I was so ashamed my dad was the school janitor. How do I say sorry now that he's gone?
Self-taught animator Anne Koizumi spent over three years making the short 'In the Shadow of the Pines'
As a child, I wanted to belong.
I didn't want people to think I was different, and I really didn't want my friends to know the school janitor was my dad!
When I was in grade two, a classmate got sick and my father was called over the intercom to clean up the mess. When he came into the room, I pretended to look for a pencil on the ground so the other kids wouldn't find out he was my dad.
I was so ashamed of my Dad's broken English, his rough exterior, his "Japaneseness." I wanted him to be a dad who wore a suit, carried a briefcase and drove to a downtown office job.
But back then, it was so difficult to understand and process my feelings.
Exploring my childhood shame by making a film
As an adult, I came to understand the complexity of a parent's experiences. Now, I know that choices are not made based on whether your child is going to feel shame. They are made because they are necessary.
I didn't really dig deep into these feelings of shame until my father passed away in 2012.
Once he was gone, I longed to make connections with him that I wasn't able to when he was alive. How do I tell him I'm sorry? Or that now, I can now see everything he did for us?
Making my short documentary In the Shadow of the Pines was a way of trying to connect with my father, even after his death.
I'd considered making my personal narratives the subject of my work before, but I was afraid to pursue and uncover the stories that — for many years — I'd tried to hide.
There were many difficult things about making this film. I was dealing with so much grief and loss. I had to confront my own shame and guilt. I cried so much making this film; I would be making a set or a prop and I would just start crying.
It's never easy to force yourself to face difficult emotions and memories. It takes time. In my case, it took over three years.
The Documentary Approach
I wanted to approach the project as a documentary, which required a lot of research.
The interviews you see in the film were the first thing I did when I began almost four years ago. I started with my family members in Calgary, Alberta, then I travelled to Japan to speak to my father's brothers, extended family members and friends.
My father never spoke about his childhood or of his life in Japan. It was through all these interviews that I learned about his life, and was able to construct his story for the film.
My father was born in Osaka, Japan in 1943. When he was a year old, his father died of tuberculosis and his mother was left to care for five children, alone. Eventually, an orphanage in Kumamoto offered her work as a caregiver and in exchange, the family was given a place to live.
When I was in Japan, I visited that orphanage. It was called the Giaen and was run by American Lutheran missionaries.
The archival footage of the orphanage in In the Shadow of the Pines was actually shot at the orphanage. The missionaries made an educational film titled Fujita in 1949, to show their overseas work in Japan. I received a copy of the film when I was doing research on my father at the orphanage.
I used this interview footage and archival video, plus family photos, paper cut-outs and stop-motion animation to weave this documentary together.
My Creative Animation Process
I describe my creative ethos as "DIY".
I studied filmmaking, but at schools that didn't have animation programs. So I taught myself the basics of animation through a book that was published by Aardman Animations (creators of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep).
The process of creating with my hands, finding my own solutions and trying things out is important to me as a filmmaker; probably more important than having a fluid and smooth animation style. I also like to be resourceful and figure out what I can do with what I have (something I learned from my father).
I've been making independent short stop-motion animations for 15 years, so I naturally thought to work in this medium for In the Shadow of the Pines. For this film, stop-motion made perfect sense: I was exploring childhood and when we think of childhood, we often associate it with plasticine, puppets, miniatures and tactile forms such as paper cut-outs.
Telling my truth
It's a strange feeling to share a story with the world that I've been trying to hide for so long.
My parents gave me a Japanese middle name, Mayuko, when I was born. It's my legal middle name. The characters that they chose were 真由子.
The first character means 'truth', the second character comes from the word 'freedom' (自由)and the last character means child. My mother told me she chose the characters from the expression: the truth will set you free.
For me, making this film was about revealing my own truth about the shame I felt as a child. That act has allowed me to reclaim my father's story, and my own story. And without sounding overly cliché, there is so much freedom in that.
Anne Koizumi is an independent filmmaker and media arts educator based in Montreal, Quebec. She completed her undergraduate studies in Film Production at the University of British Columbia and her master's in film production at York University in 2011. In 2006, she was invited by the National Film Board of Canada to participate in Hothouse 3, an animation intensive for emerging animators, where she completed her first professional film A Prairie Story. Her films have screened nationally and internationally at Hot Docs, Ottawa International Animation Festival, Annecy, SFFIM, Slamdance, Norwich Film Festival and the London International Animation Festival. Her most recent film, In the Shadow of the Pines, won best short animation at SFFILM, best narrative short and best Canadian short at the 2020 Ottawa International Animation Festival. She has taught stop-motion animation workshops at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Hospitals and Community Centres throughout Toronto, and at Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary, Alberta.