It’s not often I pull out the ol’ DSLR to take STILLS these days. Usually it’s only for a film or some artsy photo production, especially now that I have my new X100 around my neck wherever I go. I do have an outstanding view from my apartment, don’t I?
My iPhone told me it was 31 West Hastings but I didn’t know it wasn’t until Carrall that East turns into West. So I parked in front of the Balmoral and walked.
I must be kidding myself if I think I’ll ever be able to tell it like it really is in the Downtown Eastside. I don’t work here, I don’t live here. I’ve been coming here for over four years now to teach photography or give out bananas or talk to certain folks who might want to be in this film or that photograph. But I feel like a total impostor. I’m a middle class, middle-aged kid from a suburb of a prairie town. Born and raised. I’ve never known poverty or drugs or hardship of any kind on a first name basis. So why do I feel so compelled to tell stories about this place from the inside looking out? I’ve become more and more comfortable walking the streets of the Downtown Eastside, but I still often feel like an intruder once my feet actually hit the pavement in the neighbourhood.
I walked through the crowd between Carrall and Columbia where a lot of the locals hang out and sell their stuff on the sidewalk, drugs included. It’s the very stretch where that CNN ireporter guy posted a video saying he barely escaped with his life. What a load of horse shit. Unless he chose to buy some heroin and inject himself with a dirty needle, and then either OD on the spot or die from complications due to Hep or AIDS much later in life, he wasn’t in any imminent danger. The embellishments that give the media their viewership do nothing to serve the people they are reporting to. It polarizes opinion, instills fear, and creates false drama. Drama gets them more eyes, hits, views, and – ad revenue. But CNN vetted the story, so everyone who watched it – thousands of people with wifi and laptops and 50” TVs – believed it was true. The people of the Downtown Eastside are suffering more because of embellishments like these and asinine organizations like CNN. When CNN tells everyone to fear the poor, the poor become poorer.
I arrived at the Cosmo hotel. It was marked only by its address – numbers on a glass door sandwiched between two run down businesses. Through it I could see a long stairway leading up to the second floor. I presumed that reception was up there, like it is at the Hazelwood or the Shaldon. There was an intercom to my right. I pushed the button and a moment later the door unlatched with neither greeting nor protest.
Kevin wasn’t there. There was no reception anywhere. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in fact. Just three stories of long, empty, but worn hallways with freshly mopped floors and I walked the full length of each one. There was evidence that people lived here: a photocopied notice to tenants at the entrance to each floor, a shower running in one of the hallway bathrooms as I walked past, a door to one of the rooms, cracked open just slightly. At the end of each hallway was a common room with a table and a sink but not much else. Tenants pay $375, sometimes $425, for a room in one of these SROs. A little dejected for not finding Kevin here, I left.
Back on Hastings I headed over to Abbott Mansions, the other place where he might be. The guy there at reception was friendly and helpful – but I’d just missed Kevin – he was headed to Mission Possible. I knew the place – I’d filmed him there this summer giving out clothing for the Powell Street film. I was getting flustered though. Without a phone, he is hard guy to reach and we really needed to get this done today so I could finish the film. I walked fast – back to my car by the Balmoral – a good five blocks away, got in and hauled butt eastward to Mission Possible.
I expected it to be empty – it was a Saturday – but there were tents up and a long line of people outside waiting to get in. I parked right in front, got out, and looked among the crowd – no Kevin. There was a guy in an apron having a cigarette. I asked him if Kevin was working – he said no. It was 2:30. I’m supposed to be cooking dinner tonight at my girlfriend’s. I started thinking about rescheduling – a tough thing to do though with Kevin – he’s a busy guy without a phone. I walked a block west to Oppenheimer Park, around the field house, and peered in. Sometimes Kevin hung out here. Maybe I’d catch him walking through the park on the way to Mission Possible. There was one dude with Kevin’s beard, but his gut was way too distended. Not him. I walked back to my car, glancing through the crowd still standing outside the mission. No Kevin. I drove west down Powell, back to Abbott then turned east again on Hastings until I had come nearly full circle. I decided to give it one last try – and pulled over just past the Union Gospel Mission – there were tents there too, blocking off the street, and there was a big crowd inside. I had a coffee here once with Kevin. I asked the woman at the door if she’d seen him. She had no idea who I was talking about but said I was welcome to look inside, and get my picture taken if I wanted. So I did, minus the picture. It was a Christmas party for the neighbourhood. Oh yeah, it’s December. But no Kevin.
