What are we reconsidering about the "Yellow Peril"?

by Midi Onodera

The internal image of ourselves, and external expression of that, is the basic component of who we are. How others perceive us, coupled with societal expectations and stereotypes, contextualizes this sense of identity. For instance, within the context of the exhibition, I am accepted and labelled as as Asian Canadian filmmaker. I am classified as third generation Japanese Canadian, as middleclass, as a woman, and as a lesbian. These labels reveal little about who I am, but relate more to the social attributions of each component. My perspective or voice is developed and enhanced by who I am, my experiences and imagination.

The gap between these differing views can be a rich, expansive area to explore. As an independent filmmaker, my work reflects the contradictions and dichotomy of my own identity. As a writer for television, I surrender the overall creative control of the final production in favour of monetary gain. Consequently, this permits me to work on my own productions.

The intersection for both forms of media expression is the personal perspective enhanced by the language and structural confines of visual application. Film language exceeds the simplistic dated notion of "talking pictures". Since the birth of photography and the motion picture, visual language has developed in a complex fashion. We have come far from believing what we see on the screen is "true". We accept that actors play characters. However, we sometimes allow ourselves to be "swept away" by a story, "caught up with" a character and we believe that documentaries are "real".

The Displaced View tackles the notion of documentary as truth. The construction of the film is "documentary-based", meaning non-actors perform in stories based on authentic oral history - the cultural and familial links between three generations of Japanese-Canadian women. However, the stories are reconstructed and reassembled through a script. The creation of a fictional family is the vehicle by which the audience reads the story and is represented on screen by my grandmother, my mother and myself. Although elements of our personal relationships are revealed, they are interwoven with individual histories of other families. The Displaced View uses the perceived personal voice as a narrative ploy to direct the viewer.

The film is constructed to retain and illustrate the language barrier between the Issei (first generation) and Sansei (third generation). I do not speak Japanese and my grandmother speaks very little English. My communication with her was/is not based on a common language, "I knew what you meant by your expression, the tone of your voice, your eyes." 1 Yet simultaneously the perceived societal expectation is "just because I look Japanese everyone expects me to know the language."

The Displaced View was produced in the prescribed multicultural climate of this country. Since then, the active promotion in the arts of productions by "visible minorities" has changed. It may now be considered an asset "to be of colour." It is uncool to harbour racist attitudes and cool to support "visible minority" arts. For instance, film festivals and critical forums are now compelled to fill panels, juries and round table discussions with a token "person of colour." In some cases we have become so preoccupied with racial and cultural differences that artistic concerns come second to our visible presence.

Under the direction of such bodies as the National Film Board, the Secretary of State, Multiculturalism Office, as well as various arts and provincial film funding agencies, programs and monies have been set aside for the professional development and the work of producers of colour. However, criteria for many of these programs rests on a limited description of "multiculturalism". The specific mandates of many government programs dictate the content of work as it "relates to multiculturalism in Canada" 3, or encourage work which reinforces politically correct concepts of visible minority communities. For instance, in my experience, funding from certain government agencies was difficult to obtain and in some cases, impossible, because while I was trying to secure funding for The Displaced View, community actions surrounding the issues of Japanese-Canadian redress were simultaneously occurring. Some areas of government support for my project translated into a political statement against policy. In broader terms politically correct or "supportable" projects follow a middle class, heterosexual, apolitical format.

Work supported by these agencies addressing specific community concerns are sometimes selected not on the proposal, but on the need to represent a large cross-section of various communities. This is political money which can be denied or granted to the individual, representing a specific community, on the basis of current public sentiment and relevance. This is government money which can be taken away by a change of political leadership and shifting policies.

Private sector interest in multicultural issues has simultaneously increased. The number of entry points into mainstream media and the number of people of colour entering media production has increased. This has had positive and negative effects.

On the plus side, people in the past who had difficulties producing media work due to discriminatory policies and racist attitudes, now receive critical and financial interest. Multicultural gains have created another path for producers to access funding, distribution and exhibition. Some producers from a variety of ethnocultural groups are now supported in their efforts to preserve their history and cultural identity, while redressing previous political injustices.

On the negative side, since the number of films and videos produced by people of colour is still relatively small, there is intense pressure and responsibility imposed on the designated artist. The community pressure, as a "visible minority" and as a member of a specific ethnic group (Japanese, Afro Caribbean, etc.) can be overwhelming.

I undertook The Displaced View in 1986. I dyed my hair from bleached blond back to black and attempted to discover the impact of being Japanese in a personal and Canadian context. I felt an enormous responsibility, and I felt myself in the moral position of having to address positive image re-enforcement, the deconstruction of media stereotypes and the development of a community voice. As a lesbian, I can attest that these ethnocultural expectations are also true for lesbian and gay audiences viewing work by lesbian or gay producers. We allow media the power to validate our experiences. We want to see ourselves in a positive light and are offended by stereotypes. For communities on the fringe of media representation these needs are magnified a hundred times over.

