Filmmaker 5 with Keri Pickett: Finding Her Beat

There may not be a better way to shatter the patriarchy then with fearsome, loud drumming. Taiko, Japanese traditional drumming, isn’t an easy place to start, but in Finding her Beat, we meet a community of women whose lives are consumed by this traditionally male-dominated art form. In St. Paul Minnesota, TaikoArts Executive Director, Jennifer Weir is organizing Herbeat, a performance of world’s greatest Taiko drummers in a bold effort to claim a cultural spotlight that has historically been reserved only for men. As the performance date of February 29, 2020 nears, the performers gather in frozen St. Paul to practice. Through weeks of rehearsal, as COVID nears, the performers learn who they are and what connects them. The passion for their art form and their sense of community grows as the concert nears. As the central characters share their stories and why Taiko is so important to them, the percussive, dramatic banging of the drums reminds us that their shared trait is physical and spiritual strength. Their rhythm revolution includes rock stars from the world of Taiko: Tiffany Tamaribuchi, Kaoly Asano, Chieko Kojima, Megan Chao-Smith, and Jennifer Weir. Through grueling rehearsals, Jennifer weaves together their disparate voices and styles as vulnerability, pain, and joys are shared—and we quickly see bonds of friendship form as these talented women navigate through differences in culture, age, language, and performance styles. As the clock ticks toward their first performance, it becomes clear that their story has become much larger than Taiko.

A moving and immersive cinematic experience from filmmakers and co-directors Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett, Finding Her Beat was made by a predominantly female/non-binary, largely Asian-American and LGBTQ+ filmmaking team and cast during a time when people of marginalized genders and people of color are severely underrepresented in film. This is an important story of women paving their own road by banging their own drum.

Our interview with Finding Her Beat filmmaker Keri Pickett follows.

Filmmaker Keri Pickett
Credit: Karen Einstein

Filmmaker 5.1. What a unique way to tell a story of gender-defying strength. How did you come across the story and what made you confident it would work so well on the screen?

Taiko drumming is a performance art form and so on top of our story following musicians, these musicians are dancing with big drums and so visually this film is a no brainer. But the film is really about a dream that came about in the pursuit of excellence and in the realization of that dream a new level of excellence has been achieved on both sides of the camera.

Filmmaker 5.2. Jennifer, Megan and their daughter seem to anchor the story. Tiffany, Kaoly and Chieko are other characters whose fascinating backgrounds you delve into. There were so many amazing women and non-binary performers you could have followed. What was that decision process like for you?

I think it was known that we would follow Jen, Megan and their daughter Josie and then because Tiffany and Megan had the original dream to gather women in Taiko together. And Tiffany is a master drummer who helped introduce us to Chieko and Kaoly in Japan. We wanted to share enough of the stories of some of the other artists in order to hint to the riches within the group and to reveal the level of intimacy shared in this intense artists residency.

Filmmaker 5.3. You captured some deeply intimate moments between some of the characters: conversations where they share their fears and hopes. For much of the movie, we see these women leading, banging drums and striding across the stage. In these other moments though, they are vulnerable. What is important in finding that balance for you as filmmakers?

My goal is to have a film where audiences lose themselves while walking in the shoes of others – and hopefully there is laughter and also tears. Intimacy – authentic intimacy is rare in documentary and so I strive to have as much behind the scenes for audiences to understand the enormity of Jen Weir’s vision with the HERbeat concert.

Filmmaker 5.4. As soon as I heard the performance date of February 29th, 2020, my mind raced. You couldn’t tell if the show was going to happen before the world shut down. Did you know that they would barely make it and how did the pandemic inform your post-production? Were some of the coughs and colds that—at the time—maybe seemed innocuous, used later to build tension?

We wrapped a two year production on March 2, 2020 and then we started post-production at a time when the world shut down, and so that time offered me a chance to match the cameras in the editing sequence create the first 8 hours of scenes. Then I passed it on to the next editor and ultimately there were four sets of eyes on all our material.

Filmmaker 5.5. The final concert is interwoven with later scenes of the performers remembering the show and sharing deep gratitude with each other. This nonlinear conclusion was unexpected, but works beautifully and lends even greater pathos to the concert. What led to this decision?

This idea of interacting the concert with an intimate circle of feelings was on the table from the start of the filming as I always saw the finale intercut with scenes of how the women grew and were transformed emotionally by the journey. So when Jen called the group to a circle to have some closure on their HERbeat experience I knew we had great material for a strong finale.

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Watch the Finding Her Beat trailer.

Filmmaker 5® collaborators Senior Film Reporter Moges Gebremedhin 
and Publisher Kami Spangenberg

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