As I stepped outside I decided to check Mission Possible one last time. I walked there, down Princess to Powell then west one block. The crowd was still waiting. I looked through the crowd carefully – and there he was, at the front of the line. I squeezed through and put my hand on his shoulder. “There you are! Are you ready to get going? We have a lot to do.” But he wasn’t budging. He reached in his pocket pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was a meal ticket. He wanted me to be his guest at this, the first Christmas dinner of the season. He told me later that last year he went to thirty of these in the neighbourhood. Talk about packing on the holiday pounds – there is an overabundance of excellent food in the Downtown Eastside around Christmas time. (But what about the other 11 months of the year?)
If I was feeling like an impostor before I suddenly felt ten times moreso. How could I? This isn’t me. I don’t belong in a food lineup on the Downtown Eastside. How could I possibly be welcome here? It would feel like stealing. For gods sake I drove here in my paid-off SUV and I was carrying a $1200 camera in my coat. (Many) people who wait in lineups for food are on welfare, live in SROs, or sleep on church steps. On top of that everyone had been waiting here for at least the last 40 minutes and I had just cut (unintentionally) to the front of the line without waiting a single minute. I gushed with guilt on top of the impostor syndrome. But Kevin insisted… how could I refuse his gift? I accepted, reluctantly.
The doors opened and the feast began, with table service no less. Coffee, pumpkin pie, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, turkey AND ham – it was all too much to finish. Around our table: Brent, Patrick, and (I forgot your name) who said I looked like his cousin from Terrace. Smiles all around. There were live carolers to serenade us. I sang two Christmas carols myself – and I don’t sing. The short sermon from the pastor was warm, welcoming, and non-judgemental. Everyone seemed warm, welcoming, and non-judgemental. My self-consciousness that I didn’t belong melted away. We left when we were done and were each given a parting gift of socks, gloves, and a toque to stay warm outside. I offered mine to Kevin to give to one of his friends and he insisted I give it to my girlfriend instead.
Kevin and I walked back to my car and drove to my apartment to do the voiceovers for the film. But first we watched the rough cut together on my TV. I might be mistaken, but when it was over I sensed a slight shakiness in his voice, like he might be a little choked up. Without looking over he thanked me for letting him be a part of the film. Another gift: he liked it. No, thank you, Kevin.
I made some tea, set up the mics, gave him the script and we got on with the recordings.
Dispossession will be opening a ‘solo’ show in the Lobby Gallery of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday, November 15. I will be there for the opening (4-6pm, food and drink will be served) to give a brief, informal artist talk and to chat about the next component of the project – an academic art-based research project with my brother, Dr. Jeff Masuda. One product of the project will be a documentary film (pending funding).
A new show Grant Mercs | For All Our Entropic States + Branko Djuras | Black and White With(out) the Grey opens this Friday, April 8 at the Gallery Gachet at 88 East Cordova in Vancouver. The showing of my piece, Dispossession, is enjoying its second extension and will be viewable in the salon area at the rear of the gallery, throughout this show.
Unfortunately the funding for a followup piece to Dispossession has been delayed, and with other projects now beginning to fill up my calendar, it may be a year or longer before I can revisit it.
Well Kizuna is now complete. How times flies… but fortunately, Dispossession, the piece I created for Kizuna, will live on as it travels next to the Downtown East Side’s Gallery Gachet (88 East Cordova) to be shown for the second of three communities that helped make it possible.
