Though known as a dusty desert and a site of injustice for Japanese Americans, filmmaker Ann Kaneko delved into the intricate history of water rights and the people of California’s Owens Valley in “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust.”
The documentary primarily focuses on the Paiute and Shoshone people who have lived in the region, and the gradual desertification of the valley as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverted and pumped water away to feed its metropolis some 200 miles away.
Kaneko said in a statement that she set out to make a distinct film about the Manzanar concentration camp in 2014 and ended up focusing on how the region was first the victim of colonialism through the abuse of its indigenous communities.
“Through my research, I was stunned and fascinated by the implications of what seemed like minor footnotes in American history. During the scare of Trump’s Muslim Ban, many pointed to Executive Order 9066, but I realized that the real precedence for this racist mentality in the United States was not Japanese American incarceration — it was the violent forced removal and confinement of Indigenous people and the unfathomable trafficking of enslaved Africans to this continent. All in the name of colonization and racism,” she said in a statement on the film.
While most Japanese Americans know about the concentration camp, Kaneko goes further back in time to highlight how the LADWP, owners of 90 percent of Owens Valley, had drained the region of its lakes to send water to the growing Los Angeles metropolis.
“I think she did an excellent job of capturing frankly — the term that we use nowadays — the intersectionality of Manzanar,” Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, organizers of the annual pilgrimage to the former U.S. concentration camp, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The environmental side clearly comes out, but I think what she was so successful in doing, is she captured the importance of the site to the Paiute and Shoshone peoples since it’s their land.”
Filmed over several years and finishing filming shortly before the pandemic, Kaneko covered the local battles that unfolded in the Valley over the years, including a protest against the LADWP developing a solar power facility on the land and the demands by the tribes to have a water pipe feeding into their reservation repaired. While the specific battles have changed over the years, Kaneko said the theme of resilience and water remained a focal point in the film.
“Early on, I realized that water was a real metaphor for so many things in the film, this symbol of resilience, the survival. … It was what tied all of these communities together also,” Kaneko told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The filmmaking process was a process of discovery and it’s always about sharpening what that theme or thread was.”
The Sansei filmmaker also made sure not to overwhelm her audience and leave them feeling paralyzed by the injustices involved.
Kaneko highlighted activists working at a local level to tell “stories of solidarity and stories that can kind of uplift ourselves in the midst of these very difficult times. I think that perhaps that’s why the film resonates now,” she said. “Obviously, I could never foresee what the particular political tenor of the world would be at whatever given moment, but that seems to be the case now.”
“Manzanar Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust” (2021, 84 minutes) will screen online starting Sunday, Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. PT through March 13. A discussion on the film with Kaneko and KTVU-2 News Reporter Jana Katsuyama will be held at 6:35 p.m. Tickets cost $15 or $50 for an all-access pass. For more information, visit www.filmsofremembrance.org.