JESSE NISHIHATA and Ancestral Memory
JESSE HIDEO NISHIHATA is a pioneer in Japanese Canadian documentary filmmaking. From 1966-1978 Jesse worked as a contract producer for the CBC-TV Public Affairs Department. During this time Jesse produced and directed numerous documentaries including such films as Watari Dori: A Bird of Passage (1973). Watari Dori uses Jesse’s own family history as a framework for exploring the Japanese Canadian internment. This was the first film concerning the Japanese Canadian World War II experience to be broadcasted on Canadian television.
From 1979-1995, Jesse taught film and media studies at Ryerson University’s Image Arts department. It was during this period that Jesse established himself as an independent producer and director.
Jesse’s independent productions include some of his most seminal works such as The Inquiry Film (1977). This film provides a visual report of the commission of Inquiry conducted by Mr. Justice Thomas R. Berger into the social, economic and environmental impact of a proposed pipeline in the Western Artic region known as the Mackenzie Valley.
The Inquiry Film earned Jesse the 1977 Canadian Film Award (now know as the Genie Award) for Best Documentary over 60 minutes and the Golden Athena for Best Feature Documentary at the 1978 Athens international Film Festival in Ohio.
Jesse also ventured into the avant-garde through films such as Black Earth (1980). A film-essay on the earth’s body, Black Earth follows a woman’s journey through time and space. The film’s images and utterances and sounds poetically resonate the world as woman, a woman suffering the fate of humanity. Black Earth was filmed on location in India. The film was awarded a citation for Personal Vision and Cinematography at the 1988 Oakland International Film Festival.
Other notable films include Justice in Our Time: how Redress was won (1989), a video record of the Japanese Canadian fight for Redress and Catch the Spirit! (1991), which documents the 1991 Earth Spirit Festival.
From 1992-2000, Jesse worked as the Managing English Editor of the Nikkei Voice, a Japanese Canadian monthly publication. Jesse stated that during his time at the Nikkei Voice he came to “understand and appreciate the dynamics of the Nikkei community in its many and varied aspects as it struggles to retain a semblance of integrity and identity.”
Jesse’s prolific career in film opened doors for all Japanese Canadian artists and Canadian filmmakers in general as he continually brought stories otherwise ignored by the mainstream into the public consciousness. Jesse Nishihata passed away in 2006 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
with files from the NAJC website
On April 24, ahead of the final performance of Yayoi Dance Theatre’s Identity – Ancestral Memory, an afternoon symposium will look at the notion of identity as seen through the eyes of artists. A 1pm screening of Jesse Nishihata’s Watari Dori/Bird of Passage at Centre A will be followed at 3pm by a panel discussion titled Connections: Continuity and/or Departure? Coordinated by Grace Eiko Thomson and moderated by Kirsten Emiko McAllister, the panel features Toronto film maker Michael Fukushima and Vancouver poet/teacher/activist Roy Miki.
Michael Fukushima shares some of his thoughts and memories of Jesse Nishihata with Bulletin readers.
by Michael Fukushima
Jesse Nishihata was my first filmmaking mentor, in a relationship that bloomed almost full-grown on our first meeting (being interviewed for the Nikkei Voice in 1989) and that remained strong until his too-early death in 2006. Maybe it was the fact that Jesse had been tight friends with my uncle in pre-war Vancouver that built the instant affinity, but I suspect it was because that’s just who Jesse was. He cared about people and wanted to see them succeed. He inherently understood and embraced legacy and succession. For Jesse, one eye was always on the prize of glorious futures, the other on golden pasts.
Most of us, regrettably, know little to nothing of Jesse’s filmmaking life because he was, to a fault, the model of modesty. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about Jesse’s oeuvre until I met Don McWilliams, a documentary filmmaker at the NFB in Montreal. Typically, it was only through Don’s references to and lionizing of Jesse’s films that I got to know his full body of work.
Jesse was the seminal nikkei documentary filmmaker in Canada, the progenitor of all who have followed. His guiding hand and mentorship directly influenced dozens of young filmmakers, including me. His intimate and artistic documentary style were pioneering.
The CBC in the late 1960s and early 70s was, like the NFB at the same time, a hotbed for radicals and social activism. Jesse was an archetypal agent of social change. His work at the CBC in those early years broke barriers and was part of what fed its image as a centre of documentary daring. His work especially in the North and with native communities, including his breakthrough film about the Berger Commission, established his appreciation for and from many aboriginal communities across Canada.
I’m always grateful to Jesse for his guidance and inspiration in my filmmaking life. Our relationship changed over the years, notably when I shifted my focus to being a producer instead of a filmmaker. I suspect my decision was bittersweet for Jesse, since it was clear I had taken his beliefs in mentorship and our collective creative future to heart. But it was also true that Jesse himself never gave up on the practice of actually making films, regardless whatever else he was doing as a “job”, right to the very end. I, on the other hand, now only make films vicariously, through the choices of filmmakers and films I produce and support.
Hopefully, these young filmmakers appreciate the light shone on their paths to artistic maturity by me and others who know it’s an endless, iterative loop, that builds on and evolves from one generation to the next. To completely mix metaphors, I hope they understand we all stand on the shoulders of artists and pioneers before us, who sometimes remade the world so we don’t have to. Jesse Nishihata is that for me, and I’m humbled, yet honoured, to have been his disciple and his friend.
Michael Fukushima is a producer in the Animation Studio of the National Film Board of Canada.