‘Before They Take Us Away’ tells the story of JAs during WWII that you may not be familiar with


ABOVE: Evelyn Nakano Glenn at the Merced Assembly Center Memorial. photo courtesy of Antonia Grace Glenn

UNTOLD STORY — The Hisayasu Family (top) c. 1939. photo courtesy of the Hisayasu family

The history of Japanese American incarceration isn’t as unknown or forgotten as it used to be. Many more people today know about how more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were sent to 10 concentration camps hastily built in inhospitable places in the American interior, away from their homes along the West Coast, during World War II. Especially if you’re Japanese American, the experiences of families going to places with names like Manzanar, Amache, Heart Mountain, Minidoka, Jerome and Gila River have become familiar through books, documentaries, feature films and annual Day of Remembrance events in our communities.

But what’s less known and less discussed is the story of the 5,000 JAs — men, women and children — who “self-evacuated” and left their West Coast homes, businesses and farms behind on their own after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which allowed the military to declare exclusion zones and order the removal of people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S.-born citizens.

These families and individuals acted on an announcement from the War Relocation Authority, which was created to manage the incarceration. They were told they would be allowed to voluntarily leave the now-restricted zones from Washington and Oregon down through California to parts of Arizona. They could head toward an uncertain but “free” existence instead of being herded into buses and trains and sent to temporary “relocation centers” in converted horse racetracks and then to large camps that were like small cities for the duration of the war.

Voluntary “relocation” required these people to move quickly. They only had until late March to take advantage of this window of self-determination and they needed a sponsor and employment at their destination. And of course, they would not receive any financial support from the federal government.

“Before They Take Us Away” tells the untold tale of these families. The film is written and directed by Antonia Grace Glenn, who made an earlier documentary, “The Ito Sisters,” with interviews of three of her aunties and the pre-war experience of Japanese families. “Before They Take Us Away” is even more of a family affair built on oral history videos conducted and filmed by Glenn’s mother, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, founder of the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley. Patrick Glenn, Antonia’s brother, filmed some of the interviews and serves as producer with his sister, mother and Tim Becherer.

ABOVE: Evelyn Nakano Glenn at the Merced Assembly Center Memorial. photo courtesy of Antonia Grace Glenn

The project “was really my mother, you know,” says Antonia Glenn. “She didn’t know about that experience, so she started interviewing people for kind of a research project. And she interviewed over 30 ‘self evacuees’ and had all these interviews, and then I said, I’ll help you with trying to make that into a film.”

Antonia Grace Glenn added research to the oral histories and connected the personal narratives, bringing in news clippings and the voices of lawmakers quoted in articles. Some were initially opposed to having the “evacuees” settle in their area, but later acknowledged what great additions they turned out to be for the community, and how patriotic they were. Most of the governors were very against allowing Japanese Americans to move to their states, except for Ralph Carr, the Republican governor of Colorado at the time, who felt the incarceration of American citizens was unconstitutional. He invited “self-evacuees” to come to Colorado and ruined his political career as a consequence.

“The fact that he said, ‘if you harm them, you must first harm me,’ I just thought that that was, you know, remarkable. And I wanted to sort of really celebrate that stance in the film,” Antonia Grace Glenn said.

Glenn interviewed a handful of people whose families went to Colorado. Some of the families ended up at Keetley Farms, an agricultural colony in Utah near Park City, where the “evacuees” leased land and initially faced racism and hostility but eventually won over their neighbors.

One of the most thought-provoking points raised in the documentary is whether these “self-evacuees” led a better life during wartime than the majority of Japanese and Japanese Americans who ended up in the concentration camps.

“That was a fascinating part of this film, to hear the people who did ‘self-evacuate,’” Glenn says. “And think about well, what if we had gone to camp?

It’s kind of my favorite section of the film.”

There were such differing opinions on the question, from one man who said if you were in a camp, “you were on vacation, and other people saying, I couldn’t have handled the barbed wire, I couldn’t have handled the lack of freedom.”

The children of one family in the film faced daily racist bullying on the school bus. “It’s just so brutal, and they share it, and I give credit to both the self-evacuees and my mother, in terms of, you know, really getting those stories in this very unvarnished and personal way. It’s heartbreaking.”

The incarceration, she acknowledges, was horrible. But “at the very least you had your community together, a sense of shared experience. For the self-evacuees, the isolation and the unknown, and the possibility of getting to near starvation levels, that must have been so terrifying.

“So that the comparing of those experiences was sort of like, you shouldn’t have to choose either of those horrible outcomes. That was why I wanted to include the comparison, like, wow, what would any of us do, if forced to make that decision?”

“Before They Take Us Away” and “When You Leave” will screen as part of the “Untold Stories Program” Saturday, Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki 8 at 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown and Sunday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church at 640 N. Fifth St. in San Jose’s Japantown. It will also be available online from Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. through March 12 at 11:59 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit www.filmsofremembrance.org.

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