Animation artist and documentary filmmaker, Jeff Chiba Stearns, combines his talents while trying to come to an understanding regarding his own ancestry in his latest film, One Big Hapa Family.
After realizing that every member of his Japanese-Canadian family has married inter-racially since his grandparents’ generation, he sets out on a quest to discover why this is so. Growing up, Jeff was constantly questioning his identity as a “banana milkshake,” a term he uses to describe children who are of half Asian and half Caucasian descent. Jeff was intrigued even further when he discovered nearly 100% of Japanese Canadians marry inter-racially – higher than any other ethnicity in the country.
While there is a large Japanese population in Canada, there is no designated Japantown in the same way that there is a Chinatown or a Little India. This lack of a cohesive community is explained when, on his mission, Jeff discovers that he and many other multi-racial Japanese Canadians are a result of the post World War II era. During the war, Japanese Canadians were forced to enter internment camps, and after the war, they were scattered across Canada. In an effort to break ties with Japan, many Canadian born Japanese citizens dated and married inter-racially in order to prove to the Canadian government that they were not the enemy and in no way had any allegiance to Japan. While some of Jeff’s family admits that this was a conscious decision, others say they were just brought up in such a Western manner that they always mingled with Caucasians.
This film is unique in its approach to incorporating the history into the story. Instead of having an interviewee explaining the facts, or a voice-over along with still images, Jeff uses his skills as an animator to showcase past events. This method is both original and effective. Audiences will easily be engaged by the combination of serious and sometimes humourous animated sequences.
Another reason crowds will likely respond to this film is because it will easily translate across a plenitude of nationalities - all which struggle to maintain a sense of individual culture and identity in our increasingly multi-cultural society. Through the many interviews Jeff conducts with family members from both his Japanese side as well as his European and Caucasian side, we see that while it is a challenge, maintaining culture is possible even amongst mixed families.
In order for culture to be maintained, the filmmaker suggests that parents talk more openly with their children about identity. The film is just shy of 50 minutes, but it manages to cover such a vast amount of interesting historical and personal narratives. The interviewees span four generations of this family in order to get a variety of opinions and views. The most interesting parts of the film were when Jeff interviewed the new generation of children in his family to see how they identified themselves. Many of the children made mention of both their Japanese and their Canadian heritage, but most were quick to divide themselves into halves or quarters. However, in this inspiring film, Jeff Chiba Stearns reminds us that, “as mixed as we are, we are all whole.”
The film is screening at Innis Town Hall on November 14th at 4:45pm as part of the Reel Asian Film Festival.