Seagrass is a movie for those who like grappling with complexity. In an interview with Pancouver, writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown says that she began with themes relating to siblings.
“I had this idea to think about a family going through a divorce,” the Vancouver filmmaker says. “But I really didn’t want to look at divorce specifically.”
That’s because she felt that there are already many films centering around whether a family will break apart. Instead, Hama-Brown examined how a tumultuous parental relationship creates an uneasy and unstable foundation for three female characters—two daughters and the mother.
The older daughter in Seagrass, Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz), is an early adolescent experiencing peer pressure to engage in rebellious activities. The younger child, Emmy (Remy Marthaller), feels fear relating to the death of their maternal grandmother.
“What the two daughters are going through is a very universal experience around sibling dynamics,” Hama-Brown says. “I think there’s a lot of rivalry but also a lot of love and protection.”
In Seagrass, Hama-Brown has layered a crumbling interracial marriage into the script. Judith (Ally Maki), the Japanese Canadian wife, is beginning to process intergenerational trauma in the wake of her mother’s passing. Much of this is linked to the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Meanwhile, her white husband, Steve (Luke Roberts), comes across as oblivious to how his wife is feeling. However, their marital problems intensify at an island retreat, where they meet a childless interracial couple who appear to have it all.
“I think Steve is seeing their flaws more, and Judith is idealizing them more and putting them up on a pedestal,” Hama-Brown says. “I wanted to somehow show both of those things in the film.”
Seagrass will screen at TIFF and VIFF
Hama-Brown set Seagrass in 1994. And the date helps explain why Judith is not very knowledgeable about what happened to Japanese Canadians in the 1940s. Hama-Brown points out that members of Judith’s parents’ generation often didn’t talk about the incarceration with their kids.
“The fact that she hasn’t looked at it is part of the trauma,” the director states. “It’s actually a product of the racism that her family experienced.”
Hama-Brown has written and directed the short films “Nature”, Broken Bunny”, and “Cosmic”; Seagrass is her first feature. It will have its world premiere on Friday (September 8) at the Toronto International Film Festival. There are also two screenings scheduled at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 and October 2.
Hama-Brown prefers the term “incarceration” rather than “internment” to describe the Canadian government’s forced removal of 22,000 Japanese Canadians from the West Coast in 1942. The majority were born in Canada and all were stripped of their homes, businesses, and other possessions.
Those who weren’t required to live in crowded camps east of Hope and in the B.C. Interior were sent to work on farms, often on the Prairies. They weren’t allowed to return to the West Coast until 1949—four years after the Second World War ended.
There are some parallels between Hama-Brown’s life and the film. She is a child of a mixed-race marriage whose parents divorced. Her mother is a Japanese Canadian with parents and grandparents who were incarcerated. They didn’t talk much about that within her family.
Fortunately, Hama-Brown was able to fill in some holes in her mother’s family history thanks to the Landscapes of Injustice project and other research.
Director overcomes challenges
While Hama-Brown experienced some micro-aggressions depicted on-screen, she emphasizes that Seagrass is “very much fictional, including a lot of the family dynamics”.
“My dad is not like Steve at all,” she adds.
As a first-time feature film director, Hama-Brown faced the usual challenges around financing. Plus, the weather didn’t always cooperate when her crew was filming on Gabriola Island and in the Tofino-Ucluelet area in June of 2022.
“It was like the rainiest June ever,” Hama-Brown says.
Moreover, they could only shoot for three-hour periods around a cave because it would fill with water.
Yet another challenge came in casting the two kids, Stephanie and Emmy. Hama-Brown was searching for the right sister combination until about a week-and-a-half before shooting began. Finding the child actors—Breitkreuz and Marthaller—was difficult, but working with them was a “complete joy”.
“It was not hard at all, in my opinion,” Hama-Brown states. “I think it was one of the best parts of the experience.”
Watch the Seagrass trailer.
The Toronto International Film Festival will present the world premiere of Seagrass at Scotiabank Theatre Toronto. Screenings will be at 9:15 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. on Friday (September 8), 11:35 a.m. on Saturday (September 9), and 6:20 p.m. on Thursday (September 14). The first and final screenings are for media and industry.
The Vancouver International Film Festival will present Seagrass at 9 p.m. on September 29 at the Rio Theatre and 9 p.m. on October 1 at the SFU Goldcorp Theatre. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.