Christopher Makoto Yogi is an artist and filmmaker from Honolulu, Hawai‘i. His debut feature film, the award-winning August at Akiko’s, had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in 2018 to critical acclaim and was named by Richard Brody in The New Yorker as one of the best films of 2019. I Was a Simple Man, his second feature film, had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is in theaters through Strand Releasing from November 19. Chris’ short films include the documentaries Occasionally, I Saw Glimpses of Hawai‘i and Makoto: or, Honesty, and the fiction film Obake (Ghosts). Chris is a fellow of Berlinale Talents, Visual Communications’ Armed with a Camera, Kyoto Filmmakers Lab, and New York Film Festival Artists Academy.
Two weeks before the 2021 Sundance premiere of my new film, I Was a Simple Man, my daughter was born.
Life, of course, was chaotic. Sarah Kim, my life partner and main producer on our project, was recovering from a very difficult birth while we were in the midst of delivering our film to the festival and gearing up for publicity and sales. We were on very little sleep, cranky, terrified, trying to grasp this new life on the fly.
That’s when the panic attacks started. At first, they would hit me in the middle of the night. Images flooded my head: loss, death, everything going away. I would look at my amazing baby daughter, in awe of her deep, curious gaze, and suddenly be convinced that she would be taken from me. Who would take her? Who knows! She would disappear. I would try to think about how lucky I was that our film was about to premiere, finally! How exciting! But the next thought would immediately be: This too will go away. Everything ends. I couldn’t breathe.
The panic attacks crept into the daylight and soon I was having them multiple times a day. Out of nowhere, I’d be stricken with catastrophic thoughts. I became convinced that my life, which had in recent years been remarkably blessed, was soon to fall into disaster. The voice inside said: This is how life works; no one is as lucky as you are. Disaster awaits. The other shoe will drop.
Then, for the first time in my life, I began to question my decision to pursue film. Was filmmaking an unethical choice? Cinema has been my life and I have been pursuing this career for decades. Even when it seemed impossible, I didn’t question it. Now, on the cusp of a career milestone, I was asking myself whether or not it was smart to continue. I thought about my friends and relatives who had chosen more “traditional” paths and was filled with envy at their ability to provide a stable life for their families.
I read that one in 10 new dads experiences some kind of postpartum depression or anxiety. I was one of them. Couple that with film postpartum and the anxiety of COVID-19, and my 2021 was spinning into a wicked, wicked stew.
I Was a Simple Man was a film that had taken more than a decade to come to fruition. Incubated as an idea back in 2009, I had lived with it for what felt like the entirety of my adult life.
Based on my personal experiences of death in the family, the film was me grieving through the work, growing through the work, while trying to push myself to create something unique. Through the making of I Was a Simple Man, I was confronting aspects of myself, aspects of my life, that were difficult to look at and hard to understand. This film was like a dark basement room, and there I stood at the entrance, afraid to turn the handle.
Through the years-long process of making this movie, I felt like I had learned about myself, my home, my family. And I had grown. Or begun to, anyway – I was a different person now than I was when I started this journey. I was proud of myself, proud of the film and our team, especially Sarah, who had been right there with me for every up and every down, providing a balance whenever things felt like they were spinning out of control. It was because I had her at my side, that I was able to enter that dark basement room.
But now I Was a Simple Man was finished. Now I was staring into a new void, into a different kind of uncertainty. Now the question was not whether or not we could make the film, but whether or not I was equipped to create a sustainable life for my family.
Meanwhile, the panic attacks continued. Now they were happening every few hours. They continued throughout Sundance, during which I was inundated with congratulatory texts and emails. And all I could think was: This too will end.
It took me months, but I slowly worked through the anxiety, the panic, the fear. They haven’t gone away completely, but at least they are no longer paralyzing.
Talking things through with Sarah and with my therapist, I was able to find some presence within the panic. Watching our daughter grow into a curious human, watching Sarah so fully embrace her role as a mother – an incredible one! – these two things have been unbelievably energizing, every single day. Like a jolt of lightning to my heart.
And now that I Was a Simple Man is being released in theaters, I feel ready to let it go. I am very grateful for the experience of this film, but also ready to move onto the next chapter of my life. To cross a new threshold, to open a new door, perhaps. I still don’t know what or where that is exactly, but I’m learning to be OK with that.
It’s still hard to find that balance between work and parenthood. And I’m still unsure what long-term career sustainability looks like, or if I will ever find it. Transitions abound, always. Balance is a process.
These are the things that I am reminding myself every day.