Finding her beat

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Jennifer Weir of Daiko
Jennifer Weir of Daiko leads HERbeat ensemble

Finding Her Beat” is a poignant documentary that explores what a group of LGBTQ and nonbinary women have been through to become Taiko drummers and create an all-inclusive concert. The film depicts some of the most well-known and respected LGBTQ performers of Taiko drumming, and each of the performers discussed how they overcame some of the challenges in finding their place in this ancient traditional style of drumming. It took Megan Chao Smith, being of Asian descent, four years to find a group in Japan that would accept a nonbinary person because she was considered too “manly” to be paired with a female drumming partner, and she asserts that there is a lot about body size, strength, and how one presents that doesn’t go away.

As pioneers in leading the way for other LGBTQ, non-binary people, she says that maybe in about 300 years, that will change. “This world [of Taiko] is pretty small, to get mainstream attention you have to fit into a box, and I don’t.” That, she states, is the beauty of this film.

Finding Her Beat, set in Minnesota, and Japan during the winter months and leading up to the very beginning of the COVID pandemic, this compelling documentary delves into the art of Taiko drumming and the culmination of bringing world-renowned female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ drummers together for a residency performance. That is, in fact, unique in the world of Taiko drumming. For thousands of years Taiko drum groups did not allow women to participate, but more recently that has been challenged.

Jennifer Weir, executive director of TaikoArts Midwest, states that Taiko drumming has always appealed to the queer community because one gets to be powerful and to take up space, one gets to be loud, and she thinks there has always been a natural connection there. She believes that it is an organic thing that has happened, and that those messages of empowerment and embodying who you are by being a part of your art and just showing up and representing are so important. She said that now two-thirds of women who are Taiko drummers are nonbinary folks, which has been challenged in recent decades. While this may seem like a large number, Weir goes on to say that what is missing is the equity. There is no equal pay.

The different sounds of Taiko drums are reflective of the different voices in the LGBTQ community. This is especially true when it comes to the largest drum. This drum is called the O-Daiko, explains Smith, which traditionally was meant for a single male person. This was because of the size and that it towers over any human being, as if to always seeking to be bigger than life, even seeking and pulling from the earth and the cosmos to make a huge sound and embody strength and character.

Thousands of years ago it was believed that drumming was a way to reach and summon the gods. Only men were allowed to be priests or reverends to speak to the gods, Smith explains. She describes herself as having both male and female energy and doesn’t like to restrict herself to one or the other and describes power drumming; that is, sweating and making faces, as not being a part of the female aesthetic. In her experience getting up on stage, hitting the drums so hard, and in those traditions with other drummers, it transcends all of these limitations.

The film Finding Her Beat also shows how nonbinary and LGBTQ women are using their energy and creativity to break out of these traditions. In navigating making the film, Smith said, “We had amazing directors, but it was not without its challenges. While Jen was figuring out the rehearsals for the Taiko drumming group, she was also figuring out whom to present and to shine a light on at any given moment in the film.

It was the choice of the film directors, Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett, to film in the cinema verité style of filmmaking. Director Keri Pickett, also director of photography, stated, “Dawn knew this amazing story about family and community and ultimately knowing how one person can make a difference. This film has all of that and more. In making this documentary we didn’t know the direction it was going to go in, so we filmed a lot, and we had 18 powerful performers so it could go a lot of different ways. And the success in that was the vision of how it was going to roll out and the honing of the essence of it came in two years of editing. We also had an unexpected character come in that we didn’t invite to the party,”

Mikkelson agrees, “We didn’t know [COVID] was happening as it was happening necessarily. Everyone was so embedded in the process, we were not watching TV, and nobody was watching the news. The magnitude of what was about to happen, nobody knew, especially us. It was not until the residency was over that the world shut down, and we did not realize how close we were to not having a film. We even debated about not having COVID mentioned in the film, but there was significance to having it because this was the last performance many of the players had for years. The significance of the performance was amplified by this shutdown and made it more powerful in many, many ways.”

Pickett recalled the period, just as the pandemic was roaring through Asia, wrapping production on March 2, 2020, a two-year production. Megan recalls how she, being a nurse, had concerns about how women of Asian descent would be represented on screen but trusted that Pickett and Mikkelson would show positive images of LGBTQ, nonbinary, and women of Asian descent. Weir recalls that both women had the vision to bring on as many Asian women of color, queer, and nonbinary folks to be on the crew and part of the post-production process. “This was to ensure that everywhere we went, we felt like one extended family, and that helped create a safe environment and an environment where people had a lot of trust in each other.”

Pickett says that they all “had a chance to grow, be challenged, and do it in a safe environment which was incredible, and I think it made for a kickass movie because all that authenticity was everywhere.”

Finding Her Beat is a documentary film with a lot of heart at its core. The award-winning film had a successful 2023 film festival season. Check out their website for the 2024 festival screenings and more information about educational screenings.

herbeatfilm.com

@findingherbeat

Joe'l Ludovich
Joe’l Ludovich is an Emmy-nominated television producer and winner of several Telly and Communicator awards for Philly Live. Her independent films have been awarded recognition, and have screened across the country. Her documentary film of comedian Michelle Balan won a Telly Award. Her latest film was "Grounds for Graffiti." She teaches television, audio, Steadicam, and film studies at Stockton University.