A fairly revealing interview I had with John Endo Greenway of The Bulletin about my life experiences that ultimately led to the creation of Dispossession appears in their October issue. I spoke a lot about these experiences in my artist’s talk at the Japanese Canadian National Museum in October. The Bulletin is a monthly magazine (print and web) about the Japanese Canadian community and has been around for many, many years (1958, perhaps even earlier under a different name…?). You can read the interview on The Bulletin’s website, or below.
Born in Edmonton and raised in a suburb called Sherwood Park, filmmaker and photographer Greg Masuda had what he calls a very ‘Canadian’ prairie upbringing. “We’d do Canadian things like play hockey and baseball, eat Canadian things like Kraft Dinner, perogies, and steaks. But occasionally some sukiyaki would find its way to the table or my Dad would say something in Japanese that none of us understood, and I’ve known how to use chopsticks since I can remember. A couple times a year we would make it down to where my Dad was raised, near Lethbridge, and it was then, when we visited my family there, that a little more of our Japanese roots came out.”
By the time Greg was thirty he was living the Canadian dream—Vice President of a company that was one of the stock market darlings during the late 90s, a very good salary, plenty of stock options, a wife, a house in the suburbs, two nice cars in the garage, a dog and cat. As he says, “Every measure of success I had grown up with had been exceeded and my future was looking bright.”
At the end of 2005 though, within a matter of months, Greg’s world collapsed around him, the life he had carefully constructed in tatters. After the dust had cleared he was left feeling unfulfilled, somewhat taken advantage of, and depressed.
He began to question what he calls his neo-liberal values, eventually rejecting the corporate mindset where “good people can be made to say and do awful things in the interests of the shareholders.” As he concedes, “I’m not proud of that phase of my life. But I needed that wake up call to begin being true to myself. It’s the genesis of the work that I’m doing today in photography and film.”
That work is what brought him into the Kizuna exhibit, where his large-scale work Dispossession takes up much of one wall in the gallery. Now living in Vancouver, he was invited to take part in the project and he jumped at the chance to dig deeper into his roots in the community and to explore how the Japanese Canadian experience fits into the broader picture of what it means to be Canadian and displaced.
Interview: Greg Masuda
Your life took a ninety-degree turn from the one you lived up until you were thirty. What was it like to experience such a dramatic shift, not only in lifestyle, but approach to life itself?
At the beginning of 2009 I was set to carry on with that career. I was determined to get my CA to complement my executive experience and I was two months into articling at a big accounting firm in downtown Vancouver when a friend of mine planted this seed about film school. I had never considered making movies before but it sure sounded like a lot more fun than doing taxes and audits. Practically speaking, it was financial suicide, but in my heart it just felt right. I’m not a complete idiot though—I was in a good position to do it—my expenses were low, I had no dependents, I had some money in the bank and I figured I was still pretty employable if it didn’t work out. Still it was extremely scary, especially the money part, because I’ve never had to worry about money before, but also I suffer from some serious imposter syndrome . . . I had been a photographer on the side for a number of years but I just didn’t think I was good enough to actually make it in the arts. But then I imagined myself on my death bed reflecting on my life and wishing I had gone to film school when I had a chance—and that’s what pushed me over the edge. I think I’m doing pretty well for being only 18 months all-in, but I still get scared if I think about money for very long.
As part of the project, you went into the archives looking for inspiration. What did you find there?
The first photograph I saw during my research was the one that inspired the aesthetic for Dispossession. It’s a photo of an RCMP officer leading a long line of Japanese families outside of the immigration building in Vancouver, circa 1945. That photo represents the eastward displacement of Japanese Canadians during the internment, including my own family’s relocation from Shawnigan Lake to the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta.
I also spent a lot of time looking at the New Canadian from January 1942 onwards, especially during the first few months of 1942, before anyone knew their lives and their community were going to be confiscated by Canada. The gravity of my family’s loss really hit home for me. It made me angry with Canada actually, something I’ve never felt before.
