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Victoria Film Festival 2011 Interview - "One Big Hapa Family" director Jeff Chiba Stearns

One Big Hapa Family - At VFF '11!
by Jason Whyte

"With intermarriage on the rise, people of multiethnic decent are becoming the fasted growing demographic in North America, thus changing the landscape of Canadian identity and multiculturalism, as we know it.  One Big Hapa Family, is one of the first documentaries to explore these topics in depth.  The film recently won the NFB Best Canadian Film at the 2010 Toronto Reel Asian Intl. Film Festival and has experienced sold out screenings in Vancouver and Toronto."

Is this your first film at the Victoria Film Festival?

This is my first feature film screening at the Victoria Film Festival but in 2009 my short animated film, Yellow Sticky Notes screened as part of the VFF. Yellow Sticky Notes actually won the Best Animated Film Award that year. Although, at the time of the festival I was in France at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival screening Yellow Sticky Notes where it was awarded the Prix du Public. Therefore, this year, I am excited to be in Victoria for the first weekend to accompany my Victoria screening. I love Victoria! The food in Victoria is amazing and I can’t wait to eat every lunch at Red Fish Blue Fish! It’s such a beautiful and cultural city and I'm really looking forward to experiencing my first Victoria Film Festival.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.

I am an independent filmmaker born in Kelowna, BC, of Japanese and European heritage. I got into the industry because of my love for art, animation and film. After graduating from Emily Carr University with a Degree in Film Animation in 2001, I founded Meditating Bunny Studio Inc. specializing in creating animation, documentary, and experimental films aimed at children and adults that combine different philosophical and social elements together to create humorous inspiring stories. The studio has also produced animated commercials for 3M Canada, Sharpie, Generali, and Anythink. My animated shorts, "Kip and Kyle" (2000), "The Horror of Kindergarten" (2001), "What Are You Anyways?" (2005), "Yellow Sticky Notes" (2007) and "Ode to a Post-it Note" (2010) have screened at hundreds of film festivals around the world, garnered 22 awards including the Prix du Public at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, and broadcast internationally.

I just completed this first feature live action/animated documentary, "One Big Hapa Family" (2010), about children of mixed-Japanese decent and the high Japanese Canadian interracial marriage rate. I'm also a college animation instructor who has written articles for national publications and lectured around the world on topics of multiracial identity, cultural awareness, filmmaking, short film distribution, and animation.

How did this whole project come together?

In 2005, I finished my animated short, “What Are You Anyway?” about my experiences growing up in Kelowna being of mixed-Japanese decent. That film took me on a journey of lectures and talks about multiethnic identity and really opened my eyes up to the need for discussion around this topic. At the 2006 Koga family reunion, I noticed that every single child in our family was mixed. Not a single child out of the around 40 that were there was of full-Japanese ancestry. I realized that it wasn’t just my immediate family that married interracially - All five of my grandparent’s daughters married non-Japanese-Canadian men. In fact, everyone in my intermediate family after my grandparent’s generation had married interracially.

I think after making “What Are You Anyways?” I had become more self aware of some of these dynamics in my family where as before I never really thought about it because it was just so normal to me. After exploring my own identity through film, I wanted to explore a bit of my overall family’s identity and how my family thought about the issues of intermarriage and multiracial identity. All things I had never discussed with them before and I was curious why not because it plays such a huge role in our family’s identity. Thus, I picked up a camera and started filming the 2006 Koga Family reunion and heading off on a four-year journey to capture a special but pivotal moment in my family’s history, which I would soon discover after screening the film, parallels almost every other Japanese-Canadian family’s story.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

"One Big Hapa Family" is an HD feature length documentary combining various styles of animation with live action footage. Many scenes were also captured using a Canon 40D Digital SLR camera taking rapid-fire photo sequences and used to represent the viewpoint of the director. There is over 20 minutes of animation created for One Big Hapa Family. The animation approach for One Big Hapa Family is unique. Not only did I provide much of the animation in the film from chalkboard and classical ink on paper animation, I also contracted various skilled and award-winning independent animators to create sections of animation to be used to bring interview stories to life. These animators include, Louise Johnson, Ben Meinhardt, Todd Ramsay, Kunal Sen, and Jonathan Ng. Each animator animated their sections in their own unique styles from traditional classical animation to even using under the camera paint-on-glass. Avoiding overused motion graphics, as often used in other documentaries, this eclectic mix of animation styles helps bring a creative and fun visual candy shop to the film not normally seen in traditional documentary formats which usually stick to one limited computer generated animation style and technique.

