Back Page: Documentary Diplomacy – Tracking the truth about a controversial death in a country shrouded by protocol, National Film Board of Canada producer GERRY FLAHIVE writes from the Land of thae Rising SunÉ

Canadians, it was once said, are cursed by too little history and too much geography. That might explain why a small NFB film crew is on a plane to Tokyo to complete a documentary about a diplomat few Canadians knew....
October 1, 1997

Canadians, it was once said, are cursed by too little history and too much geography. That might explain why a small NFB film crew is on a plane to Tokyo to complete a documentary about a diplomat few Canadians knew.

Born to Canadian missionary parents in Japan in 1909, Egerton Herbert Norman did not set foot in Canada until his teenage years. A brilliant scholar of Japanese history and an accomplished diplomat, Norman was key in the Occupation government under General MacArthur. Shortly after helping negotiate the Suez peacekeeping mission with General Nasser, Norman jumped to his death from a Cairo rooftop in 1957. A mere footnote in Canada, Norman is the subject of biographies and academic tributes in Japan.

Norman’s early flirtations with Communism led to suspicions of espionage during the anti-Communist investigations. To his accusers, Norman’s suicide confirmed his guilt. Controversy still rages decades later, despite a government report clearing him of treason, but his fascinating story has never been the focus of a film.

It’s a lot to tackle in 75 minutes. Canadian journalist Peter Worthington, who had agreed to be interviewed for the film before changing his mind, reviewed it months before we’ve finished: ‘I’ll be surprised if the NFB documentary will do justice to the truthÉ I simply don’t trust their editing or intentÉ I’d be depicted as a right-wing lapdog of American imperialism.’ Maybe I should send the rushes directly to the critics and let them sort it out.

August 23: We opt to shoot some small-scale dramatic sequences with Greg Ellwand, who portrays Norman, at the Canadian Embassy residence on the first day of filming. Although Norman was a public figure who found (or placed) himself in or near the center of key events in post-war history, he is conspicuously absent from archival newsreels. The use of Ellwand helps capture a sense of personality, emotion and place.

August 24: Writer/director John Kramer interviews Tsuru Shigeto, one of Japan’s most esteemed intellectuals and a central figure in Norman’s story. Friends at Harvard in the 30s, both dabbled in Communist theory. Returning to Japan six months after Pearl Harbour, Shigeto left some important books on Japanese history in his Boston apartment. When Norman awkwardly inquired about retrieving them, he was questioned by the FBI, who proceeded to open what was to become an 800-page file on him, the first of many by the rcmp, the U.S. Senate Internal Security Sub-committee and the CIA.

Tsuru has not spoken publicly about Norman since testifying in Washington a few days before his suicide – testimony criticized by many Norman supporters. So we are especially pleased that the long negotiations to get him on camera (including a gracious intervention by Norman’s widow, Irene) have come to fruition. Controlled, dapper and articulate, he tells Kramer he doubts Norman ever read Das Kapital.

Our translator almost faints from happiness when the formidable Tsuru decides to give his answers in English.

August 26: You know it’s a documentary when the lead actor transports himself to the set on a borrowed bicycle, with his costume in a backpack. But with locations like the Imperial Palace Gardens, the Meiji Library and the forbidding walls of Fuchu Prison, we have ‘production values’ far beyond our normal means.

I meet with a Japanese TV producer to pitch a presale. His interest is piqued by our list of interview subjects, but he doesn’t bite, suggesting we send the film when completed for possible acquisition. He also invites me to submit any ideas I have for documentaries about Mongolia. I tell him that my next project is about the Mounties.

August 29: We step into history today, through an interview with Prince Mikasa, Emperor Hirohito’s younger brother. Norman was his history tutor 50 years ago.

National stereotypes aside, this country places high value on protocol. The Private Secretary to His Imperial Highness lines us up, and we debate among ourselves how low we should bow when the Prince enters. We achieve varying angles of ceremonial respect, but he turns out to be friendly and unprepossessing, as well as anecdotal in his reminiscences, citing his understanding of Norman’s ordeal: ‘I myself was once called the Red Prince.’

I almost shatter the cordial atmosphere as we pack up the gear. Charging up the stairs to retrieve something, I find myself closer to the Prince than his bodyguard.

August 30: Stereotypes go both ways. Today’s travel section in The Daily Yomiuri states, ‘when you hear someone speak of Canada, you may instantly think of natural beauty, wide-open spaces and snow-covered mountains.’ Maybe they will go for the Mountie documentaryÉ

Submissions for the Back Page are welcome. If you have an issue to air, an axe to grind or an amusing anecdote (tales from the trenches), please contact Mary Ellen Armstrong: 416-408-2300 ext. 263 or email

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.