Randall Okita's virtual-reality film about his Japanese Canadian grandparents bridges numerous distances

A filmmaker turned to high-tech storytelling to help him piece together his family's history

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      Beyond basic physiological and safety needs lies a driving motivation that psychologist Abraham Maslow didn’t recognize on his famed hierarchy of needs. It’s what causes some people to be infinitely curious about what happened in unsolved mysteries, makes others lie awake at night wondering why something inexplicable happened, and still others to resort to conspiracy or alternative theories.

      It’s the need to know.

      It could be called the need for narrative, particularly for Canadian filmmaker Randall Okita, who turned to the latest technology to piece together fragments from his family’s past in his search for answers.

      The Toronto-based Okita, who is yonsei (fourth generation) and hapa (mixed heritage) of Japanese and Irish descent, had many lingering questions about his grandfather, Yoneza Okita, who, as a teenager, forsook his home in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1935 for the faraway land known as Canada.

      "The Book of Distance"

      By phone, Okita tells the Georgia Straight that he knew about moments, dates, and facts of his grandfather’s story. But gaps remained, something that’s reflected in the title of his first virtual-reality film, “The Book of Distance”. This National Film Board of Canada production offers a room-scale virtual experience, including family photos and archival documents, of his grandparents’ lives, which were disrupted by the Second World War internment of Japanese Canadians.

      “It’s not just the distance between now and then but also the distance between these moments that we know about,” he says.

      The 25-minute interactive piece premiered in January 2020 and is available for viewing with a VR headset on Steam, Viveport, and the Oculus Store. It garnered additional layers of resonance during an era when social and physical distancing entered the lexicon, not to mention parallels with restrictions on travel and mobility, the separation of families and generations, and more. After limitations on presenting the work during the pandemic, Okita says he is “very grateful” to be able to now share the project at Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival, which he regards as “the perfect home” for his piece.

      "The Book of Distance"

      Okita, who says he was “enamoured with the storytelling possibilities” of virtual reality, embarked upon an “enormous learning curve” about the technology four years ago and drew upon all of his artistic experiences in film, sculpture, installation, and theatre for this project, which immerses and integrates viewers within the narrative.

      “When people talk about respecting your audience or sharing with them enough but letting them fill in the blanks, I think that that’s both good storytelling but…that’s the way to engage people because to engage them is to actually get them to participate,” he explains.

      In addition, Okita also wanted “to show that the idea of engaging with the past can be an act of imagination”. Rather than being solely about facts and dates, he says “it can be playful and embodied and physical” to find new means to “understand and learn about history and also find new ways to look at the future because a lot of times we think something’s inevitable and there are just so many possibilities”.

      "The Book of Distance"

      Originally, Okita had thought that his decision to choose to tell his grandparents’ story would be the pivotal moment of change and healing.

      “But I’m realizing now,” he says, “that it’s the fact that it’s getting out there and that people are sharing it and that it’s moving beyond me is what’s changing things.” For instance, he says he has seen a “physical difference” in his father’s posture when he talks about the project.

      “This story that was associated with difficult time and loss and sadness—now he talks about this story and he talks about it with pride because it’s being retold and it’s being shared,” he adds.

      Additionally, one of “the most powerful things”, he points out, has been talking to people after viewings “because people, after checking it out, are often quite emotional”.

      Although Japanese culture favours withholding uncomfortable truths to maintain harmony, and Okita says his grandfather was “the quietest man I’ve ever known”, he regards breaking traditional silences in a positive light.

      “The question is: what do we lose when we don’t learn about and don’t talk about some of these things?” he asks. “I want to tell my grandparents’ story because, to me, they are heroic stories—the fact that they were resilient and survived, and the fact that they were able to raise children and point them in the direction of a good life without bitterness."

      “The Book of Distance” will be shown at the 2021 Powell Street Festival from Wednesday (July 28) to August 1. Okita will also appear at a talk about his work on Sunday (August 1) at the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Hall. For more information and to register for viewings, visit the Powell Street Festival website. 

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.