Your contribution to this project is a single photograph, or at least that’s what it appears to be on the surface. In reality, the piece you have created is made up of many works that you have stitched together with Photoshop. What made you decide to work on such a large scale?
In November 2009 I began to work as a camera assistant on a CTV documentary about Vancouver’s world famous photo conceptualist artists including Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and Rodney Graham. Their work was very new to me. They work in a large scale format which sometimes takes years of planning and production to create. Witnessing these masters at work completely changed my approach to photography, and I owe them credit for inspiring this new approach. I tried to mimic some of their methods and the scale of their work in this piece, and, for the most part, it seems to have worked. But it’s not my first piece either. I did a ‘practice’ piece for another small show in June, a photograph I call Repulsion.
Can you talk about the thought process behind creating this piece?
Beth Carter asked me to participate in Kizuna a whole year ago but it wasn’t until August that I actually decided what the photograph would be. After a conversation with Lily Shinde about the internment, the photo began as an idea for a documentary film seeded by my brother, about the dispossession of populations in Vancouver starting with colonization of First Nations, then the Japanese Canadian internment, and finally the gentrification of today’s Downtown Eastside community. Whatever form discrimination takes, be it racial or socio-economic, it’s the same thing repeating itself over and over again over the past 150 years. It’s shocking what was acceptable to society and endorsed by our government in the past, i.e. the genocide of First Nations and the racial hatred of the Japanese, and I hope that people will realize what’s taking place right now on the Downtown Eastside and to see that it’s equally unacceptable. I hope that this piece will add to the voices of the community that have been trying to get that point across all this time. It’s sad but I think the majority of Vancouverites, and Canadians for that matter, would just as soon see the whole neighbourhood gentrified with condos and coffee shops. There’s just so much ignorance out there.
It’s quite a remarkable work—what should people look for when they see it?
The exhibition photograph is 9.5 feet wide by over 2 feet tall, that is, it’s pretty big but there is a lot of detail to look at as well. It’s meant to be scrutinized, from a very micro view of the details of East Hastings, to the much larger picture that you can only appreciate if you stand back ten feet. I hope the viewers take the time to really look at this photo from all perspectives you need to really appreciate it.
Also, everything is in there for a reason. The location was very carefully scouted. Notice that they’re walking away from the Woodwards building for example—there’s a reason for that. The people in the photo are there on purpose, their gender, race, age are all intentional. Some are ghosts and some are not. The trees are black and white while Hastings Street is in colour . . . The direction the people are walking and even the directions they are looking are intentional. The little girl is looking right at you. Some viewers have even pointed out details that I hadn’t intended to put in but speak to them—like the graffiti you can see through the RCMP officer and the fact that it sits right where his heart is. What that means to her might not mean anything to someone else, or it might mean something completely different. There is a ton of intention and information put into this piece but it really depends what the viewers see for themselves and what messages they take away from it. I hope they get my message, but maybe take something else away that’s unique to their experience too.
You’ve moved from the outer reaches of the Japanese Canadian diaspora to the community’s historic home, the downtown eastside. You’re still young, but you have lived those two realities. Have you learned anything about what it means to be Japanese Canadian, or being a hapa?
I don’t actually live in the Downtown Eastside but I spend time working and volunteering there. I was on the board of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House for a bit and I’m also on the Advocacy Committee of the Powell Street Festival. My experience working in the neighbourhood has kept me grounded, especially when I was working for that big accounting firm. You can get so caught up in work and business and nearly everyone around you is chasing material wealth and bigger and better things. I actually depended on my work in the Downtown Eastside to save me from buying back into those ideas.
What I’ve also learned, from my research and my time in the Japanese Canadian community, is that the internment was very real, and very devastating. I myself am a product of the internment if it weren’t for my father’s relocation to Southern Alberta, he would have never met my mother and I would not exist today. But, since I do, I have taken every opportunity to learn about this side of my family. The more time I spend in the archives, the more I feel that I am part of the Japanese Canadian community.
