What if we lived in a world where the Blue Man Group wasn’t the only mainstream drummer show in town? What if it was a bunch of bad-ass women playing drums in Taiko costume and style? I’m ready for the Blue Man Group renaissance to be over. Bring on the empowering troupe of HERbeat! Before I saw Dawn Mikkelson and Keri Pickett’s documentary “Finding Her Beat,” I did not know anything about Taiko, and how it was a traditionally male-dominated practice. But of course, there have always been women, but not really until Jennifer Weir decided to start HERbeat had they ever collaborated before.

Dawn was introduced to Taiko through her friend Jennifer (Jen) Weir. Both of these women are based out of Minnesota. Jen told Dawn that she was gathering women from all over the world to put on a collaborative Taiko performance. She initially just wanted Dawn to film the performance, but Dawn saw a film. She asked Keri Pickett, who she knew from Film Fatales, to co-direct with her, and be her DoP. So the journey began. They were able to perform days before everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This film is empowering and is touring the country. I spoke to Dawn and Keri about their film, and also talked a little bit to Dawn about her roller-derby documentary, “Minnesota Mean.”

To learn more about “Finding Her Beat,” and how you can see the film, follow them here: https://www.herbeatfilm.com/

Keri Pickett and Dawn Mikkelson

How did you come to this project, and how did you meet?

DAWN MIKKELSON: “Finding Her Beat” started with a lunch between myself and Jennifer Weir. She and I had been friends for over twenty years. We were talking about being moms in male-dominated creative fields, and she mentioned this vision she had for the HERbeat concert and asked if I wanted to film it. I said, ‘Jen, this is a film, this is a movement, let’s do it right.’ Conveniently, Jen agreed.

Keri and I met through Film Fatales, the Minnesota chapter. I had admired her work for a long time. I asked if she was interested in working with me on this project, and she said ‘yes.’ 

It’s so great that you found this Taiko group of Asian and Asian-American women and non-binary people, and how great that you got to film all of this before the lock-down.

I was really drawn to some of the Taiko Japanese-based women who were involved with this project. Let’s start with Kaoly Asano. Can you talk about how she got involved with this project?

KERI PICKETT: Jennifer Weir’s vision was to bring together female leaders from Taika groups around the world. She started with a list of the principal people. It started with eight artists, and it grew to eighteen artists. I feel that Kaoly was always on the list, even though she is not considered to practice the traditional Taiko style in Japan.

It was, I would say, grueling, keeping up with her. 

She seems like a free spirit [laughs].

PICKETT: And also very dedicated to Taiko. I was filming her in Japan, and when she wasn’t on the way to an amazing temple, she was teaching classes in Tokyo to about eighty people. She talks about being a leader and how meeting Tiffany Tamaribuchi made her feel not so alone. The film has really changed things in Japan for a lot of the Japanese female artists. They had never collaborated before HERBeat. So you really see that HERbeat has changed their trajectories. We just documented that and turned it into something that could be shared. 

That Eleven routine was so moving. You could see that all the emotions were within her and it was so powerful. 

Chieko Kojima

Then there was Chieko Kojima. Was there anything you wanted to say about her and how she got involved?

PICKETT: Her involvement was set from the beginning because she was an established superstar. As you can tell in the story, she really was brought in twenty years ago to the North American Taiko conference by Tiffany Tamarabuchi. So I think it was always known, and her involvement in KODO (Sado Island, Japan), by her being in the top A-List Taiko group in the world. Her place was always set.

I have to confess when I went off to Japan, I read people’s bios, but I didn’t really fully understand the cultural divide, and the cultural disparity between Chieko and Kaoly with their styles and their audiences. I didn’t understand the significance between Kaoly’s situation, and the significance of Chieko’s history either. It was a discovery for me. I mean, I had an inkling, but I really had no idea. It was a journey for all of us. 

Can you talk about the impact that this performance has made on its community?

MIKKELSON: Clearly COVID happened, and what we didn’t say is that they hoped the concert would lead to a tour. That hope ended once COVID came into our lives. Since then, as you saw in the film, the group in Japan have come together and since the premiere of “Finding Her Beat,” we’re finding more and more of these women. They are seeing each other again for the first time at screenings and performing together. We’re always asked at Q&As ‘when are they going to tour?’ Jen’s answer is that we need a producer. If there is a producer with the financial backing, all of these women would happily come back together and tour HERbeat. It’s really just finding someone who can make that happen. Jen has fantasies of turning this into something like the Blue Man Group. 

