Uncovering the past: just beyond hope
by Kenji Maeda
As a second-generation Japanese Canadian, I admit I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t know more about the history of the internment camps during WWII where so many people of Japanese decent experienced life in a way I can’t even imagine. Just Beyond Hope is a new experimental documentary by Pia Massie that will have its world premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Friday May 11. The film opens an important window on a time where those who lived it may not want to remember, and for those who want to know are eager to listen.
When Massie was four years old, her mother, who was second-generation Japanese, died and this project, Massie says, “was important to my understanding of myself to find her family, who had been broken apart by war, and to try to draw their stories out.” Through making this film, Massie not only uncovered pieces of the past, but also discovered a family member in the present.
I had a chance to ask Massie more about her project.
Why was it important to explore this part of history from the perspective of the women who lived it?
The history of war is almost always written by men, even as the devastation of war is experienced globally by women and children. For all of these reasons, it was important to me to gather and offer the unsung histories of women who lived through this time.
Where did the title come from?
The title for the work came from Margaret Sage, the white Canadian woman who worked at Tashme, the internment camp closest to Vancouver. When I asked for directions on how to get there, she said, “Oh, it’s just beyond Hope” and shivers went through me. She gave me the title as well as the use of her poignant letters. Margaret passed away two weeks before shooting began for the film, but she did know that her feelings would finally be heard.
Tell us about how you discovered your aunt Shyoko.
I found my auntie Shyoko through the making of this film and of all the many things I am grateful for, this has to be the most lovely gift. Because I was doing research about my family, I realized that my great uncle had published a newspaper in Colorado called the Rocky Shinpo. There were only two Japanese language newspapers that were published outside of the camps during the internment times in the US and this was one of them. I wanted to interview one of his daughters or granddaughters to keep the women’s stories POV.
With the help of all these wonderful librarians I found his granddaughter, who is the first violinist in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra! I called her up and said, “Hi, I’m related to you.” I explained the story and asked if I could come down to San Francisco to interview her. She said “I really don’t know anything about it, wouldn’t it be better for you to interview my mom?” I was so delighted, “Your mom is still alive? Where is your mom?” “In Seattle.” I wanted to drive down there that day because it was just after I lost Margaret and I was afraid to lose another one of these important ancestors who could tell me what happened. I called my auntie Shyoko and she said “I’m going on a trip to Japan; I’m coming back, don’t worry, you can come down then.” So I had to be patient.
A few weeks later, when I met Shyoko for the first time, she had been out campaigning for Obama door-to-door all day. She is in her eighties and she walks every day with her friend. Shyoko was saying, “We are going to turn this country around” and I kept on thinking, wow, this is how my mom would have been; she is exactly the same age as my mom.
What, if anything, surprised you from the stories you researched?
It was stunning to realize how taboo the stories were to speak about; how much emotional freight they still carried. This, if anything, spurred me on more to connect with the elders that had lived it and let them set down some of the pain that they had been carrying. The other thing that surprised me was how deeply interconnected all the stories were. The serendipity that followed me or lead me, I am not sure which, was positively magical.
What was most challenging about creating this film?
The visuals of the work – the three frames representing different points of view – was probably the most challenging aspect of the film. The structure came from Altman’s early film Three Women, in which over the course of an hour, the women become each other. With Just Beyond Hope, I wanted to show how people’s perspectives are determined by their cultural coordinates and how those perspectives can change over time.
I was unbelievably lucky to have permission to weave together Mine Okubo’s classic text (Citizen 13660), Margaret’s letters and Dorothea Lange’s astonishing photographs that were impounded by the WPA when she took them but were finally recently released. I am so happy to be able to expose them to a larger audience as she is one of my heroes.
It’s mentioned that Just Beyond Hope creates a dialogue between white and Japanese, Canadian and American. What do you imagine that dialogue to sound like?
The dialogue that I hope to have contributed to in Just Beyond Hope is, I trust, one of understanding and forgiveness. Although this is a dialogue that could never have taken place at the time, I hope that it engenders the sharing of more stories and as Chris Marker says in Sans Soleil, “healing the web of time where it has been broken.”
What do you hope people will take away from this film? — For those that have direct experience inside the internment camps, and for those who know little about that time in history.
When I showed some early bits of the work last year at the Powell Street Festival, there were four audience members who had been interned at Tashme. They started up a dialogue – remember this and how about that – I was practically in tears. For those who were interned, I hope this work brings them some peace, acknowledgement that there is nothing to be ashamed of and finally that their grandchildren need to know their stories, so that history cannot repeat itself.
And for those who know little about this time in history, I hope that Just Beyond Hope shows the complex and still unresolved hurts of racism and war. Currently, Muslims are under attack. I am so proud of Fred Korematsu, who wrote such a beautiful amicus brief to try to help close Guantanamo. I hope that we can overcome all our divisions: national, religious and even within our own families.
The extraordinary thing about suffering is that it is so personal, so sharp and minute but in the best instances, in breaking our hearts wide open, it makes us vulnerable and empathic human beings.
Just Beyond Hope will have its world premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Friday May 11, 2012, 6:30pm at Vancity Theatre. For more information visit www.doxafestival.ca.
Kenji Maeda is the Interim Executive Director at DOXA Documentary Film Festival.