________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number XI . . . . August 25, 1995

The Last Harvest

Harvest Productions, 1994. VHS, 48 minutes.
Distributed by Moving Images Distribution
606-402 West Pender St., Vancouver, BC, V6B 1T6.
Voice/fax: (800) 684-3014.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Duncan Thornton


In the first function that I ever saw them was the first of July celebration, and the Ohamas were all there, and they were shy, and I guess we were shy, but they were also different, and the surprising thing to me was, the reason they were different was because they were city people and they were very well dressed, and we were not. And we just weren't used to looking at people that were dressed as well as what the Ohamas were at that time.

-- A farmer describes getting to know the Ohamas, a Japanese-Canadian family.

The Last Harvest is a documentary that tells an unfortunately familiar story: a prairie family forced off their farm. But the Ohamas' story is also a peculiarly Canadian one; for the Ohamas are Japanese Canadians who have been farming in southern Alberta since they lost their fishing business and were expelled from British Columbia as enemy aliens during the Second World War.

So the film is also about the multi-cultural identity that has grown in this country. The Ohamas are certainly Japanese -- the film begins with footage of them laying paper cranes in their fields as part of an annual harvest ritual -- yet also typical Western-Canadian farmers, down to accent and tractor caps. The soundtrack reflects the Ohamas' own cultural mix: the evocative background music is played on Japanese instruments; the theme song, "Great Plains" is by Ian Tyson.

Visual artist Linda Ohama, part of the third generation of her family on the land is also the film-maker and narrator. She begins by setting the scene for the occasion of the film -- their last harvest -- and introducing her family. Then we dip back into time, as she tells how the Ohamas came to farm the land, a story fleshed out with archival photographs.

Throughout, The Last Harvest is a little too expository. For example, we have enough shots of Ohama's father, George, sitting in a lawn chair staring over the fields that we don't need to be told that he's "the quiet reflective one." Many of the visuals are similarly unimaginative; although there are haunting shots of family figures in Japanese costume striding through the dusty plains, in country whose land and weather exist on an immense scale, there are disappointingly few shots that realize the epic potential of the setting or story.

But the story is remarkable. That the family struggled through the persecutions of the War and pioneered potato farming in a land considered too arid to support it -- becoming champion growers in the process -- suggests their strength of will and determination. In this case, it's a quality that was passed down from the grandmother, who immigrated to Canada as a "picture bride," to marry a man she had never met. It was she (already widowed) who preserved the family by establishing them in Vancouver after a first, unsuccessful attempt at farming during the depression, and she who led the family for the first decades after the war forced them out of Vancouver and back onto the land.

As farmers, the Ohamas faced not only the challenges of farming in a harsh land, but also substantial prejudice. When they began, no one in the cities would buy produce from them, and Alberta law did not allow anyone of Japanese descent to lease land. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was their neighbouring farmers who were first ready to defy regulations and buy the Ohamas' produce, and who first learned to treat the Ohamas with the respect they deserved. One of the nicest sequences in the film is a harvest gathering where the Japanese Ohamas and their Scotch-, Irish-, and English-descended neighbours dance together to a country band.

But the film is about the last harvest, and the story finishes with a brief account of how for all their skill and perseverance, high debt and low income have driven the Ohamas off the land, like tens of thousands of other Canadian farm families in the last few years. The family's mixture of grief and acceptance ("For fifty years my family have been stewards of the land; now it's time to pass it on," Ohama says in voice-over) is moving.

So it seems rude in light of a tragedy borne with so much dignity to carp, but the film-maker leaves the larger issues unexplored. For example, it seems to be a given for Ohama, who ends theLast Harvest with a plea for support for the family farm, that farmers should get higher prices for their produce and more support from the government, but is the issue really so clear?

There is plenty of profitable potato-growing country in Canada, but also a great deal of marginal farmland that shouldn't have been under cultivation in the first place -- and we aren't given information to know where the Ohamas' pioneering operation fits into that picture. And perhaps the traditional family farm, like the old corner grocery store, is simply an economic unit that is no longer efficient compared with larger operations modern methods make possible. Or perhaps not; but the film-maker begs the question.

On the whole, however, the Ohamas' story leaves you feeling both admiration and a sort of vicarious pride in their having overcome the adversity of both the land and the culture of this country.

The Last Harvest has won many awards, including:


Duncan Thornton is the editor of Canadian Materials.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364