Was this your first time delving into the archives? What do you bring away from this project?
Yes, it was my first time, but I attended a genealogy workshop last fall that was very inspiring. I looked into what it meant for my family. I also found fear mongering ads in the New Canadian from Vancouver businesses trying to capitalize on the Japanese Canadian question and that’s what really makes me sad. We think that the internment was racially motivated, and it was, but there is also a pattern of financial motivation in all instances of Vancouver’s dispossessed. Greed isn’t unique to Vancouver of course, but it’s been ground zero for a lot of battles over property and land—real estate—for as long as Vancouver has existed. It’s shocking—and the saddest part is that it’s happening again right now. This is what I’ll take away the most, as my brother and I continue this research for a documentary film.
You’re heavily involved in film, what projects are upcoming for you?
I am pitching a new film project about hereditary cancer to a theatre of international commissioning editors and industry professionals at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 28. I also have some photographic projects in mind that will pick up where Repulsion left off. I start a three month internship at the National Film Board on October 4. My brother and I are also working on a documentary film in the same spirit as the Dispossession photograph.
Yesterday was my second year shooting Free The Children’s We Day, founded by Craig and Marc Keilberger. (Read my post from my first year’s experience here). Marketed annually as the ‘Rock Concert for Social Change’, 18,000 kids and youth packed Roger’s Arena in Vancouver, BC and squealed with glee as the celebrities took the stage to speak about social and environmental change, or to play their pop tunes. What celebrities? To name a few: Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, Assembly of FIrst Nations Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Rick Hansen, the Bare Naked Ladies, Hedley, Colby Cailat, and BC’s least favorite politician, Gordon Campbell. Unfortunately, but predictably given who was in the crowd, the pop artists got more squeals than the speakers. Warning: cynicism/criticism ahead.
Who exactly does We Day target? Martin Sheen, Jesse Jackson, even Al Gore are ‘old’ guys who are, even at my ripe old age of thirty-something, a little before my time to know well yet people who I respect and admire greatly. Even one of my fellow twenty-something photographers merely ‘recognized’ Jesse Jackson but didn’t actually know who he was. And then backstage I found myself explaining to another twenty-something person that Martin Sheen was the father of Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, but in my opinion the most talented of the three (not to mention his activism which I admittedly know little about). Surely these three speakers weren’t chosen for the underage audience… by far the loudest squeals from the crowd came when Justin Bieber’s pre-recorded video popped up on the big screen to greet his fans – and the kid wasn’t even there! Justin Bieber, folks. There’s the majority of your We Day demographic. Martin Sheen didn’t stand a chance, poor guy. His speech, which I watched afterwards (recorded) was moving and powerful, but come on, I’d bet less than 1% of the kids even knew who he was let alone what the heck he was talking about – no one even realized he told two jokes in the first couple of minutes (I did, and laughed). He was one of my favorites even though he completely avoided my camera (nerves or just fed up with paparazzi I suppose – which I am not by the way). So for whom were Martin Sheen, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson? For people my age perhaps, like the teachers? Or perhaps the executives of the sponsoring companies (and their most valued clients) watching the show from the private skyboxes?
I missed 95% of the show anyhow… and that was just fine because this year I scored another very cool assignment – covering the cue line backstage – as the talent were briefed before going on and coming off stage. So yeah, I got very close to pretty much all of the big names this year. I must say it was very fun despite my general disinterest with celebrity.
More than celebrity disinterest though, there are some things about this event (or at least some of the people or companies involved) that were a little off besides the speaker/audience match up. Some of the speakers in the line up are undoubtedly heroes of positive change in our history and I regard them very highly; it was surreal to be standing inches from them while taking their photos. Interestingly however the reverence they receive as individuals is highly contradictory to the very important message they are trying to get across: stop thinking about me, start thinking about we, and embody those changes in your life (for life, not for the first few weeks after the event, and not just in class because your teacher tells you so).
