And then they stood up for them


Japanese Americans held a candlelight vigil in San Francisco’s Japantown in November 2016, following the election of President Donald Trump. Abby Ginzberg’s “And Then They Came For Us” opens with this scene as Asian Americans and the Muslim community expressed solidarity following a presidential campaign fraught with xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia. The year-long campaign by Trump called for the ban of Muslims from entering the country, which served as the link Ginzberg needed to tie the Japanese American experience to what is happening today.

Initially approached by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, authors of “Un-American: the Incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II: Images by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Other Government Photographers,” Ginzberg was asked to create a companion film to their photobook on the wartime incarceration. Having directed and produced three other documentaries on social justice, Ginzberg said it was unusual for her to take on a commissioned work, but said she did so after being promised full artistic and creative control of the project. She also noted that the film was funded and interview subjects had already been identified prior to making the film.

“I’ve always been an enormous fan of Dorothea Lange,” Ginzberg told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. “The idea I would be able to work with her photos and be able to learn a little bit more about her and her role in photographing … the incarceration was very interesting to me.”

Ginzberg felt that the focus of the film was solidified after proponents of the Trump campaign and administration began using the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans as a precedent to the Muslim registry and travel ban.

“The minute that piece fell into place … I knew what I could bring to this film,” she said. “It really comes out of the sense that people in the United States, many of them don’t know about the incarceration and have the feeling that ‘oh, no one would do that here,’ and I’m like, ‘oh yes we would.’”

Satsuki Ina, who spoke at the vigil, bookends the film, said she has accompanied Ginzberg to various screenings. She continues to be surprised that many non-Nikkei audiences do not know about the wartime incarceration. “Most are shocked and outraged to learn the details of our incarceration experience. But for all audiences, this film is a call to action. The reality that the government is capable of turning a cruel and blind eye to the rights of a ‘disposable’ community of people, demands that each and every one of us, especially those of us who have been victims, is being called to stand up and speak out on behalf of those who are being targeted today,” Ina wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The film focuses on photos taken during the wartime incarceration, notably by photographers who documented the experience for the U.S. government.

“(Lange) knew from the beginning that this was not something we should be doing. It was unconstitutional,” Ginzberg said. “She had friends who were Japanese Americans, but when the government came to her and said, ‘you did a good job (during the Great Depression), how about this?’ she said okay because I think she felt that somebody had to bear witness.”

Ginzberg added that Lange felt physically sick after photographing the forced removal of Japanese Americans in Woodland, Calif.

Other photographers in the film approached their work differently. She noted that Ansel Adams had photographed the Manzanar, Calif. camp as a friend of the head administrator. “There was some expectation that he wasn’t supposed to show the worst of the worst, and he didn’t,” Ginzberg said. “He said it was one of the most important projects he had ever done … but Ansel, many people were upset by his photographs because they show the happy campers.”

Despite the rosy depiction of camp life, Ginzberg said Adams’ work did help by providing a look inside the lives of those locked up at the camp. In the same breath, she noted other photographers such as Toyo Miyatake depicted the hardship of camp life where the government photographers had not. Above all, she said the photographs were proof that the United States had incarcerated the Japanese Americans during the war.

Ina, whose mother was photographed by Lange, is an interview subject in the film. She said the documentary validates Japanese Americans’ feeling that “what happened to us, is chillingly resonant today.”

“Many Japanese Americans have stepped forward to stand with and speak out against threats to Muslim, immigrant, DACA, LGBTQ individuals and communities,” Ina said. “I see these actions as a healing force for our own community. There were few voices protesting our mass incarceration. We were a powerless community of people with few allies. But today we are an empowered people, informed by our history, with empathy and compassion, and the unexpressed outrage about our own victimization has found a voice in standing up for others.”

Ginzberg said that Ina invited her to record the vigil in Japantown. She also later attended the protest at San Francisco International Airport when the first iteration of the travel ban was instated in January 2017, attempting to bar entry to the United States those coming from certain majority Muslim nations. Ginzberg, a former civil rights lawyer, also said she wanted to include Fred Korematsu’s 1983 coram nobis case since she had access to his family, the legal team and Judge Marilyn Hall Patel as a former civil rights attorney.

Ginzberg said she was thankful that the film has since taken on a life of its own, having been shown widely around California and at schools. “All I want is for people to use the stuff that I do. That’s my goal,” she said. “It’s been very rewarding to have the film used by others who either want to teach the same story, or a related story, or work in conjunction with another group.”

“And Then They Came for Us” will screen Saturday, Feb. 10 at the California Museum, 1020 O St., Sacramento, Calif. as part of the Northern California Time of Remembrance program from 1 to 4 p.m. Tickets are a suggested donation of $20 for general admission or $15 for students 18 to 25 years old and free for children. Ticket price includes admission to the museum and a reception. For more information, visit or contact Nancy Whiteside (916) 508-6587, or (916) 427-2841.

The film will also lead off the Nichi Bei Foundation’s seventh annual Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 24 in San Francisco Japantown’s New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. at 10 a.m. For more information or tickets, visit, e-mail or call (415) 294-4655.

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