PICKETT: And there are so many people who know nothing about Taiko. When people are being exposed to Taiko for the first time, there is something very powerful about that. Jen has been reaching out to local Taiko communities, and bringing screenings to their communities, so they can perform. She is creating a budget to pay them and lifting the professionalism of the local Taiko groups while bringing an awareness of the local Taiko community. There is a community-building aspect from the film that is happening. 

There was a drummer in the film, one of the local participants, who I just saw for the first time since I was filming. She said that one of the things that was surprising for her about the film is that her own siblings never really got her, and the film helped her family understand and appreciate her. It wasn’t until they saw the film that they could understand her passion for Taiko.

What do you hope people see in this film, or get excited about?

MIKKELSON: For me, I hope in the high up universal sense that it gives people the courage to do the thing they were told they couldn’t do, particularly marginalized communities. I think that we’ve talked about that a lot that we all are waiting for permission or an invitation to participate: women in the film world and them in Taiko. You can only wait so long for permission until you give yourself the permission to do it. That’s what they did, and they made something way larger than any invitation could have given them. That’s my hope for it, that people stop asking for permission and they just go do the thing, and prove them wrong. 

PICKETT: I think I would just echo everything that Dawn said that the big dreams is the first part of the sub-message. Big drums and big dreams. I think that not everybody has big dreams, and not everybody takes those steps, so this is a “how to” example of empowerment and paving your own way. 

“Minnesota Mean”

Dawn, I’d like to circle back to “Minnesota Mean.” I see a lot of parallels between these two films. You have a real gift for finding these different sub-groups of women that not enough people know about and are not represented enough onscreen. Can you talk about what draws you to these certain groups and projects?

MIKKELSON: It’s interesting, these two films are specifically about women who are physically powerful, emotionally powerful, and everything that follows the definition of powerful. I actually came across “Minnesota Mean” first, but that was from a friendship too. My friend Lisa Math was skating for the Minnesota Roller Derby and I loved her community. I didn’t ever want to skate, but I love that they love it.

For both cases, I cannot believe that there isn’t really a mainstream documentary film about these groups. Derby has “Whip It,” but it’s been a while since that film came out. The rest of the derby content tends to be an instructional overview with talking heads telling you what a derby is and what it means to them. I think I started out that way as a filmmaker, but then really just became more interested in embedding into a community and filming them over a period of time. It’s really about who I want to hang out with, and the answer is roller derby people. 

I’m also pitching a series based on “Minnesota Mean” and I’ll be following four teams across the United States. We’ll see what happens, it’s just a pitch at this stage. Somebody has to say ‘yes.’ 

“Minnesota Mean”

Something that I noticed with “Minnesota Mean” is that motherhood was a big theme in this film. It was the thing that had a lot of players transition out of the sport. This is understandable, of course, with all the risks that can happen. 

What I didn’t say in this film, just because there is so much you can say, is that a lot of those post-script updates about certain subjects becoming mothers was because of COVID. There was a huge Derby Baby Boom during COVID. It was like, ‘We can’t skate, I guess we’ve got nine months.’ They call pregnancy the nine-month injury. Out of that team, Hurtrude Stein and Switch Please are still skating, although the latter is just doing local skating, she’s not doing the national stuff anymore.

Any additional projects you’d like to share or add onto this conversation?

I think that, in general, I have been focusing a lot of my energy on how we get underrepresented voices from the midwest on a national or international stage. Our stories are always considered niche, it’s either geographically niche, like ‘that’s a midwest story,’ or in terms of gender, like ‘it’s a women’s story, or it’s a Queer story.’ The reason for that is because we’re not white men on the coast [laughs].

Turning that niche conversation around a little bit into a strength is something that I’m really focused on right now. My future films are all rooted in Minnesota, and for the most part, feature women. I’m actually producing with Keri now. She’s got a couple of films that are in production, and the partnership has worked well for both of us.

Jen and I are having conversations about how we could pitch a narrative series. We’re just playing around with what excites us and trying to figure out what’s next. But it’s all around these marginalized voices and joyful stories.

In both of these films, the characters went through difficult times, but they are not issue documentaries. They’ve got stuff going on in the background, but it’s around things that are interesting. I mean, you’ve got miscarriages, but that is not the focus of the film. The issues are along for the ride, and we try to think of joyful ways to express that ride. 

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