After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a phobia took hold of Americans and the government herded hundreds of thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the Pacific region into internment camps. While this unprecedented defacement of democracy has been well-documented, the filmmakers here reinvent the wheel by showcasing a particular camp (one of 10) located along the Colorado River, which brought internees to the middle of nowhere to develop a Native-American reservation. Despite the remarkable output of the captives, who built irrigation systems, established schools and harnessed electricity for the various tribes’ population peppered throughout the region, the moves were deemed unconstitutional and a formal apology was offered almost a half century afterward. Subject matter will hit a sweet spot with history profs and majors but might not find the outside of a classroom, thereby yielding a dry take at the moviehouses.
The documentary’s title derives from Poston Relocation Center, once a camp housing more than 18,000 detainees in the middle of an otherwise uninhabited desert. The intersection between this uprooting assault on Japanese-American internees and the advancement of Native American tribes within the region (who knew a bit about injustice) is a juxtaposition worth pondering. At one point, one of the representatives from the tribes ho-hums the whole affair of wheeling in the free labor for the betterment of his people when he says simply, “That’s the world.” Makes you think when even victims can stand idle when others are being victimized before them.
Leaning too heavily on archived newsreels, the film tries to establish a feeling that the propaganda mechanism justified the government’s deplorable actions. However many rose-colored images of savory soup lines and fancy-free patty-cake games amongst the toddlers, the friendly GIs smiling for the cameras were still armed with loaded, bayonet-equipped rifles inoculating the fact this was real. Undisputable. Nobody can question the footage and the stills that were mined by the film’s determined researchers. Still, when they go from the authentic quality of film stock to unsteady digital camerawork, the film loses its pep. Outside of the tripod sit-downs with the main subjects, much of the handheld stuff, however locked and loaded when it counted, is too amateur. At one point, you’re zooming in on a duck and then, after a dizzy cut, you’re zooming out. Recruiting any scrappy young cinematographer willing to work for some ink on his CV could have solved an issue like this. Still, the filmmakers James Nubile and Joe Fox never force themselves into the film—just the characters, and the characters alone, shepherd the story. Nubile and Fox show their greatest strengths as interviewers who can pan gold out of their subjects.
The film makes sure to go to the reservation and interview a few who speak on behalf of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. You hear them trying to be sincere about what the Japanese detainees meant to their own progress, but there isn’t a face-to-face between the actual survivors and any contrite Native Americans—which is what the audience deserves to see. Why simply show some B-roll clip of a few tribesmen doing a dance performance for one of the survivors? It just seems as though the film doesn’t stretch far enough to find the tension in the now. Instead, the filmmakers stick to the archival newsreels. The stuff begins to feel as old as it is.
You want this film to sit at the grownup table. The interviews are intense and, when put behind some stunning stills, a couple moments are heralding. But everything else is a lot of unseasoned camerawork without much vision. The filmmakers do the right thing to toss in substantial sources to reinforce their subject’s legitimacy. But they flounder when it comes to trying to land something bold or surprising. When the detainees return on their own back to Poston, which has become a ruin of battered roofs and tagged-up walls, you expect catharsis of some sort. Just never happens. The music loops the same tracks, and the words don’t bail out the sub-par footage. All said, the central characters’ interviews are special and deserve kudos. But as stand-alones, they can’t bolster a run far beyond the overhead projectors of lecture halls.
Directors: Joe Fox and James Nubile
Screenwriter/Producer: Joe Fox
Running time: 60 min.
Release date: August 8