TELEVISION

‘A frightening time’

A film revisits Canada’s internment camps

CHRIS WOOD November 7 1994
TELEVISION

‘A frightening time’

A film revisits Canada’s internment camps

CHRIS WOOD November 7 1994

‘A frightening time’

TELEVISION

A film revisits Canada’s internment camps

CHRIS WOOD

Robert Ito pulls his bicycle to a stop, adjusts his blue baseball cap and squints up to where the New Denver glacier, a soiled grey epaulet, clings to the shoulder of a mountain called Iron Peak. His eyes thoughtful, the veteran character actor {Quincy, Star Trek) remembers his first sight of the snow-clad peak in southeastern B.C. He was 11 or 12. It was summer. Slocan Lake danced invitingly at the mountain’s feet. But Canada was at war with Japan. And despite the stunning scenery, Ito’s memories are overwhelmingly of “turmoil and anxiety. It was a frightening time.” Within weeks of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December,

1941, a panicky Canadian government bowed to pressure from B.C. politicians to round up more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians living on the West Coast and intern them in hastily built camps in the remotest valleys of the interior. Among the families herded into trucks was Ito’s. Among the hamlets they were sent to was New Denver. Catching the rising pitch of his own voice as he recalls the injustice, Los Angelesbased Ito suddenly stops talking and asks, “Am I sounding angry?”

Indeed he is. But, in fact, the film project that recently brought Ito back to the Kootenays after five decades has more to do with reconciliation than with lingering resentment. Although it is set against the powerful emotional backdrop of the Japanese internment, Hakujin (a working title; the word means “white people”) draws its focus tightly around the story of two women, one on each side of the wartime racial divide. Aya Kawashima (Mieko Ouchi), who is in her early 30s, along with her brother, mother and father (Ito), arrive in New Denver with little more than their dignity: the family’s Vancouver home and thriving shipyard have been seized by the government. To housewife Peg Pamham (Shannon Lawson) and her husband, Ed, struggling to keep their own family afloat amid the lingering effects of the Depression in the played-out mining town, the unexpected influx of “Japs” is both exotic and vaguely sinister. Still, overcoming their mutual ignorance and fear, Aya and Peg eventually form a close friendship. Asserts director Anne Wheeler: “Once people see each other as individuals, they are no

longer enemies. And it’s more likely to happen first among the women.”

For the Edmonton-born film-maker, 48, the story—slated to air on CBC during the 19951996 season—completes a trilogy of Second World War-era films in which the war itself always remains at a distance. In earlier cinematic instalments, Wheeler, who now lives on Saltspring, one of the Gulf Islands north of Victoria, examined her father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (the docu-

mentary A War Story) and the trials of a soldier’s family on the home front {Bye Bye Blues). ‘What intrigues me,” Wheeler reflects during a brief halt in filming Hakujin, “is what doesn’t happen at the battlefield—how the impact of war is so far-reaching.” Added Wheeler, “I liked the intimacy of the story and the fact that it came from a true experience.” Wryly, Wheeler notes that those previous films have also gained her “a reputation for doing period movies on low budgets. I’m sorry,” she adds, “because the budgets keep getting smaller and smaller.” Indeed, Wheeler and the movie’s co-producers—Toronto’s Atlantis Films and Vancouver’s Troika Films— concede that some scenes originally scripted by writer Sharon Gibbon, including one in-

volving a locomotive that costs $100,000 a day to rent, were dropped from the Hakujin shooting schedule in order to keep within the project’s $2.7-million budget.

But for the mostly young cast and crew who worked long hours to bring the film in before the snow began falling in New Denver, the effort was plainly more a labor of love, or perhaps of conscience, than of commerce. Vancouver-based Gibbon, 32, was inspired to write her screenplay by the recollections of her now-deceased grandmother, Frances Hicks, who had lived in a small B.C. town and befriended a Japanese-Canadian interned there. The parents of Toronto cinematographer Rene Ohashi spent several years in B.C. internment camps. Edmontonian Ouchi, 25, who plays her first major role in the character of Aya, recalls that her own parents seldom talked about the internment that they experienced as children. During filming, Ouchi, 25, told Maclean’s, “I felt moments of anger and bitterness.” With the cinematic recreation of

the internment finally on film, she concludes, “I feel like a part of me has come to terms with it.” Adds Alberta-born first-time actor Gene Arizono, 38, who plays one of two Japanese brothers in the film: “It is a way of honoring your parents.”

New Denver has found its own way to honor the past. In July, a commemorative Japanese garden and small museum opened. They are maintained by some of the 30 or so people with Japanese names who still live in the village of 600. like the characters in the movie, former internees and their white counterparts “have become neighbors,” reflects Ito. Adds the actor: “That is what Canada is now.”