A: It's the story of what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II from the point of view of twelve people who were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
Q: Twenty years ago, you made UNFINISHED BUSINESS and DAYS OF WAITING, both of which looked at the camp experience. What made you want to return to the subject?
A: Several reasons. I loved making those films. The people involved were terrific, the stories were really strong, and the response to the films was great. But, as a filmmaker, it's a constant battle not to get stuck in the brackets that people put you in. After those films, I wanted to challenge myself, working in different styles and genres, not just making historical films or only working with Asian American themes.
I made a conscious decision to stop doing historical projects. Those unbearable Ken Burns documentaries ruined the genre for me. I stayed away for fifteen years, then HBO nudged me back to it when they asked me to produce a documentary about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN. That was such a rewarding experience, both creatively and personally, that I wanted to do more.
Another reason is that my father, along with his parents and sisters, was at Heart Mountain. He died about ten years ago having never ever talked about it. I hoped making the film would give me a better understanding of who he was through the stories of other Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) who were there. And it did. I learned a lot.
I also took on it because of my admiration for the people involved. The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which raised the funds for the film and built the Interpretive Learning Center, is made up of Nisei, Sansei, Wyoming folk, historians, foundation people and politicians, all working together to preserve the history and tell the Heart Mountain story. They're a great group of people with rare commitment and determination, and I wanted to be around that.
Q: A lot of Japanese Americans have strong opinions about the camps and how the story should be told. Were you concerned about pressure over what to include or exclude?
A: Not really. Yes, there are loud voices in the community that drown out the softer ones, but I want to hear whatever anyone has to say. From that I follow-up on what strikes me, then start filming and see what happens. I don't make message films. My criterion is: Is it a good story told in compelling way that will connect to the audience? If it's not, the viewer won't care.
This film is a super condensed history, so I had to leave a lot out. I'd like to do a longer feature-length version because we're losing that generation fast. There is so much more to the story, fascinating stuff that is rarely talked about.
Q: Were there any surprises for you?
A: I was surprised how openly several of the interviewees talked about racism. From my experience, Japanese Americans usually aren't comfortable identifying themselves as victims of racism. Many feel that acknowledging it lessens them and makes them sound self-pitying Most talk about it in a roundabout way that's hard to decipher. But to come out and say, "It was racism," that's not typical. I don't know whether the people I interviewed are more outspoken than most Japanese Americans or if things have changed that much in thirty years, but I never heard Nisei talk so openly.
One wonderful surprise is how much of the visual documentation of life in the camp was done by Japanese Americans. Some of the camps didn't allow cameras inside. At Manzanar, Toyo Miyatake snuck a lens into the camp and made his own camera out of wood and plumbing supplies. But it wasn't as restrictive at Heart Mountain. Professional and amateur photographers ordered equipment and film stock from mail order catalogues and shot photos and filmed openly. ALL WE COULD CARRY features a wonderful sequence of color photos of a bon odori and a sumo competition shot by Bill Manbo. Also, there's 8mm home movie footage by two amateur filmmakers. It gives you a different sense of the camps than the government footage. Of course, people tend to pose, smile and wear their best clothes in the photos so they're not quite snapshots of everyday life.
Q: You obviously took the film very personally.
A: I take the subject personally. I know a lot of JAs are tired of hearing about the camps. Some are embarrassed by it. I used to be, depending on how people brought it up. But, over the years, I've come to see how much the camp experience shapes Japanese American life, for all of us. I'm not saying it's a good thing. It's tragic how big it is. We lost something, a vital piece of ourselves, because of the camps. I have a lot of anger about it.
I think a lot of people who hear the story for the first time want the ending to be different, they feel the Japanese Americans were too passive. I don't think they were. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the government picked up anyone who might be a leader — schoolteachers, priests, judo instructors, businessmen — separating them and putting them in special prisons. A few people rebelled — Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu — and they were arrested and thrown in jail. If you dissented or resisted, you were arrested. Then they let the young adults leave the camps, to join the Army or take menial jobs in the Midwest, and only the old people and the children were left. What were they going to do? The government broke the community and it has struggled ever since.
The camp experience is huge, not only for the people who went through it, but for their children, grandchildren and on and on. Any Japanese American whose parents or grandparents were in the camps who says it's not part of who they are is fooling him or herself. It completely redirected and perverted Japanese American life. Imagine what California would be like now if the Japanese Americans hadn't been stripped of their rights, property and businesses 70 years ago. We'd be a major factor in the economic, social and cultural life of the state.
That's why I wanted to get involved with the Heart Mountain project, because it's Japanese Americans taking responsibility, this time with lots of great support, to tell the story of what happened to our community because of racism.
Q: The film ends with one of the interviewees saying "You just keep on going." Why did you choose those last words?
A: I wanted the film to reflect what I call Nisei style. When they talk about camp, they usually end their stories with, "Well, that's the way it was" or "It couldn't be helped" or "It was hard, but it could've been worse." It's very Nisei to underplay the drama, to be humble. I wanted that feel. I don't know if people will get it or not.
But I like the understated, conversational feel of the film's last words. It's two sisters, Yaeko Abe and Jene Deguchi. Jene says, "Well, we hope that it never happens again" like a mother reminding her children to be good. Then Yaeko says, "You can't be worrying about what you lost always and just keep on going." Then Jene adds, "I agree" and Yaeko says, "Yeah." It's very Japanese American.