Next-generation filmmakers help to rediscover incarceration history

During its annual film showcase, the Nichi Bei Foundation will present a series of three short films on the history of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans directed by younger generations of filmmakers. Entitled “History Rediscovered,” the short films explore stories that detail the experience of some Japanese Americans during World War II when some 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes and incarcerated in American concentration camps.

The short film program features “Three Boys Manzanar” by Preeti Deb; “The Crystal City” by Kenya Gillespie; and “Beyond the Barbed Wire: Japanese Americans in Minnesota” by Ka Wong, Hikari Sugisaki and Paul Sullivan. Following the screenings, filmmakers Deb, Gillespie and Sugisaki will participate in a discussion moderated by KTVU Fox 2 reporter Jana Katsuyama.

“Three Boys Manzanar” photo by Julie Mikos Photography

“Three Boys Manzanar” focuses on the reunion of three men at the former Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp, all of whom were featured in an iconic Toyo Miyatake photo of three boys standing behind barbed wire. Mas Ooka, Bruce Sansui and Bob Takamoto reunited in the summer of 2016 to recreate the iconic photo more than seven decades later.

“My siblings and I had seen the photo in a book when we were children, and our mother shared that it was indeed our father in the photo,” Akemi Ooka, the film’s executive producer, told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail interview. “He didn’t talk much about his time at Manzanar, so we didn’t press him for details, but we were all amazed by the picture — both because it was of our father, and because it was such a stark image.”

Ooka, whose children attended the same preschool as Deb’s, told the award-winning filmmaker about her family’s history and her father’s photo, which Deb immediately urged Ooka to capture on film.

“The Crystal City” image courtesy of Kenya Gillespie

“When she told me that one of the boys was her father and that she had found another one of them and was looking for the third, I could not contain my excitement,” Deb told the Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail. “It was a film waiting to be made.”

“The Crystal City” tells stories of former inmates at the Crystal City Department of Justice camp in Texas, where families of Japanese, German and Italian descent were held separately from the War Relocation Authority’s concentration camps during the war.

Gillespie, a MFA film student at The University of Texas at Austin, said using the limited resources he had, he juxtaposed the wartime stories with modern-day footage of the former camp.

“I think the tough thing was actually choosing what stories I wanted to tell,” said the Shin-Nisei filmmaker, who is of mixed Japanese and white heritage.

“The thing I really wanted to focus on … was, I wanted the survivors’ stories to be highlighted, especially at the end when you get to hear from someone at the camp.”

Concluding the program is “Beyond the Barbed Wire: Japanese Americans in Minnesota,” which focuses on the Japanese Americans who resettled in Minnesota after the war primarily due to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling, as well as students who left the camps to attend college at universities such as St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council.

According to Sugisaki, a Shin-Issei raised in Chicago, they and Sullivan were recruited by Wong, an associate professor of Asian studies at St. Olaf, for a project interviewing Asian Americans residing in Northfield.

Sugisaki outlined three things they hoped the film would convey.
“In Minnesota as well as the Midwest, the Japanese internment experience is largely glossed over,” they told the Nichi Bei Weekly over e-mail. “Another thing we wanted to convey was that life still continued for Japanese American people after internment.”

Sugisaki said the film also aims to highlight the wartime incarceration experience and make it relevant to Midwest audiences.
Sugisaki said they hoped the film would remind the public that conscientious people helped Japanese Americans get out of the camps to resettle during the war, and to “nudge viewers to consider their own moral responsibility” to help Muslims facing persecution today.

The Films of Remembrance shorts program “History Rediscovered” will be screened Feb. 23 at 12:35 p.m. at the New People Cinema, located at 1746 Post St., in San Francisco’s Japantown. For tickets or more information, including other films, visit, e-mail or call (415) 294-4655.

“Beyond the Barbed Wire: Japanese Americans in Minnesota” photo courtesy of Hikari Sugisaki

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