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‘An experience of pure joy’: Forgiveness author on the forthcoming CBC adaptation

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Mark Sakamoto's memoir 'Forgiveness' – which won the 2018 iteration of CBC's Canada Reads – is being adapted into a limited series by the CBC and Don Carmody Television. Photo courtesy Jeff Noon.

Allowing your art to be adapted by an outside creative team can be difficult – and doubly so when the project in question is something as personal as Mark Sakamoto’s 2014 memoir Forgiveness. But according to Sakamoto, the upcoming CBC adaptation – being produced in conjunction with Don Carmody Television – is in good hands.

“I thought about the creative team extremely, extremely closely. I had a lot of offers and the team that I chose are the best in the business,” Sakamoto said. “Don Carmody has produced Good Will Hunting, as an example of the emotional spectrum that they’ve been able to produce. It’s outstanding, and they’ve just been wonderful.”

Sakamoto will serve as a creative consultant on the project along with Joy Kogawa, recipient of the Order of Canada and author of Obasan.

“She’s one of Canada’s great, great authors. It’s been such a privilege to come to know her very intimately. I just love her to bits,” Sakamoto said. “It’s kind of interesting – I’ve been involved in the process, but they are very much in control of the process. I’ve really enjoyed watching what these other artists are doing with my art. For me, it’s been an experience of pure joy. I feel very confident in what they’re doing.”

Forgiveness serves as a chronicle of both sides of Sakamoto’s family during the Second World War. Sakamoto’s grandfather and grandmother, both Canadian citizens, see their lives in Vancouver irrevocably change in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It really was an act of ethnic cleansing that the Canadian government carried out, where they emptied the west coast of all Japanese Canadians – their only crime being their ethnicity,” Sakamoto said.

On the other side of the country, Sakamoto’s grandfather Ralph MacLean grew up on the Magdalen Islands and wanted to go fight in Europe, lying about his age to sign up. Instead, he was shipped to Hong Kong where he was captured by Japanese forces, spending the entire Second World War as a Japanese prisoner of war.

“It was living through absolute hell for every single day that he was imprisoned,” Sakamoto said. “So (the memoir) is looking at those injurious years in their life, but more importantly how they were able to move on after those injurious years and live a life that was full of hope, actually, and love.”

The gift passed on to him from his grandparents, Sakamoto said, was their decision to not pass on the injury of their past to their descendants, and instead teach them how to forgive.

“Going into the book, I thought of forgiveness as rather transactional – I harmed you, you harmed me, let’s say we’re sorry and move on. It was very much rear-view mirror looking, letting bygones be bygones,” Sakamoto said. “But my grandparents really profoundly cleansed their heart. It showed me that forgiveness is really a daily act and it’s a way of life. It’s a way of ensuring that no matter how dark your yesterday was, that doesn’t dictate your tomorrow. And I really came to need that in ways I never really thought I would.”

First published in 2014, Sakamoto said Forgiveness had took on a new relevance in today’s political climate, starting as a family retrospective but becoming a sort of “warning alarm” to racism, racist policies and ugly nationalism.

“I’m very confident that the series will act as an alarm – you never end up in the basement, you always gotta take steps there first,” Sakamoto said. “Those first few steps into the basement, sometimes they’re kind of easier – they seem small. But soon you’re in the depths of a basement that you never intended or you didn’t want. Those forces of darkness and anger are powerful.”

Getting out of that basement and moving a society back into a place of tolerance and compassion takes work, Sakamoto said, and often requires citizens to fight for – and sometimes die for – that freedom. The other side to forgiveness, that of it taking root in one’s personal life, requires a different sort of work.

“You have to find space in your heart to really own that compassion yourself. It’s sort of a cliché, but you have to be the compassion that you want to feel,” Sakamoto said. “So that’s what my grandparents were able to show me, is how to really engender that kind of compassion in their own hearts, even or despite what they went through. That’s really the power of their legacy, for me personally, and hopefully one shared with other folks as well.”

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: Keely and Du director Laurie Colbert

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Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films
Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films

Set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22, Keely and Du is a psychological thriller from directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film is the first from Cardona and Colbert in five years, coming after Margarita (2012), a selection at the 2012 Calgary film festival.

Colbert spoke with The Mutt prior to Keely and Du’s screening Sept. 22. This interview has been edited for length.

THE MUTT: When did you first become acquainted with the play?

LAURIE COLBERT: I first read the play 18 to 20 years ago. We followed the play for a long time, every two years (the answer would be), “No, no, no, no, no.” So I was pretty persistent. For us, we had to pitch Jane Martin, who wrote the play, and say, “Hey, we don’t want to set it in the basement. We want to confine her on an island.” But I don’t think we were mature enough to make it (at the beginning) anyways. I don’t believe we had enough chops to make this film back then.