In our society financially successful individuals, and celebrities, are worshipped like deities. From birth our impressionable children have been bombarded with this belief, as we have had it engrained in us through our lifetime of media and commercial brainwashing. It’s truly unfortunate that the vehicle for this message has to be a highly polished media event that ironically celebrates the individual by placing them on a stage at the center of 18,000 screaming kids. But perhaps this is the very reason the organizers are using these methods to deliver their message – and by delivering their message using a familiar vehicle like a nationally broadcast rock concert, maybe it will actually sink in…?
Despite much of We Day being run by volunteers (including me), this could not possibly be a free, or even cheap, production. I overheard last year that it is a completely volunteer-run event – of this I am highly skeptical. There are a lot of interests being served, exclusive broadcasts, public relations, etc. (Mr. Campbell, perhaps 2 minutes on stage before Al Gore goes on would help your 9% approval rating?). Someone, somewhere is making money, or will be making money in the future. The event is held in Roger’s Arena (previously GM Place) in Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive city, with a ten television camera setup (2 steadicams, a large jib and a 50’ dolly) covering an all-day event and broadcast on national TV and the internet. CTV’s Tanya Kim and Ben Mulroney hosted with the Keilberger brothers and Toronto-based Free The Children’s staff behind the scenes (perhaps the only volunteers, or are they even?). Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, et al. … for those of you who also volunteered your celebrity and time – kudos for walking the talk. For those who didn’t, well, it’s a good thing we have large sponsors like Telus, Aviva Insurance, and the Keg Restaurants to step in. These, among other corporate sponsors, probably have an interest in giving 18,000 impressionable youth (our leaders and spenders of tomorrow) a national television audience, and an international web audience the idea that their company is a social and environmental good guy – so when you get your first paycheque from your first fast-food job kids, remember to buy your Blackberry/iPhone from Telus).
I know I am being sarcastic, cynical, and critical, but I will again admit that it was fun and the staff were amazing. And I’m not suggesting it’s all bad… the message is the right one. What I am suggesting is that there are some things here that have more in common with where we’re coming from than where We Day and its speakers are suggesting we go. Now, having pointed this out, I wonder if I’ll be asked back next year? That could be quite telling.
ADDED NOV. 2, 2010: Here is an article in rabble.ca that resonates with my observations at We Day. C”We Day: The corporate selling of progressive ethics and hope to youth”
ADDED NOV. 3, 2013: Here is another article that resonates: “A Teacher’s Critique of ‘We Day’
Thanks to everyone who came out to the opening party for Kizuna this evening! The performances were wonderful and the crowd was very large and engaging. I am sorry if I didn’t get to talk to everyone in great detail… but there will be a second chance to discuss my piece, Dispossession, at my artist talk which is taking place on Thursday, September 16 at 7pm at the Japanese Canadian National Museum (6688 Southoaks Crescent, Burnaby).
I will also be on Sheryl MacKay’s show North By Northwest on CBC Radio One at 7:30am on Sunday September 12 (if you sleep in you can download the podcast).
It probably doesn’t surprise you to read that this isn’t a single exposure from my camera. This single image, which will be hanging in the museum starting September 10, is actually a composite of more than 30 separate photographs, selected from over 1000 exposures (probably closer to 1500 but I’m not going to count). That’s about the extent of my technique that I’m going to reveal, except to say that in every way, I have never attempted anything like this before. Yes I’ve done photo composites before, but usually a single location, with 1 or 2 people, and 1 or 2 photographs merged into one.