For the live action footage, we shot on the Panasonic HVX200 at 1280x720. My friend, Jason Woodford, operated the camera and sound so it was just him and I when I interviewed my family for the film. Just having two of us there, made my interview subjects comfortable and allowed them the ability to talk to me honestly, openly, and with passion without worrying about a big crew staring at them and being intimidating. Because of that we captured some remarkable and real interviews and conversations.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

Needless to say, the biggest challenge I faced making this documentary was the 4 years it took to put it all together. From the raising of the funds, to production, to the 1 and half years it took to edit it all together. Although, I’m super happy with the final film; it became the film that encompassed everything I wanted to explore and discuss about the topics. The feature version may be a little long for some people but that’s why we also have a 48 minute broadcast version.

It was challenging to create a feature film based on the topic of intermarriage and multiethnic identity but I knew it had to be as entertaining as it is educational. So for the film, we created what I call a candy shop of animation to bring the stories to life. Being an animator, I knew I’d never get a chance to create a feature length animation anytime soon so it was great that we were able to incorporate a lot of animation into the film. I was able to get some super talented animators to create their own personalized conceptions of stories told by the interviewees. I think the animation really brings the film to life and brings appeal for younger viewers into the subject matter talked about in the doc. As well the music really fits the theme as it’s a fusion of traditional Japanese instruments with a western flare.

So incorporating the animation and music into the film was definitely amazing along with the incredible interviews I was able to capture with my family. Just being able to preserve my families stories was the biggest reward and pleasurable part of making this film. Now having the opportunity to share the film with audiences is a remarkable experience!

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

I'm influenced and inspired by so many sources from illustrators, artists, filmmakers, animators, directors, and documentarians, which is why I encompassed so many styles in One Big Hapa Family. As an independent animator I'm inspired by the work of NFB filmmakers Norman McLaren, Ryan Larkin, and Sheldon Cohen. Canada has such a rich history of creating great animations and documentaries. I just combined both together for the making of "One Big Hapa Family".

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? What do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?

One Big Hapa Family started it's film festival run in September world premiering at the Calgary International Film Festival. It was great to premiere in Canada out west. The response to the film has been amazing. So far the film has screened across North America and has experienced sold out screenings in Toronto and Vancouver with near sellouts in Calgary, San Diego and Kelowna. People were sitting in the aisles at the Vancouver screening. At the Toronto Reel Asian Int’l Film Festival One Big Hapa Family was just awarded the NFB Best Canadian Film Award. That was a huge honor and really helps get the exposure the film needs to bring awareness to the celebration of intermarriage and mixing.

Joy Kogawa came out to the Toronto screening and afterwards emailed and told me that, “The Hapa generation have been thirsting for something like this for a long timw.” To have the support from Joy Kogawa who has played such a prominent role in Japanese-Canadian cultural identity is a huge compliment and I am greatly honored.

After a screening I’ve always had a huge line up of people wanting to buy the DVD and tell me a bit of their own stories. Whether they are an intermarried couple who have been married for 50 years or Hapa teenagers just happy that there are other people who have similar struggles with identity, the range of the audiences have been incredible. I even had one Hapa woman come up to me and tell me, “where was this film 30 years ago when I was growing up…I really could have used it.” For a lot of Japanese-Canadians who come out to watch the film, they always comment that it’s like watching their own families up there on the screen! It was important that even though the high intermarriage rate amongst Japanese-Canadians was caused by racist politics, an unjust internment, and forced assimilation, I wanted to keep the film positive, upbeat and humorous.

The film also had some US screenings down in San Diego and Washington DC. It was amazing how many people came up to me afterwards and told me they had no idea that Japanese in Canada were interned. They thought that only happened in the US. And when they realize that the conditions in Canada were far worse than what happened in the US they are shocked. So it’s been great to help educate audience in America about our history and heritage. Many also comment that their families are so similar because 1/3rd of all the hapas in the US are in California.
This spring, "One Big Hapa Family" will screen at more film festivals around North America and I have some screenings ad lectures lined up at universities and colleges. I’ve even been invited to present the film and speak at Harvard Yale. The film is getting noticed and gaining the attention of multicultural societies, organizations and schools, so I guess I’m preparing myself for a pretty big tour this spring!