TM: How do you feel your style has developed over the years and what themes have been most important to you?

LC: Well, we’re totally feminists. We’ve never wavered in that. (We started with) Thank God I’m A Lesbian, we followed that up with My Feminism with Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. I can’t believe there are so many colleges in the United States, like Harvard and Stanford, that use it in their first year feminist studies. So it’s a widely-known film in education. Thank God, not as much anymore, it’s had it’s day – there are better films on feminism now and there are better films on lesbians now. But there weren’t for 10 years.

TM: How does this film fit into that context?

LC: Oh, it fits in perfectly. My Feminism is about sex and abortion. Finn’s Girl, our first feature, that was about abortionists. Then we did Margarita, which is about a Mexican immigrant. That was maybe a deviation in the sense that it was about immigration and how we teach classism, and racism. So politically, very feminist. I think this is by far our most ambitious film, by a mile.

TM: You’ve been working on these themes your whole career. How have you seen these themes evolve in the culture and what statements did you want to make in this film? 

LC: I think it fits right in the zeitgeist. I don’t know if people want to watch something so pointed into the zeitgeist. Is that the ticket you want to buy, or do you want to go to Meatballs? So it will be interesting to see how it does. Even though I think the film is a character piece between the two women. It’s a psychological thriller dash it is a relationship piece. I think we have not ever deviated from the really feminist, women’s rights, and for us it was really about exploring, “Why do people have such extreme views?” – both of us really wanted to explore extreme sexism.

TM: What’s your pitch to folks to come out and see this film?

LC: I think if you’re religious, and don’t really question the dogma, and think, “Oh, I don’t believe in abortion,” what’s interesting about this film is you see what this person is going through and why she’s in the situation she’s in. Her context changes everything. Once she learns more context about what’s happened to her, I think she slowly starts to change. I think the film allows people to look at their own beliefs. I think if you come as a liberal, it’s not going to change much. But it is going to make you see how far people are going to go and how that’s going to make you feel. I don’t think our film is as poignant for Canadians, but I think it’s very poignant for the southern (United States).

Keely and Du plays at 4 pm on Sept. 22 at the Globe Cinema during the Calgary International Film Festival, and again on Sept. 26 at Eau Claire. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: SuperGrid director Lowell Dean

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SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean
SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean

SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean (WolfCop, 13 Eerie), is set to make its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival. He spoke with The Mutt prior to the Sept. 21 screening.

THE MUTT: Should fans of WolfCop and Another WolfCop expect something similar when they see SuperGrid?

LOWELL DEAN: I think it’s pretty different. I say it’s almost deceptive in a lot of the elements – obviously me directing it, Leo (Fafard) starring in it, Hugh (Patterson) producing it, and it being kind of a genre film. I would say it’s a gateway drug to something new, if you’re a WolfCop fan, because I jokingly say there’s still a lot of violence and a lot of people are going to die. This is a little bit different. It’s not nearly as out there. It’s something Hugh has been developing for a little while. I took it as a personal challenge to say, OK, I have a different script, I didn’t write this, so I’m going to make this movie. I’m not going to try and pervert it with my WolfCop weirdness.

TM: What did you think when you read the script? 

LD: It came at a good time for me because I was looking for something different. But I was worried because it’s very ambitious. SuperGrid had (about the same budget) as the first WolfCop film. The script that I read was going to be really hard to do for that budget level. Anytime you’re doing a movie that has multiple car chases, at least one or two explosions, shootouts involving a lot of characters, that’s not traditionally what you do with one million dollars. Usually it’s three people in a cabin. So I was hesitant, but also I can’t turn down Hugh. He’s so fun to work with. I just knew he was the kind of person people were going to go the extra mile for, myself included. So I just thought, “Let’s just do it. Let’s embrace the spirit of the original Mad Max with 17 days in Saskatchewan on prairie roads and in weird abandoned warehouses.”

TM: How did the backdrop of Saskatchewan contribute to the world of the film and did it take the film in different directions than you expected?

LD: I mean, we always wanted it to be a desolate landscape. I would say the only kind of weird thing is we shot this in summer in Saskatchewan and it was just beautiful. We should have been making a Hallmark movie. We had a great production design team and we would go out of our way to find abandoned towns and gas stations. It became more about smart filmmaking versus, we can’t walk in and say, “Let’s design these great buildings.” It just became what’s the grossest, weirdest place. People would be like, “Check out this scrap yard!”

TM: Did you draw inspiration from Mad Max? How did you differentiate this film from the genre while still paying homage?

