"Documentary filmmaking is so trend-conscious, everyone doing the same kinds of films at the same time. I try to stay away from that, just find a compelling human story and a challenging creative experience," says Steven Okazaki whose film subjects range from heroin addiction to dairy princesses to Hiroshima. He is the recipient of numerous honors, including an Academy Award®, four Academy Award® nominations, a Primetime Emmy, the George Foster Peabody Award, the Plus CameraImage "Outstanding Achievement Award," and the City of Hiroshima's "Honorary Citizen Award." His films, produced for HBO, PBS and NHK, are explorations of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people caught up in dramatic historical events and troubling social issues.
Steven started in children's programming in 1976, directing dramatic and documentary shorts for Churchill Films in Los Angeles. In 1982, he made his first documentary feature, SURVIVORS, produced for WGBH Boston's World and broadcast nationally on PBS. In 1985, he received his first Academy Award® nomination for UNFINISHED BUSINESS, the story of three Japanese Americans who challenged the incarceration of their people. Studs Terkel called it "a powerful warning that hysteria, bigotry and moral cowardice demean us all."
In 1987, with a fellowship from the American Film Institute, he moved in a different direction with LIVING ON TOKYO TIME, a low-budget comedy about a Japanese dishwasher and her deadbeat green card husband. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically by Skouras Pictures.
In 1991, he won an Oscar® for DAYS OF WAITING, the story of artist Estelle Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians to be interned with the Japanese Americans during World War II. Other PBS documentaries include: HUNTING TIGERS (1989), a comic look at pop culture in Tokyo featuring Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe; TROUBLED PARADISE (1992) which explores native culture and activism on the Big Island of Hawai'i; AMERICAN SONS (1994) a challenging look at how the lives of Asian American men are shaped by racism; and THE FAIR (2001), a quirky celebration of the Minnesota State Fair.
From 1994 to 1996, he worked with NHK Hi-Vision, producing some of the earliest HD-TV documentary programming. Two films, ALONE TOGETHER: YOUNG ADULTS LIVING WITH HIV and LIFE WAS GOOD: THE CLAUDIA PETERSON STORY, about a family living next to the Nevada Test Site, won UNESCO Awards.
For the last twenty years, much of his work has been with HBO Documentary Films. In 1999, HBO premiered BLACK TAR HEROIN, a cinema-verite chronicle of three years in the lives of five young heroin addicts, one of HBO's highest rated documentaries that year. In 2005, he produced HBO's REHAB, a disturbing look at drug recovery programs, which won the prestigious Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award, honoring journalists who have "demonstrated the highest standards of reporting on drug issues."
In 2006, he received his third Oscar® nomination for THE MUSHROOM CLUB, a personal reflection on the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, which aired on HBO/Cinemax. He followed that with WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN, a comprehensive and vivid account of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast on HBO, won a Primetime Emmy for "Exceptional Merit in Non-fiction Filmmaking" and the Grand Prize at the Banff World Television Festival. In 2009, he received his fourth Oscar nomination for the HBO documentary THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN, which tells the story of a 16 year-old Khmer Rouge soldier who photographed 6,000 men, women and children before they were tortured and executed.
From 2009 to 2011, he directed and edited three short documentaries — CRUSHED: THE OXYCONTIN INTERVIEWS for ShadowCatcher Films; APPROXIMATELY NELS CLINE for Fantasy Studios; and ALL WE COULD CARRY for the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
In 2015, he directed and shot HBO's HEROIN: CAPE COD, USA, a powerful look at the heroin epidemic in New England, which was screened for the Massachusetts legislature and the White House. In 2016, he directed MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI, a feature documentary about one of his childhood heroes, legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, which screened at more than twenty international film festivals, including London and Telluride, and was released theatrically in the U.S. by Strand Releasing.
Segments from his films have been featured on The CBS Evening News, The NBC Nightly News, ABC News Nightline, CNN and Oprah.
Steven was born in 1952 and grew up in Venice, California. He graduated from San Francisco State University's film program in 1976. He studied painting, went to the movies, played in mediocre punk bands (including The Maids) and was featured in a Gap ad before getting serious about making films. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, writer Peggy Orenstein, and daughter.