In exposing falsehoods, ‘Alternative Facts’ connects the past to the present

Image of Jon Osaki’s film “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066,” by Grace Horikiri.

In the documentary, “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066,” Jon Osaki, who produced and directed the film, takes a new angle in telling the experiences of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans into United States-style concentration camps and ties what occurred in the 1940s to our current state of the union.

The title itself connects the past to the present. “People have very strong reactions to the title, one way or another,” said Osaki. “Some people love it. Some people hate it.”

The phrase in the film’s title — alternative facts — went viral in 2017 after Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide, used those words on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, who claimed that Trump’s inauguration attracted the largest audience ever to witness the swearing-in ceremony and accused journalists of falsely reporting the numbers, despite photographs and public transportation information contradicting Spicer.

“When people see the title, I want people to understand right away that there are parallels between today and what happened in 1942,” said Osaki. “We have a White House today that’s not forthcoming with the truth in a lot of matters, and … that is so similar to how Japanese Americans ended up being incarcerated.”

The film focuses on key government officials during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration who were involved in the Japanese American imprisonment program. Since these officials have long passed away, Osaki tracked down their descendants through help from community members and his own detective work.

In recounting how Osaki tracked down Mark Zauderer, Edward Ennis’ stepson, Osaki said he started by reading Ennis’ obituary. Ennis was director of the Department of Justice’s Alien Enemy Control Unit during the war. “Edward Ennis has no living relatives,” said Osaki.

“But he was so critical to the story because if it weren’t for him documenting his objections over all the lies, we would have never known what had happened, so I really wanted to find someone who would have some insight into him.”

After an extensive Internet search, Osaki was able to locate Zauderer.

“His stepfather had actually talked to him a lot about what had happened,” said Osaki. “It was really that significant in his life so he (Zauderer) knew all about it. In fact, he had pulled together a lot of the documents that Peter Irons had found, so he was very knowledgeable about the whole thing.

“He had just a lot of great insight into Edward Ennis and what his thought processes were during that time because I know a lot of people today, when they see this film, might ask, ‘Why didn’t he just come forward and blow the whistle as to what was taking place?’ And Mark, his stepson, talked about how in 1942, nobody did that.

There were no whistleblowers, and so Ennis argued it within the Justice Department as hard as he could and did what was appropriate at that time because this was pre-Watergate.”

Another descendant who was a wealth of information, was James Rowe III, the son of James Rowe Jr., who had been a Justice Department attorney during the war. The son told Osaki that his father had fought in the war as a soldier, was part of the Nuremberg trials, and had worked, in addition to the Roosevelt administration, in the Truman, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

“He said his father did all these things but never talked to him about any of them,” said Osaki. “But the one thing his father did talk to him about was the incarceration of the Japanese Americans. He wanted him to know what had really happened and how wrong it was. I thought that was very interesting.”

Tying these wartime officials to today is the interview with Neal Katyal, who, as acting solicitor general in 2011, posted an unprecedented statement on the Justice Department blog about the mistakes his predecessor had made during World War II.

During the filming, Katyal was serving as lead counsel for the state of Hawai‘i and the largest mosque in the state in opposing President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which largely affected people from Muslim-majority countries, plus North Korea and Venezuela.

“Dale Minami was the one who helped me connect with him, and I thought that was a great connection since he was literally arguing the travel ban cases while we were filming,” recalled Osaki. “… So he was crazy busy, and he was very, very, super gracious to make time for this interview because he was right in the middle of that when I did the interview with him.”

The thread tying the documentary together is the narrative of two youths, Mika Osaki, the director’s daughter, and Joseph Tsuboi.

Osaki, who has been working with youths for more than three decades, realized that the Japanese American community will soon have no living World War II camp incarcerees, who have, until now, been the primary story tellers of the camp experience.

“The part of using Joseph and Mika as spokespeople as part of the film was for one, to really illuminate the fact that we need these young people to become storytellers of the incarceration experience,” said Osaki. “And I think what I also wanted to do was … I wanted young people, who see this film, to see other young people and to hear them talk about not only what happened but, as part of the film, we brought them to the exhibit at the Presidio and had them walk through it. A lot of the things that they saw, they were learning for the first time. And we wanted to show their reactions to learning some of these things.”

Osaki credits Lauren Kawana, who is listed as the consulting producer, with tracking down some of the obscure photographs, research documents and existing oral history interviews. “I told her she should be co-producer but she wouldn’t accept that,” said Osaki. “She found a lot of the stuff like the oral interviews with Edward Ennis and (John) Rowe, and the photographs of people working in the Western Defense Command. She’s a great researcher.”

The film also offers a tribute to Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who passed away last year, and who was one of Osaki’s motivating factors in making this film.

“I wanted to make sure we prominently featured her so that people will know how important she was in uncovering the truth,” said Osaki. “… The Civil Liberties Act might have never gotten signed without her.”

Osaki hopes that those who view this film will realize history can repeat itself if they do not learn about what happened when those in power abused their positions by offering “alternative facts” to the truth.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that people understand what happened because unfortunately, we have a chapter of history that this country wants to forget, and we can’t let that happen,” said Osaki.

“Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066” will have two screenings in California on Feb. 23, with filmmaker Jon Osaki present at both events. From 1:30 to 4 p.m., it will screen at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute Day of Remembrance, 1964 W. 162nd St. in Gardena; admission is free. At 6:30 p.m., it will be the Showcase Film at the eighth annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation at New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance or call (415) 294-4655.

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