LD: I am a fan of the genre, but I actually was probably the biggest proponent of running in the opposite direction. So much of what I saw on the page and the idea was Mad Max. I was pushing to make it a western, truthfully. I just said, for me, I’m making a western, it’s set in the future, it just as well could have been the 1800s except we wouldn’t have these cool gadgets and cars. I just made it about people trying to do the right thing, everybody is against you, it’s a corrupt world. It’s an easy thing to just be like, “whatever,” but a handful of people are backed into a corner and have the chance to do something good. They have to look inside themselves and say, “Well, damn it, I guess we have to do this thing.”

TM: Is that a philosophy you’ve been thinking about yourself lately? Or is that something you noticed in the script and latched onto?

LD: I think we definitely pushed to put it in there more. It’s obviously a film of its time. A perfect example is, we do have a border wall in our film between Canada and the States, so you can imagine where everyone’s heads are at. We still want it to be, on the surface, a very fun film, but I think especially after doing the two WolfCop films – which are absurd, ridiculous, really fun – I wanted to make a movie that I feel had a voice and maybe something a bit weightier to say, even if its in the guise of two brothers driving down the road, shooting guns. So I hope there’s a message there that people can connect to.

TM: Why would you encourage people to check out the film tonight?

LD: I think the biggest selling point for this film, is not only is it a truly Canadian film, it’s a truly Saskatchewan film. You don’t often see the prairie provinces reflected on the big screen, let alone, you know, this isn’t two people sitting in a room talking, this isn’t two people baling hay. This is war and violence and machine guns and blood and chaos. It’s not going to feel like homework, but you’re going to do your part and say you saw and hopefully enjoyed a kick-ass Canadian film.

SuperGrid makes its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 21 at 9:45 p.m., before playing again Sept. 23 at 12:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Letter from Masanjia traces the origin of historic SOS note

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Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest.
Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions

When Oregon resident Julie Keith brought home a graveyard kit from Kmart in 2012, she took with her an item not typically associated with holiday decoration – a desperate letter stuffed inside the packaging by a political prisoner in China.

“Sir,” the letter read, “if you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Association. Thousands people here who are under the persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

The letter provoked a firestorm of coverage and led to significant debate on the state of human rights in China. One individual who saw those reports was Vancouver-based director Leon Lee, who moved from China to Canada to attend school at the University of British Columbia. Previously having completed the 2014 documentary Human Harvest, Lee said the situation depicted in the letter resonated with him given his familiarity with the human rights situation in China.

“The name (Masanjia) really stood out for me, because I knew it as the most notorious labour camp in China. I knew that if there was a letter coming from it, I knew there had to be an amazing story behind it,” Lee said. “All the questions that came to my mind – what happened to this person? Is he still alive? Where is this person?”

Lee’s journey to find the letter writer resulted in the feature-length documentary Letter from Masanjia, which is set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22 and 23. All told, it took Lee around three years to track the writer down – Sun Yi, a Chinese engineer who had been jailed for his spiritual beliefs.

Letter from Masanjia follows Sun Yi, a man who had been held as a political prisoner in Masanjia, a notorious labour camp. Above, he holds the letter that provoked a firestorm of coverage after a Oregon resident found it included with Halloween decorations purchased at KMart. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions.

“Apparently he had heard about me through my previous work. He trusted me,” Lee said. “He wanted to take the risk to make the film, because I couldn’t go back to China safely due to my previous films.”

After completing Human Harvest, it became clear to Lee that he was no longer welcome in China – while there was no official statement from the government, he said that state-run media labelled him as a traitor. So, to complete Letter from Masanjia, Lee had to train Yi on how to use a camera.

“We had to communicate through Skype and I had to train him on how to use cameras and all the equipment,” Lee said. “We had to work out a plan to pull it off. So it was very challenging and risky. But in the meantime, it was very meaningful.”

Utilizing secret camera footage, Letter from Masanjia takes viewers directly into the brutal and frightening world of a political dissident in modern China. The film also utilizes animations as reenactments of life in Masanjia, based on Yi’s own concept artwork.

“He really liked traditional Chinese graphic novels. He learned to draw the figures when he was a little boy,” Lee said. “So he kept a sketchbook. When I saw it, I was so thrilled. I thought, this is exactly what we can use as reenactment.”

Lee said Letter from Masanjia is a “real live message in the bottle story,” telling of an SOS note travelling from the labour camp, over the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the United States.

“Yi is a gentle, soft-spoken engineer who has unbelievable strength in the face of a difficult situation,” Lee said. “(The film shows) how people from different countries come together to really bring change. From the viewer feedback so far, most people find it incredibly moving and inspiring.”

Letter from Masanjia plays September 22 and 23 at the Calgary International Film Festival. Director Leon Lee will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A at both screenings. For tickets, click here.

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