I did two composites earlier this year (not knowing I would use, nay stretch, the technique into this one made up of three locations, 17 people, and 30-plus photos). Cake, right? My computer didn’t think so. (Warning: I’m going to geek out once more for a bit here) Before this project I thought Macs and Photoshop (a legit CS4 version on an 8-month new 27” iMac i7 with 8GB RAM) were fast and stable systems. That is until Photoshop starts saving your files automatically into the “.psb” format (not .psd for those who know what I mean). That means you’ve gone past the maximum file size that .psd can handle into this other realm known as “Large File Format”. It begins to happen around 2GB. When it gets up to 5 or 6GB, that’s when your (my) previously stable system begins to crash and reboots to reduce crashes are the norm. Saving your progress takes 5-10 minutes when you’re working with a 6GB file. Opening a 6GB file takes 5-10 minutes. Then there’s visually inspecting 200 million pixels to make sure there aren’t any defects… and fixing the defects you find (I hope I found them all). Let’s just say it took a whole lot of time to do the post production on this image.
Which brings us full circle. Back to the print lab. I’m still here, in my third coffee shop today, blogging this verbose retrospective. The proofs for my print will be ready to view tomorrow, and the mounting material, aluminum, has been ordered. It’ll then take the better part of the remaining 1.5 weeks before the show to print, laminate, mount, and transport (Does your car have room to move a 9.5 foot piece of handle-with-extreme-care metal from Vancouver to Burnaby? Mine doesn’t) the photo by September 9, in time to be installed for the September 10 Opening Party.
If you can’t make the party it will be on display in the museum until November 27. Hope you can make it out to see it! Oh did I mention the title of the photograph is ‘Dispossession’?
Oh, you want to see it here? Well, maybe I’ll post something after the 10th.
At this point, time was not on my side but I’ve never been one to give up a project I believe in. It could be done. It would be done, one way or another. Call me foolishly ambitious. Two things I had going for me: 1. I wasn’t a stranger to the neighbourhood – I had become fairly well connected to the Downtown Eastside and Japanese Canadian communities in the past three years. 2. the Powell Street Festival was days away – surely I could find a “Japanese-looking family” to appear as “ghosts” in the photograph there! The response was initially slow but then it seemed like overnight I had cast the roles of the ghosts and the three present day community representatives. Doug Masuhara, Derek & Sayaka Iwanaka, Kasey Ryne Mazak, Donna Nakamoto, Ty Evans, Sahali Lee Tsang, Tyler Win, Kaylen Win, Sid Chow Tan, Donna Gilkes, Robert Bonner, Wendy Charbonneau… Cast – check!
The other, very important person I needed to recruit was a Stylist to create the wardrobe for the ghosts. Authenticity was key, so I needed someone who I believed could do the job. Fortunately, my roommate Nikolina Suric is in the biz. She had just finished heading up the costuming department on a TV pilot and was available and interested. Unfortunately, her wardrobe at Capilano University wasn’t accessible until the fall so she would have to purchase and/or make all of the costumes for the shoot, cutting deeper into my production budget. The most difficult costume to find wasn’t a costume at all – we needed a 1942-era RCMP uniform like the one that appears in the JCNM’s photo, leading the families along the tracks.
I contacted my MP, Libby Davies, for help and they referred me to a local RCMP office. I wrote a letter to the RCMP explaining the project and the context in which the uniform would be used – and then waited… with no response (and still have not received one). In the meantime, just less than a week before the shoot, Nikolina found us the real thing at a movie service company, with King’s Crown badges, brown surge, striped jodhpurs, belt, cross strap, hat – everything! The only problem was – as we discovered after battling a few hours of Trans Canada construction traffic between Vancouver and Aldergrove – they wouldn’t rent it to us until we had written permission from the RCMP Intellectual Property Office in Ottawa! And there were only 3 days left until the shoot! (The RCMP uniform is trademarked you see, and after some abuse of these rights by commercial clients (which I learned includes some Olympic clients), the RCMP was coming down hard on anyone with access to RCMP marks.) I sent all of my correspondence to Ottawa and begged for their permission! To my surprise they were extremely responsive – I was shocked when the Sergeant in charge actually answered his phone on the first ring! But, as I learned after two days of back and forth, their response was negative. Permission needed approval from some higher-ups. I lost faith but wrote one more email trying to explain my case further – even if they did approve, there was no way I would get their approval in time for the shoot. An hour later, an email arrived while I was wondering what I would do. It was a yes! They had given me permission to use it for Kizuna! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I happily camped my butt in bumper to bumper traffic on the trip to Aldergrove to get the uniform. Costumes – check!
