CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008
Between: Living in the Hyphen.
Anne Marie Nakagawa (Writer & Director). Bonnie Thompson (Producer). Graydon McCrea (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
42 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9105 193.
Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.
Review by Julie Chychota.
***˝ / 4
Seven individuals, each one of whom has "one parent from a European background and one from a visible minority" (DVD cover), disclose their firsthand experiences as "mixed" Canadians in Between: Living in the Hyphen. In a frank, head-on manner, this award-winning documentary captures the uncertain, uneasy place, the no-man's-land, that Canadian society affords "hyphenated" citizens, that is, those whose identities comprise two or more races. It contends that, while Canada's official policy promotes multiculturalism in theory, those who do not resemble the dominant "white" Caucasian culture, as well as those who do but choose not to self-identify with it exclusively, all too frequently still encounter racism and discrimination, explicit or implicit.
Writer and director Anne Marie Nakagawa engages Fred Wah, Shannon Waters, Suzette Mayr, Tinu Sinha, Tina Thomison, Charlene Hellson, and Karina Vernon in separate interviews. One suspects that the interviewees were selected not only on the basis of their mixedness, but also because all are contemplative and incredibly articulate. In fact, quick Google searches reveal that most are active in the expressive arts such as literature, film, theatre, and broadcasting. The documentary's audience sees only the seven speaking subjects, never the interviewer; consequently, this technique creates the illusion that speakers directly address each viewer face-to-face, thereby establishing intimacy and eliciting empathy.
Their circumstances and ethnicities differ, but all seven individuals have been hurt by others' erroneous assumptions about their identities. In the early 1960s, for instance, Wah's Chinese surname landed him on the American Consulate's "Asian quota" list for graduate school work visas--until he explained that he was only twenty-five percent Chinese. Blue-eyed, fair-complexioned Waters finds it frustrating that people do not believe she is part Coast Salish or cannot understand why she would participate in a First Nations medical program. Mayr, of Caribbean and German descent, remembers how, in her 20s, she felt as though she had "no home country" and wished for a place where she looked like everyone else. Of Celtic and Blackfoot heritage, Hellson imagined, as a child, that if she were caught in crossfire, she would be shot with a bullet in one side, an arrow in the other. These are only a few examples of the challenges confronting individuals who do not, as the film points out, fit the stereotype exemplified by Joe from Molson's "I AM Canadian" beer commercials. (Ironically, the commercials sought to dispel stereotypes about Canada.)
Like the subjects it portrays, the film is a mixed medium. In imitation of mosaic art, it pieces together fragments of audio (narrative and musical) and visual elements, arranging them into interesting patterns. In the editing process, the interviews have been spliced and recombined so that the narrative sequences with literary heavyweight Wah anchor the film; they loosely form a beginning, middle, and end to its narrative portions, and they are more extensive than the adjoining sequences involving the other six individuals. There is no discernibly consistent pattern in Nakagawa's ordering of narratives in terms of who follows whom; rather, she seems to interweave topical threads at random. Yet piecing together the stories in this way uncovers parallels among subjects' experiences. Meanwhile, the music, a fusion of Eastern sitar-like strains and Western techno-pop, with the occasional drums and vocals thrown in for good measure, functions primarily as background accompaniment to the narrative; nevertheless, it subtly reinforces the notion of blending.
The camera's experimentation with a variety of distances, angles, movement, and image types further suggests that Nakagawa models the documentary upon mosaic art. For example, the opening frames employ a bird's eye view of people at a crosswalk, then cuts to a big screen on which appears a pixelated close-up of Thomison. Whereas motion decelerates in scenes of pedestrian traffic, it accelerates in scenes of vehicular traffic. Two favorite recurring strategies include images set within TV frames and process shots in which interviewees appear before screens onto which are projected still photographs of them with their parents or siblings. Between: Living in the Hyphen also incorporates a segment showing Sinha at the screening of his documentary, Emergence of India, and archival footage of The Lone Ranger and of Pierre Elliott Trudeau participating in a powwow. The clips of Trudeau provide intertextual interest since the government under this former Prime Minister, he, himself of French and Scottish ancestry, championed the model of the "cultural mosaic." The sheer amount of images inundating viewers will leave them feeling pushed and pulled in different directions.
To further complicate matters, images and words do not always correspond and may even contradict each other. So, on the one hand, as Wah reads one of his poems, an image of a wolf baring its teeth is inserted at the moment he utters the word "snarl"; on the other hand, the words "demi-semi-ethnic polluted rootless living" are paired up with four slices of white bread, which materialize one after another on a blue tray. In another instance, four TV screens light up, one after another, with medium close shots of Vernon as the soundtrack synchronously plays Molson's slogan, "I AM Canadian." This scene immediately precedes Vernon's account of how she was pressed to "confess" her parentage at a border crossing, an experience that left her feeling as though she will "never be 100% Canadian." The net effect of using a variety of visual techniques and components, and exploring the tensions inherent in word/image relationships, is that viewers, like the interviewees, find themselves situated in the margins, in the middle of uncertainty, on the edge. Indeed, the camera often stations itself in doorways, windows, or between buildings, so as to draw attention to this liminality.
Near the end of the film, one of the interviewees remarks upon the increasing number of mixed babies in today's world. In conjunction with this observation, the closing credits show a succession of individuals of mixed race, many of them children and young adults, against a white screen. This sequence is to some extent reminiscent of NFB's Faces (1978) in the "Canada Vignettes" series, an animated short in which face morphed into face, changing gender, age, and race. Nakagawa's documentary also calls to mind Lawrence Hill's Black Berry, Sweet Juice (2001), a book containing the author's and others' personal reflections on growing up as children of black and white parents. If it hasn't already been attempted, an interesting project would be to compile an online guide to other Canadian resources that address the question of mixed identity.
One could put this documentary to good use in multiple contexts. It could be shown in high school and university settings but need not be limited to formal classroom discussions; it could be used as the basis for panels at diversity awareness events, too. It might also be shown to exchange students arriving in Canada, to give them a better sense of the diversity of their host country, as well as to alert them to the discrimination we Canadians don't like to admit exists in our theoretically open-minded climate.
Between: Living in the Hyphen is, itself, an excellent response to Wah's entreaty, "How can we be more creative and more generous around the whole question of being mixed and explore its potential as human beings?" Nakagawa creatively fashions her documentary about the Canadian cultural mosaic as a mosaic; she generously opens up opportunities for more mixed individuals--those pictured in the closing credits and others as yet unseen--to communicate their stories. It is worth noting that the film features people living in Western Canada, demonstrating that diversity is not limited to eastern communities. The only regret is that interviewees' names only appeared beneath them once near the beginning; this reviewer had to refer to notes to keep track of who was who after that point.
These 42 minutes remain as compelling on the fifth viewing as on the first.
Julie Chychota, a southern Manitoba Mennonite, lives with her Métis-Ukrainian husband and their two hybrid cats in Ottawa, ON.
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