to be. That’s what we do. Asians are often seen as being submissive, not being aggressive enough. In part, because you don’t see any Asians on TV shows like “LA Law,” or “The Practice,” or “Law and Order.” Even on “E.R.,” for most of its years, there were no Asian doctors, when in fact about 40 percent of graduating medical students in California are Asian. Not to say that TV is supposed to approximate reality, but it’s just curious that you have this whole segment of the population that’s not reflected.

SF360: What’s your term in office for Public Defender?

Adachi: Four years; I’m up for election again in 2006; it’s the only elected defender position in the state.

SF360: Do you see a future in filmmaking for yourself?

Adachi: No. This was something I was very passionate about. I’m having a great time. It’s enjoyable, but it took a lot of off hours – every night after work, working with my editor and co-producer Alex Yeung [the project was initiated with Tony Bolante]. But I promised my family…. Now, the next step is promoting it. It’s been interesting, since we got into the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, we’re starting to receive requests from all over the country – schools that want to show it. Harvard – I got an email from them today, that they want to show it on campus. Other countries, Korea’s Pusan Film Festival contacted me. I would think that they would have no interest, because they have all Koreans on TV there. Other places, Canada. I want to take this film as far as it can go. It can spark some discussion. Maybe some people who watch it will consider a career in entertainment, or consider investing in films.

SF360: It’s been a very strange year for San Francisco’s civic discussion of race – the 49ers video, the police videos….

Adachi: Race is still race the number one issue that’s not on people’s minds. People just don’t want to talk about it. We tend to not question what we’re fed by the media. But how much do we know about Muslims? How much do we know about Sikhs? How much do we know about people who are being vilified in Guantanamo Bay? The fact of the matter is we know very little, and the human side is being kept from us. That’s one of the things we point out in “The Slanted Screen”…. We are still vilifying people who we qualify as “the enemy.”

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.