Fighting Against an Ugly Tide w/ Marshall Curry & Claudia Katayanagi

How filmmakers are countering the rampant hate and demagoguery of today

In just one recent example of President Trump making a hateful and dangerous statement, our leader of the free world stated that Jewish-Americans who vote Democrat show “Great disloyalty”:

In the same week, he declared himself a “chosen one”, without a shred of humility or humor or irony.

This is not nor should it be normal. As I write this, families are being separated into detention centers, some for extended periods of time, and are being denied basic rights and care.

I’ve always been curious as to how and to what degree film can speak and show truth to power and create genuine change, especially considering and even in spite of tentpole blockbuster movies that get all of the attention.

Filmmakers Claudia Katayanagi and Marshall Curry were kind enough to answer a series of questions about their work, about the power of cinema, and about the weight of history that hangs over all of us.

Don’t expect this current White House to screen their films anytime soon:

Bill Arceneaux: When I first heard of your film A Bitter Legacy, I reflected immediately on FDR’s shameful internment camp decision in a modern context. All that came to mind was Guantanamo Bay and the prison industrial complex. Now, a few years later, we have the Trump-made crisis at and near the southern border, plus the ICE raids and deportations. What similarities - if any -  to what happened during WWII are you seeing in the news today?

Claudia Katayanagi: The contrast in the feelings and the mood in the world from when I started my film more than 6 years ago to today, 2019 is so stark as to be almost unbelievable.  I thought, as I originally began the research into the incarceration of the more than 122,000 people of Japanese ancestry after Executive Order 9066 that I would better understand what happened to my own family members, my parents, grandparents and extended family. 

At the time, no one in my immediate family would talk about the deeper issues at work, or the deeper feelings they experienced when everything was taken from them; their businesses, property and most importantly, their dignity.  What started as more personal research, developed into a much broader, in depth study of the forces at work at that time.

Behind the government euphemism of “relocation”, we now know that racism, greed, and to some degree fear and envy were fueling this unlawful, and unconstitutional imprisonment.  In my film, A Bitter Legacy we learn how important the concept of  “control” was to the U.S. Government in keeping so many people compliant.  Those who questioned the legality and constitutionality of this incarceration of so many American citizens were quickly taken away from their families, isolated in various detention centers across the country and many were tortured, beaten and even shot and killed.  Professor Roger Daniels called Tule Lake Segregation a precursor to Guantanamo. Rendition happened. “Gestapo-like methods” were used to place Japanese American men into “Citizen Isolation Centers”. (U.S. Acting Solicitor General Philip M. Glick 1943)

Today, history is being repeated daily.  Family members are being separated from each other, held in “detention centers”, labeled enemy aliens, placed in deplorable, crowded, filthy and unhealthy conditions.  These are people who legally are seeking asylum.

BA: A Night At the Garden might be the most evocative and truly shocking found/repurposed footage-like movie I’ve ever seen, especially given the current political climate in this country. Your work on it was very subtle but incredibly strong. As the director and editor, how did you balance your own eyes and voice with those of the original cameraman? Do you believe full objectivity is possible when making a documentary, or must some editorial response exist? 

Marshall Curry: I don't think pure objectivity is possible when making a documentary -- though some documentaries are fairer and more accurate than others. In the case of A Night at The Garden, I didn't have any interest in following the intention or point of view of the original camera operators. In fact I tried to make film that would subvert the original intention of the filmmakers. It's my understanding that the film was shot by the Bund -- the American Nazi group who held the rally -- as a propaganda film that would make the group seem heroic and inspirational. It was to be a sort of American Leni Riefenstahl production. I wasn't interested in making that at all, and in fact I wanted to highlight the darkness and danger behind the tactics that the group was using -- the scapegoating of minorities, the cheerful violence against protesters, the distortion of the symbols of American patriotism, etc. So I replaced the original jaunty martial music with a soundscape that was much darker and more foreboding. I also did things like slow down the attack on the Jewish protester so that the audience would have an opportunity to see his face and connect with his fear. But the material is powerful because it is not interrupted with too much outside editorializing. We don't cut to present day historians or activists explaining how terrible this group of Americans were. I thought there was power in letting the audience just watch it and struggle with hard questions for themselves.

BA: I understand you’ve spent some time shooting footage at some of these camps and the surrounding protests. Could you explain what you’ve witnessed and captured?

CK: I have met them. I have filmed asylum seekers in Texas near the border with Mexico. I have crossed the Rio Grande by foot with other Japanese Americans in the attempt to meet, hear their stories and help these asylum seekers. I have met mothers who have lost their children in this inhumane process of separation of families. I have experienced their pain, and seen their tears in person.

We can read about their stories in major news media daily. We see news stories of nationalists yelling and screaming their hatred in such horrifying ways.

In contrast to this, there are movements seeking peaceful, and more positive outcomes. I and now along with numerous other filmmakers, have been documenting Japanese American groups who understand in ways most people don’t, what needs to be done today.

