Manzanar’s ‘unexpected’ land defenders

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Like many Sansei, Ann Kaneko grew up hearing about “camp” from her parents’ dinnertime conversations, but it wasn’t until she was asked to talk about her family’s World War II incarceration in the fourth grade that she realized that what they had experienced was far from a “fun camp where they had been for a few years.”

Ever since then, part of Kaneko’s journey as a Sansei and an award-winning filmmaker has been to unpack this history to make sense of it for herself, and to share her understanding with audiences around the world.

Not all of her films have been about the wartime incarceration, but her latest documentary, “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust” (2021, 84 min.) focuses on the Japanese American mass incarceration story from a new angle.

The film, set to have its California premiere during CAAMFEST 2021 Sunday, May 16 at 6 p.m. PDT live and online, weaves together memories from intergenerational women — Native Americans, former Japanese American WWII incarcerees and environmentalists — to form an unexpected alliance to defend their land and natural resources from Los Angeles.

More than five years in the making, the film recounts 150 years of history and reveals the forced removals of the Paiute and the Shoshone — who were marched out of the Owens Valley in the 1860s by the U.S Army — and the Japanese Americans who were forcibly brought to Manzanar, Calif. from their West Coast homes and incarcerated in the concentration camp.

Central to the story: Water. And what happens when it’s taken away, when there’s not enough to go around and when people are left high and dry.

“Water lured outsiders in and continues to fuel the greed which has sucked this once lush place dry,” explained the filmmakers in a statement.

Long before Manzanar, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had been pumping water from the Owens Valley to supply a rapidly growing population in Southern California.

What were once lakes full of water had become bone dry over time. Without water, dry lake beds became the dust that violently blew through the camp at Manzanar, dust that caused a young Nisei inmate named Sue Kunitomi to cough, which became a chronic respiratory problem that stayed with her for most of her life.

This is what happens when there’s no water, the film points out. For Japanese Americans, there were health consequences at Manzanar. For Native Americans, issues of stolen water, land and forced removal are nothing new.

“Native people have been pushed aside, ignored, and not listened to,” says Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, a principal Native voice in the film. “That’s been the case all along.”

Since Japanese Americans and Native Americans share this history of forced removal, Kaneko decided to bring them together in “Manzanar Diverted.”

“The legacy of what happened to my parents is probably why I’m interested in social justice issues,” Kaneko said. “My mother especially never wanted to see this happen again, and she always had much empathy towards people who have been marginalized and discriminated against.”

“Manzanar Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust” is the centerpiece film of CAAMFEST 2021. For info, visit: https://caamfest.com/2021/movies/manzanar-diverted/.

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