“Nisei” Film Wins Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Drama at Cinequest
Darren Haruo Rae, ’13 Radio-Television-Film (far right), screenwriter and director of the short film “Nisei,” discusses a scene during filming at SJSU’s University Theatre in August 2022. Photo by Robert C. Bain.
Editor’s note: “Nisei,” a short film about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who served in World War II, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Drama at the 2023 Cinequest festival, and will be considered for possible Academy Award nomination as a result. The story below was originally published in the NewsCenter on Nov. 7, 2022.
This Veteran’s Day, San José State University filmmakers and Radio, Television and Film students will ask: What do you know about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team?
The 442nd was a segregated Japanese American team who served in World War II. The team is also recognized as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Many of the men who served in the 442nd did so while members of their families were forcibly relocated to incarceration camps across the United States. Among those brave soldiers was Sergeant Minoru Miyasaki, San Francisco Bay Area native and son to Japanese immigrants — and years later, grandfather to screenwriter and director Darren Haruo Rae, ’13 Radio, Television and Film.
“I really believe that my grandfather’s generation deserves to be called ‘The Greatest Generation,’” said Rae, who returned to San José State University this summer to produce “Nisei,” a short feature based on his grandfather’s diaries.
“So many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice to prove their loyalty to a country that had incarcerated their families — yet it was so difficult for them to share their stories, because they were afraid of passing on their shame or trauma. That’s why it’s so important that we record their stories.”
The 20-minute film was filmed at San José State’s University Theater, the Japanese American History Museum in San José and in Petaluma, where SJSU students enrolled in Spartan Film Studios. The film, co-produced by Roann Films, a company founded by Martinez, Rae and fellow Spartan Jessica Olthof, ’13 Radio, Television and Film, is currently in post-production with an early 2023 release date.
“Producing this project through SJSU lets us slow down and take our time with each scene,” said Olthof. “We focused on shooting a low-page count every day so we did not have to rush the actors through the creative process. That’s rare in this industry.”
Spartans get industry experience
Spartan Film Studios is led by Barnaby Dallas, ’00 MA Theatre Arts, director of production of film and theatre, and Nick Martinez, ’02 Radio, Television and Film, producer and co-director, and supported by a number of SJSU faculty members; including Andrea Bechert, associate professor of film and theatre; John York, scene shop manager; and Jake Ohlhausen, ’17 Radio, Television and Film, production support technician.
“Every summer since 2004, Nick and I have turned the University Theatre into a production office, and we become a full-on production company,” said Dallas. “Before COVID, we did it every summer — and for many years, we produced full-length features.”
Martinez added that this summer was special because it offered current students and recent alumni their first chance to handle a camera, build a set or meet industry professionals. Students were especially hungry for the experience because the pandemic made it impossible for Spartan Film Studios to safely offer the course in 2020 and 2021.
This year, in addition to employing professional union actors and hiring department heads, Spartan Film Studios assigned SJSU students as production assistants (PAs) who shadowed each team — including students assigned to checking participants’ temperatures and maintaining COVID-safe work protocols.
Travis Tran, ’25 Radio, Television and Film, participated as a PA this summer and was most excited for the chance to apply a number of new skills on set.
“The best part of this experience is that you figure out what you want to do,” he said. “As PAs, we all get to see how these roles work; you get to explore, mingle with professionals. I am interested in camera work, but there is also time to shadow other departments, like sound, art and grip. I know I have time to figure out what I like, and this gave me a chance to try a lot of different things.”
For Rae, the project was as much a teaching opportunity as it was a labor of love. Recalling his own experience as a student in Spartan Film Studios, he wanted to involve students and volunteers in the process to give them the experience they needed to take the next step in their careers. Though he lost his grandfather in 2011, Rae hopes that the film adequately captures the sacrifices soldiers like him had to make during World War II.
“I am telling the best story that I can at this point,” he reflected. “It is so important to preserve this history as the generation ages. Students today may not have a direct or living connection to people like my grandfather. How do we keep those stories alive?”