The Nichi Bei Foundation will present the sixth annual Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 25 at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. Three short films, each telling the World War II incarceration experience through unique lenses, compose the “Telling Stories” shorts program at 12:15 p.m. For more information or tickets, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance.
A rare look at suicide and the concentration camps
“One-Two-One-Seven: A Story of Japanese Internment” (2016, 13 minutes) directed by Brett Kodama, depicts Sharon Shizuko Okazaki Kodama’s wartime incarceration at the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp.
“Replacing names with numbers is a common tactic to dehumanize others, but a lot of people associate it specifically with the number tattoos of the Holocaust,” Kodama told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail interview. “Not many people I have talked to realized that this same tactic was used in the Japanese American concentration camps as well, so by using it as a title, it tells you exactly what the film is about while also making a connection to a more well-known event in history.”
Kodama, a New York-based filmmaker, interviewed his paternal grandmother who was orphaned along with her sister during their incarceration when her father killed her mother and committed suicide. The Yonsei filmmaker who is originally from California said he cannot remember exactly when he learned of his family’s history, but he grew up knowing about their wartime incarceration, which he said he took for granted. “As I got older, and especially after I moved to New York, I realized how little people know about the camps, if they even knew of their existence,” he said.
“As a Japanese American whose family survived the incarceration, I feel an obligation to share stories of the camps and spread awareness of their existence,” he said. “As a … Japanese American filmmaker, I feel even more of an obligation to share my family history through my work because if not me, then who? America’s history is full of racism and bigotry, but most of it is kept out of schools with the exception of the mistreatment of the Native Americans and people of African decent. If the nation ignores its past mistakes, how can it learn and grow from them? As a filmmaker, I am in a unique position to tell some of these stories.”
According to Dr. Satsuki Ina, a filmmaker and intergenerational therapist, suicides potentially increased as much as four-fold from pre-incarceration rates. “The incarceration was a devastating traumatic experience resulting in multiple losses that wiped out a life time of aspirations, hard work, hopes and dreams of many people from the Japanese American community. Such losses test the coping capacity of people and for those who are most vulnerable, can lead to despair and hopelessness,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Suicide in a family has lasting ripple effects across the generations — increasing the risk of suicide as a solution in subsequent generations.”
Little-known Japanese Canadian WWII experience in focus
In a fictionalized account of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Canadians, Brendan Uegama hoped to spark further inquiry — into what Japanese Canadians endured — through his short film “Henry’s Glasses” (2010, 20 min.). Uegama said the history of the wartime incarceration is only briefly mentioned in Canadian schools. “That was one reason I wanted to make the film,” he said in an e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.
The film incorporated real pieces of history, including the Prisoner of War Camp 101 in Angler, Ontario, Canada, the camp seen in the opening scene of the movie and the Tashme Internment Camp in British Columbia where 8-year-old Henry lives. Uegama, who is based in Los Angeles and Vancouver, also involved his family in the filmmaking process. His father, Walter Uegama, plays the elderly Mr. Yamamoto in the film and his sister and mother helped shoot the film. His wife, Nicole G. Leier, served as the film’s producer.
“Actually, casting my father as Mr. Yamamoto was Nicole Leier’s idea,” he said. “I was auditioning other actors but did not find who I was looking for. One night Nicole had my dad read for the role and it went better than I had thought.”
Uegama said his father, who had spent his childhood in the Greenwood, British Columbia camp, spoke little about his experience until they began working on the film.
“Once I started writing the film, we began discussing more and more,” Uegama said. “I then started interviewing family members and other Japanese Canadians that went through the internment and visited museums and old internment sites to further my understanding of what happened.”
According to historian Greg Robinson, the Japanese Canadian experience had three major differences compared to the experience of Japanese Americans. He said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly that the 22,000 Japanese Canadians that were incarcerated were largely sent to abandoned mining towns. While not surrounded by barbed wire, the Japanese Canadians were confined to those towns and had to provide for their own food and education in the camps.
The Canadian government also confiscated and sold off the Japanese Canadians’ property and did not allow them to return to the West Coast until 1949, Robinson noted.
Award-winning director’s ‘video poem’ of her camp experience
Award-winning filmmaker Emiko Omori will present her new 14-minute short “When Rabbit Left the Moon” (2017) — her latest experimental “video poem” about the wartime experience using images and music also found in her longer documentary film, “Rabbit in the Moon” (1999) — at this year’s Films of Remembrance.
According to the film’s synopsis, it is an elegy to the Issei, Omori’s parents’ generation, following their pre-war vibrancy through their incarceration and the suffering that remained with them after the war. “Words to describe the camp experience seem inadequate — either too many or not enough,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Creating this video poem was an attempt to express those buried feelings without words.”
“I have no memories of that time. Only a couple of small photos of my days spent in Poston ‘Relocation’ Center on an Indian reservation in Arizona,” the cinematographer and documentary filmmaker wrote in her synopsis. “Instead, what remains is an immutable pain, still triggered unexpectedly. Images set to music is my attempt to recover the emotions, the experiences that I have abandon.”
“Rabbit in the Moon” won the Best Documentary Cinematography Award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and a National Emmy.