My main goal with "One Big Hapa Family" is that I want this film to incite dialogue and discussion after people have the opportunity to view it. I want a family to watch the film together and talk about what they’ve learned and discuss the issues and questions I’ve presented. I want kids to ask their parents the same questions I asked my family in the film. I want the parents to talk to their kids about identity. We’re so quick to talk to kids about sex and drugs but no one realizes that identity plays a huge role in the development of our children and being multiethnic is something that needs to be discussed and celebrated. That is why I try my hardest to accompany every screening and be there to answer questions after the screenings. After the world premiere screening at the Calgary Int’l Film Festival screening this September I did a talk at the Calgary Nikkei Cultural Centre for the elders and for anyone who wanted to discuss the film further after the screening. I really want to do my best to open this up for dialogue.

I love Victoria and there is a rich Japanese-Canadian history on Vancouver Island. Although there have been many struggles that Victoria Japanese-Canadians have had to endure. From racism towards Japanese fishermen to the WWII Japanese Internment forcing all coastal Japanese-Canadians from their homes leading to the confiscation of their fishing boats and businesses. Therefore, it is of extreme importance to remember this history and screen One Big Hapa Family in Victoria, in front of a Victoria audience. We've invited the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society

If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in?

I'd be a chef. I love food and cooking and I find it is a great way to relieve tension and stress!

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

These days so much depends on self-promotion of films. Especially for independent filmmakers. With the changing landscape of the internet it’s made this self-promotion easier but more difficult at the same time because you’re competing to get noticed among a sea of hundreds of thousands of other films. I rely heavily on forming a fan base for my work so when I release something new it already has a bit of buzz.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

When I was in Anchorage, Alaska they had a theatre called the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub where you could sit and watch a film on the big screen and drink beer. It was a great atmosphere and I heard that there a few other theatres like this throughout the US. I guess anytime I can drink a beer and watch my film makes me a lot more relaxed! I’d love to watch One Big Hapa Family in one of these theatres for sure!

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

Make films that you enjoy. Don't make films just to make money. Audiences can spot a lack of passion every time. Independent filmmaking is always about following your bliss first never for the money.

What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

I love the "Do it Yourself" independent distribution model developing. I love spending time properly promoting the film at film festivals, traveling around, and striking deals on my own. Most filmmakers get burnt out after making a film and don't focus energy on marketing and promotion. That's their biggest mistake. It's too easy these days for anyone to just make a film so it all comes down to how well you promote your work. Making a film is only 50% making the film and 50% promotion. Because at the end of the day, know one knows you made a film if no one ever sees it! I love traveling with the film around the world and sharing it with audiences. That’s the greatest reward any filmmaker could ask for after.

What would you do or say to someone who is talking or being disruptive during a movie?

It depends on what people consider disruptive. If they are laughing loudly or making the odd comment, I think that's okay. That's the power of being in a cinema with an audience. If they are jeering and just talking throughout the film or checking their cell phone that really bothers me. That distracts other people and that's not cool. If I have the opportunity to move to another area of the theatre I do but normally I would politely ask the person to be respectful to the filmmaker and audience around them. My personal pet peeve is people who come in five minutes into the movie and try to find a seat. That really disrupts the entire theatre especially if it’s your film.

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite film of all time?

"Apocalypse Now” is my favorite film of all time. I’m an existentialist and I love reading Kafka, Nietzsche, and Conrad. My 2001 grad film from Emily Carr is a short animated film based on Joseph Campbell's "The Heart of Darkness". Which is the same book that “Apocalypse Now” is adapted from. My short was called "The horror of Kindergarten” and it was about a little boy experiencing the horror discovered in his first day of Kindergarten. It ends up being naptime…oh the horror…the horror…!

So basically “The Horror of Kindergarten” was a short animated children's version of "Apocalypse Now"!

"One Big Hapa Family" screens Saturday, 5pm at the Odeon.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Victoria Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VFF ’11 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #vicfilmfestival is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/05/11 20:27:08
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