Filmmaker discusses inspiration behind new film about Poston internment camp on an AZ reservation in WWII
By Joe Fox
A filmmaker is nothing more than a storyteller. And one really searches high and low for those amazing stories to tell.
Our film, Passing Poston, is anchored in the stories of four former internees of the Poston Internment Camp – one of ten camps built by the U.S. government during World War II to house 120,000 Japanese (60% of them American citizen) who were forcibly relocated from their homes on the West Coast.
Eighteen thousand were sent to spend the war years behind barbed wire in the Arizona desert on an Indian tribal reservation.
What drew us initially to the story was the irony of an internment camp being built on a reservation. As one person in the film aptly put it, “Poston was like an internment camp being built in the middle of an internment camp.”
The cycle of history repeating itself – two groups of people being forcibly relocated to the same stretch of land – initially presented a unique canvas to tell a story.
What drew us further into the story was when we soon discovered something else about Poston – a startling well kept secret of why this camp was created. It seems that Poston served another purpose for the U.S. government – other than just being an internment camp where people who were considered to be a wartime threat were sent.
Poston was built primarily by the government with the intention of bringing in a huge population (the Japanese) who would then be used to help develop the reservation for the Colorado River Indian Tribes living there.
During the war, Japanese labor – much of it backbreaking – was used to dig ditches in order to irrigate and subjugate an arid land; their labor was used to help bring electricity onto a reservation that had none. The Japanese were also used to build school buildings that would then later be used after the war by the tribes.
This was a piece of history that had never been told before.
Personally, the story of internment for me resonated very deeply as a Jew. I grew up very much shaped by the history of the Holocaust. And when I learned briefly – ever so briefly – in my American history class about Japanese internment, I immediately identified with the plight of individuals being rounded up, being forced to board trains packed with scared and confused individuals who were being taken to unknown destinations.
And then. of course, we viewed the telling of the internment experience as particularly relevant in the post 9/11 times in which we live. We saw our film to be a cautionary tale of sorts. Back in 1942, it was the Japanese that were the “face of the enemy”. Post-9/11 it was Muslims. A far-fetched scenario entered my mind: If Israel and America went to war with each other, would I as a Jew end up in a concentration camp in some god forsaken desert somewhere?
And so those were the impetuses that led us to make our film.
But what truly lies at the heart of our film?
Dislocation. Alienation. Marginalization.
While “Passing Poston” tells the story of the forced internment of Japanese living in America during World War II – for me what lies at the heart (and soul) of this film is the story of wounded individuals – people in the last chapter of their lives who are still struggling to figure out their rightful place as Americans in this country.
I am not Asian. And yet I didn’t have to be to deeply identify with the pain, anguish and outright confusion articulated by the characters of our film.
How many of us feel that because of our race, religion or sexual identity we are at times like the outsiders looking in?
It was this theme of yearning – of wanting to be accepted by a society that doesn’t quite fully want us – that very much drew me as a filmmaker to make “Passing Poston.”
Also of Interest
Joe Fox co-directed the film Passing Poston: An American Story along with James Nubile. The film opens in New York City on February 20 followed by screenings in selected cities across the country. Go to www.passingposton.com for screenings and showtimes. Screencap images are used here courtesy of the filmmakers.