Kiri’s Piano – Looking for Kiri
Filming Kiri’s Piano in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Many of you may already know the song Kiri’s Piano by Canadian folk singer James Keelaghan. Last summer, with funding from NAJC, I was able to direct a short film based on this beautiful song.
The film is the story of one woman’s sacrifice while rampant prejudice tears her Japanese Canadian family apart during the Second World War. Kiri’s once joyful piano music turns bitter when forced relocation and internment take away her husband, her home and her family’s simple fishing life along the BC coast.
Written in 1988, Kiri’s Piano is based on the real life of a Japanese Canadian woman whose name was fictionalized as that of Kiri Ito. When Kiri and her children need to join her husband in the camps, she decides that she cannot have her beloved piano end up in the hands of strangers. The climax of the film takes place when she turns her piano into a refuge for grief and redemption by pushing it into the sea. As James Keelaghan’s poetry tells us:
That old upright in strangers’ hands
was a thought she couldn’t bear…
so she consigned it to the sea to settle the affair…
Kiri knew…that if we must be free then sometimes
we must sacrifice to gain our dignity.
It was that very scene that convinced me that within that song also lived a film. The lyrics are written from the point of view of an older male neighbour who witnesses the family’s relocation. The lyrics are narrated and come and go throughout the film.
The shores of Great Slave Lake doubled for the West Coast and the abandoned Giant Mine for the small fishing village where Kiri and her family live. We built a set for in an unused house downtown Yellowknife and borrowed the house of a friend to film the exterior of Kiris’ house as well as the internment camp. We were able to find everything we needed in terms of costumes and props at local flea markets, garage sales and local theatre companies….and yes we did throw an old piano in the water!
Mentors Wendy Ord and Glen Samuel from Kelowna (Tora, 2011) helped with the scenario and on-set advice. Canadian concert pianist Lisa Tahara played admirably the part of Kiri and professional actor Kevan Ohtsji that of her husband. The rest of the actors and extras, including Kiri’s three children, was largely made up of recent Japanese immigrants to Yellowknife working mainly in the tourism industry.
The filming went so well that we kept saying that Kiri’s spirit had to be among us.
It is my intention to premiere the film in Yellowknife this October. I would be happy to send a copy of the films to community associations to show it. Many thanks to the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon for providing a letter of support to NAJC for my project.
I am now ready to track down the family of the “real” Kiri Ito. I made the decision early on not to look for Kiri until the film was done. I figured that even if I had hours of interview with Kiri and her descendents, I could never replicate her demeanour, her hairstyle, the dresses she wore or how she played the piano. So I choose to let creativity take over and imagine what Kiri and her husband were like through the lyrics of the song.
I realize that those years carry much heaviness and darkness but I hope that a stranger’s innocence, good intentions and imagination will be enough to spur the family to make contact. I hope to have done justice to Kiri’s courage and resilience. She has inspired me to speak out and do my own acts of defiance. Your sacrifice was not in vain. Thank you Kiri.
France Benoit, Film Director
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
867 873 1101