While on a pilgrimage to a former Department of Justice prison in Crystal City, Texas with 9 Japanese American who were themselves children imprisoned in Crystal City even after the end of WWII, I filmed many of them talking of the pain their families experienced, the trauma some of them still carried with them, in the form of PTSD and of the healing that comes from not only talking to others who went through the same trauma, but from finding a way to help other immigrant groups today.

Tsuru for Solidarity is one such group.  Tsuru is the Japanese word for crane. The origami folded cranes have become a symbol for this movement, a symbol of hope and freedom.   The recent peaceful demonstration in Fort Sill, Oklahoma organized by this group was filmed and shown on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now show.

BA: The ending to Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman also features repurposed footage involving the growth of Nazism in the U.S., but from all too recent (and very brutal) events. Do you feel a duty or obligation to make movies that shine a light on this darkness? 

MC: I think we are in a very dark time around the world. There's a rise of hateful demagoguery in India, Venezuela, the Philippines, and other countries -- and in America. I think it's really important for filmmakers, writers and regular citizens to shine light on it because I think that it's easy to wander slowly into a world where we don't want to be. I think that humans are very vulnerable to leaders who are funny and mean and rally them with patriotic symbols and rhetoric that blames minorities and outsiders for our problems. So we need to remind each other to be vigilant and defend the things that we care about -- democracy, respect, decency, truth, free press.

BA: Smart phones and cloud-based editing tools have become mighty resources in news gathering and holding those in power accountable. Have there been any relevant documentaries or films that you’ve seen recently which made an impact on you? Are there any contemporary filmmakers whose work you would recommend audiences seek out?

CK: A week or so after this original protest at Fort Sill, more local groups organized a larger protest there and a week after that the U.S. Government decided not to use the facility to imprison immigrants. A small victory.

Smart phones and cloud-based editing tools are being used on a massive scale to help capture events as they are happening.  I have used my smart phone to film an event many times, where there simply was not sufficient time to get my professional camera person on location in time.   When dozens of other participants are filming, the governmental forces have a much more difficult time in trying to control the narrative of what is actually occurring on the ground. 

Cases in point are the recent Hong Kong and Puerto Rico protests which demonstrated what a powerful perspective Smart phones provided. This makes the impact of this footage much more immediate and visceral. 

Within the Japanese American or Nikkei community, there are many film makers who have or are making a huge impact not just on the Nikkei community, but now out in the wider audience.

Emiko and Chizuko Omori, with Rabbit in the Moon – 1999 are my heroines for telling the incarceration history from a more in depth, yet personal perspective.  Satsuki Ina, who has also become a powerful spokesperson in the current activism against the jailing of migrant and refugee children on the border is a filmmaker, Children of the Camps - 1999 and From a Silk Cocoon - 1999.  Frank Abe has produced an award-winning film Conscience and the Constitution - 2012 revealing the almost untold story of the largest organized resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and the suppression of that resistance by Japanese American leaders. 

More currently, filmmaker Konrad Aderer with Resistance at Tule Lake and Evan Kodani, and Jon Osaki, Alternative Facts - 2019 are at work showing how Japanese Americans are standing up and speaking out in protest to the forces on the Alt-right, or “Nationalists” today, as am I. 

BA: I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger, but I also thought it was cheap to wash away the Nazi aspects of the comic book for the movie. Do we underestimate the importance of history in our modern society? 

MC: I can't speak to the Captain America movie, but I think we definitely have a poor understanding of history, which makes us vulnerable to making the same mistakes. It's not helped by groups that strip difficult chapters out of our children's textbooks or by propagandists like Dinesh D'souza who intentionally peddle false history for political gain.

BA: No matter what we’ve learned yesterday or what will likely happen tomorrow, it seems as if we’re doomed to repeat the bitter mistakes of years gone by. How can film combat this?

CK: Films are a very useful tool for not only informing people of history, but if done well, can touch people in their hearts in ways that the printed word alone cannot.

Films can sometimes be seen as mirrors of our own selves, our feelings, our thoughts and our common humanity. We can recognize common threads with other cultures when we see people just like our uncles, aunts, or grand-parents in the same type of events, like weddings, births, celebrations or soccer games. Visuals can have an enormous impact on the human spirit. The first view of Earth from Outer Space which made us all realize that despite the spats which sometimes escalate into war, we all on this one planet as one human race. Perhaps we should make peace and ensure that this planet can survive. Perhaps by seeing outside our individual neighborhood for a little bit, we can learn to talk to others and work together for a common good, like peace and prosperity for all. 

MC: I don't believe in fate, so I don't think we are ever doomed. It's entirely up to us to choose one path or another. In the past we have made terrible choices as a society and we have also made brilliant, noble, inspirational choices. In 1939 thousands of people showed up to cheer for Nazism in America, but thousands more pushed back and made sure that the government was run by FDR and not a right-wing hate-monger. In America we are lucky to still have the levers of power in reach if we will just do the hard work of grabbing them. It's a matter of sharing information with our fellow citizens and then engaging in practical political activity that wins elections. That's how history gets shaped -- for better or worse. Late in his life, Isadore Greenbaum, the protester who ran out on stage that night, was asked why he stood up, and he said, "Gee, what would you have done if you were in my place?" It's a question for all of us.