Aside from politics, my personal obligations and production hurdles as a producer of independent film and video are enormous. Despite all of the public sector funding available, securing monies is difficult for "alternative" or non-mainstream work, work which is unlikely to recoup investment or play for the summer at the local Cineplex. I speak for myself and do not claim to represent any group. I cannot, nor will I, be responsible for creating an Asian Canadian or feminist film aesthetic. I have chosen to work in film and video for creative reasons, not for political motives and not to directly promote social change. I am interested in speaking from my experiences and in developing a filmic identity.

The process of filmmaking is learning, experimenting and discovering. As a producer, my primary obligation is focused on the understanding of cinematic language and its implementation to enhance the content of the work. Through the various components of film (sound, lighting, composition, acting, editing, genre, etc.) I can begin to communicate my perspective. However, I cannot fully accept models or categories of production which have historically denied and co-opted screen representations of women, lesbians, gay men and people of colour. It is an exhilarating challenge to engage the language of film, video and television to develop an alternative voice revealing my point of view.

In my commissioned television work, I am interested in pushing the boundaries of this medium in content and form. I want to redress negative stereotypes and portray multi-dimensional characters who reflect a variety of experiences. I have written two stories for the CBC's anthology Inside Stories - "Then/Now" aired in 1989 and "Heartbreak Hoteru" to be shown in 1991.

Similar to The Displaced View, "Then/Now" was loosely based on an autobiographic framework. However, unlike my independent films, these two shows were constructed within the 24-minute television structure: three acts bracketed by commercials and sculpted for prime time audiences. As a writer, not as a producer /director, I found my experiences fascinating and frustrating. I discovered the ultimate control over the programs' content was subjective and contentious. In the end, I feel I have a slightly better understanding of how racial stereotypes are either perpetuated or unmasked through the medium.

At this point in Canada we are sitting on a hot bed of racial and cultural identity issues. Issues of regionalism and provincial identity regarding the country were hotly debated over the Meech Lake Accord. Simultaneously, Canadian culture is gradually feeling the expected negative effects of Free Trade. Although the Japanese Canadians and Americans have been monetarily redressed for the horrors of World War II, "Japan Bashing" 4 has surged. In Ontario, we witnessed the overt racism of some members of the Metro Toronto and Peel regional Police forces through their violent confrontations with the Black communities.

The urgency to dialogue through media has never been as strong or as politically loaded. We must be extremely careful that the anti-racism strides we have made do not backfire in our faces. We must become politically astute, we must recognize the sources of power, learn to play the game defensively and be on guard for "blaming the victim" syndromes. We must be aware that just because a person of colour is in a position of power, their political motives may not serve our needs. Sometimes, we must forgo short-term, individual advancement for the strength of long term action.

In our eagerness to embrace a variety of ethnocultural voices, the basic craft and art of filmmaking is sometimes overlooked. No one becomes an accomplished filmmaker or screenwriter overnight. As producers, we are sometimes too eager to grab our share of the pie without regard for long term effects. We actively participate in the "one of each" syndrome perpetuated by "multicultural" funding agencies when we announce that we speak for "our people" and demand funding on the basis of racial quotas rather than the merit of the work. We limit the content of our work to suit the criteria of the multicultural programs, instead of lobbying for diversity not only in content, but also form. As a producer, I am not interested in being creatively limited to projects focusing only on racial and cultural difference. My experience as a Sansei woman informs my work, it does not dictate it.

Our motivations are not always focused on the development of a film language, but on "increasing the numbers" and public visibility of our oppressed voices. I believe that in disregarding the very framework of media, we become our own worst enemy by supporting majority expectations of failure. Without a basic understanding of how to use media language we cripple our ability to "tell our stories". Simply because we may be politically active and knowledgeable in the struggle against racism does not mean we can translate this antiracist ideology into film.

As consumers, as peers and as critics, we must give developing media artists a chance to experiment without elevating them to where they can be shot down. We must not only encourage new growth through workshops and seminars, but we must discuss and critically analyze our work within a filmic language. Criticism by well-informed, well-intentioned white critics tells us mainstream beliefs, but does not tell us what we mean. We must begin this process of comprehension ourselves.

I see more and more how we have been set up for failure by the mainstream in our attempts to harness media. I do not want to fail, nor do I want to see our individual identities being co-opted and distorted. I want to explore the social constructions of identity as dictated by race, class, gender and sexual orientation through the language of media. I want to encourage and challenge myself and my audiences to reconsider our own prejudices concerning homophobia, sexism, classism, racism, and the "Yellow Peril".



1 The Displaced View, copyright 1988, M. Onodera Productions/McAno Film Artists Inc., directed by Midi Onodera.

2 ibid.

3 Secretary of State, Multiculturalism Performing and Visual Arts Assistance Program Audio Visual Projects Application Requirements 06/84.

4 ''The Dark Heart of Japan Bashing" by Charles Burress, This World. Reprinted in The Chronicle / The Examiner, San Francisco, CA. March 18, 1990