When American filmmaker Regge Life first learned of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan two years ago, he followed the news in shock as the country he had developed a close bond with suffered an unprecedented disaster.
Deeply saddened by the sudden loss of thousands of lives, Life was especially touched by news of the death of 24-year-old Taylor Anderson, who was the first known American casualty.
Anderson became fascinated with Japan as a child. After college graduation, she followed her passion for the country and culture to work for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) as an Assistant Language Teacher in the coastal town Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. After the earthquake struck, she stayed and comforted her elementary school students but was lost in the tsunami as she bicycled back to her apartment.
“It was one of those reoccurring stories that didn’t just come once,” Life recalls in a telephone interview from Tokyo, where he was visiting to promote recent screenings of the documentary "Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story," around the country. “I’m always thinking about projects, and I had just finished a project about the earthquake in Haiti, so earthquakes and things were very much on the radar.”
Life, a long-time filmmaker who has directed television shows and films, from "The Cosby Show" to documentaries detailing the experience of African-Americans living in Japan, reached out to a friend who was a former JET to learn more about Anderson and ways to contact her friends and family.
In October 2011, while working on a separate Japan-related project, Life spent a day in Ishinomaki, interviewing friends and colleagues who knew Anderson. “After that long and exhausting day, I said, ‘I think there is a really powerful story here,’ so I came back to the States and we made a plan.”
He began corresponding with Anderson’s father via e-mail and eventually drove to meet her parents in Virginia. Rather than focus on the tragedy of a young person swept away in an unfathomable natural disaster, Life wanted to produce a film that celebrated a young woman’s life — to tell a story that would also inspire others to follow their dreams.
“I didn’t want to pressure anyone, or be like local media,” he explains.
So on the first anniversary of 3/11, Life started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project. He and his team set out with the goal of raising $18,000 for the project, but five weeks later, the campaign closed with more than $25,000 raised.
“It was an unprecedented response,” Life says of the Kickstarter campaign. “It’s a testament to the Anderson family that we made this film like Taylor lived her life – full-speed ahead and letting nothing get in the way, just doing it. I think that’s why she inspired so many; she left no stoned unturned and lived 24/7.”
After months of completing interviews in both Japan and America, editing and completing the post-production process, he and his team premiered "Live Your Dream"in November 2012 at Anderson’s high school, St. Catherine’s, in front of 1,000 students, friends and family. Several Japanese exchange students who were visiting Virginia were also in attendance.
The title of the film reflects not only the impact Anderson made on the lives of people she met but also Life’s goal as a storyteller.
“Sometimes we don’t get started at all with our plans, and from what I’ve heard, Taylor Anderson was full, undaunted and unafraid,” he says. "It’s a positive and inspirational message not only for young people but for all of us to make every moment count. That’s why I made Live Your Dream.”
“This is my fourth film in Japan but probably the most rewarding in terms of seeing the immediate effect on friends, family, her mom, dad, sister and brother,” he continues. “We gave them something enduring to have and keep.”
Alongside telling Anderson’s story, Life also made an important effort to include memories of Monty Dickson, a 26-year-old JET from Alaska who was also killed in the tsunami. Dickson’s body was found nearly three weeks after the disaster in the coastal town Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which was almost completely destroyed by the tsunami.
“It was harder to tell his story because Monty was in an area that was so removed, it’s really off the radar,” Life says. “I think it suited Monty. Monty wanted to have a life that was distanced from all of the big cities of Japan, but because Rikuzentakata was so wiped out, it was harder to find people to talk about Monty. The reality was that so many people perished,” Life says. “But I didn’t want Monty to be just forgotten. He had a very full life as well during his time in Japan. I personally felt the need to remember his time.”
Reflecting on his film after nearly two years of planning and non-stop working, Life describes the making of "Live Your Dream" as an emotional journey. While making the film, he remembered his own experience living abroad in West Africa as a young man recently out of college. One of Life’s friends recently recalled the letters he wrote to her then when he was about the same age as Taylor Anderson.
“My friend said, ‘You know, you wrote back to all of us in the States about how happy you were for the very first time. You didn’t say you were living your dream, but it was very clear to us that was what you were doing.’”
Life encourages educators to purchase a copy of "Live Your Dream" to show the movie to students who are in the process of making decisions about their futures and goals. After premiering the movie in Japan this month, he plans to hold several screenings in cities throughout America.
“There is a quote from a young student at Taylor’s school, at St Catherine’s. After watching the movie, he said, ‘You always tell me I can do anything and everything. Now I really believe you.’ Taylor’s story is an inspiration, much in the motto of our president, ‘Yes we can.’ I think that’s what Taylor proves. If you can dream it, if you can think it, you can do it. You can’t just keep thinking about. You’ve got to begin to move your feet.”
Despite the tragedy and sadness that comes with thinking about all that was lost in an instant two years ago, Life hopes his film shows the endurance of passion and dreams, even when life is lost.
“You can’t remember someone like Taylor sadly,” Life says. “She lived. She was about joy; she was about passion, about energy. That’s the movie you have to make.”
More information about "Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story" can be found at http://www.thetaylorandersonstory.com, and a copy of the film can be purchased at http://globalfilmnetwork.net/dream.html.© Japan Today