Where to shoot it? Powell Street? Gentrification is marching east but it hadn’t reached Japantown quite yet (it probably will). I needed a place that demonstrated the real-estate steamroller effect on the Downtown Eastside community. The Woodward’s development was an obvious choice but I needed to check some facts first. I met with some community leaders I knew and began to do some fact checking. Woodward’s was ‘ground zero’ for the Woodsquat of 2002, where promises were made that eventually led to the end of the squat. While the community was invited to the table for extensive brainstorming of how the space would look and benefit the Downtown Eastside (most of which was ignored), and while some low income housing was included (75 family units, 125 single person units), the development of commercial and common spaces and over 500 market-rate condominiums (which sold out in hours at an average of $380,000), has proven also to be a vehicle for middle class outsiders, corporate tenants, and real-estate speculators to displace the poor. Today, Woodward’s is seen by Downtown Eastsiders as a literal reminder (two condo towers cast large shadows over the neighbourhood) and an iconic green light for gentrification east of Main. My choice for the location subtly shows the Woodwards building in the background, to the west (left), with community people (and the ghosts) symbolically walking away from it, eastward (right) – the direction which they are actually being displaced, and the direction that Japanese Canadians were also forced to move, 68 years ago. Location 1 of 3 – Check.
Initially my plan was that the Japanese Canadians would not appear as ghosts at all – they would be marching in the flesh, in costume right down Hastings with the present day neighbourhood people. That was the way it was going to be – until one day I pieced together a concept photo from my Hastings test shoot and the JCNM original. When I dropped these figures into the background, the idea for ghosts was decided. In addition to the symbolic meaning of something from the past, this approach would solve a number of other logistical and technical issues I was struggling with. I didn’t think I would have an authentic 1942 RCMP uniform and I didn’t know how authentic the other costumes would be (all were quite authentic in the end). I also fretted over the nightmare of arranging 10-15 people to hit their marks simultaneously, not to mention drawing a crowd of passers-by, and perhaps the Vancouver Police Department. On my budget, coordinating this safely and effectively was a major risk. But if I did ghosts… that brings us to location #2: the Greenscreen Shoot. This was easy. On my third call looking for a space, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House offered both to manage traffic at the Day 1 Hastings shoot AND open up their space (AND provide healthy snacks!) for my makeshift greenscreen studio for the Day 2 Shoot. Location 2 of 3 – Check.
The third location was the one I was less sure of. Somehow I needed to represent the first, and largest dispossession – that of the Coast Salish First Nations. I initially thought about including old-growth trees in the photo but my second choice was to place First Nations art strategically in the photo. But all of my calls to First Nations artists (Musqueam and Squamish I tried) were coming up empty. Trees it would be. Where are there trees that could represent those that once stood in the area now known as the Downtown Eastside? Stanley Park. Off I went. Location 3 of 3 – Check.
But were trees enough? The main contacts for First Nations leaders were away on vacation. Robert Bonner is Cree, and represents today’s aboriginal population in the Hastings scene, but Cree is not a First Nation of this area. Then, two days before the Greenscreen Shoot, Gary Johnston of the Native Education College returned my call to let me know his sister, Wendy Charbonneau, a Squamish Junior Elder, would be happy to appear in the photograph in full regalia. Wendy was the last piece in this complex puzzle of pre-production.
So three distinct and related communities had responded and were ready to go. Costumes were ready, locations selected. Then came the (relatively) easy part. Actually taking the photograph(s)…