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Manzanar (film)


Experimental documentary film by Bob Nakamura made in 1971 that was one of the first films to explore the legacy of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Shot on Super 8 color film, mostly with a handheld camera, the 16 minute film consists of footage shot at the site of the camp in the present of the film—the trees and foliage that have overtaken the camp; ruins from the camp including concrete foundations, remains of the aqueduct, and broken dishes and household goods; and the two main intact elements of the camp, the guard enclosure at the camp's entrance and the large stone memorial made by inmates. These contemporary shots are intercut with montages of historical photographs, most from government sources. Japanese classical music (uncredited) accompanies the visuals throughout. There are three short voiceover segments by Nakamura—each about a minute long. As we enter the site today, Nakamura recalls the "feelings, sounds, smells" from when he was six and his family was incarcerated there, remembering when the FBI took away a neighbor who was active in judo and kendo. Next, over period photos of inmates entering the camp, guard towers, and scenes of camp life, he recalls going to the bathroom soon after they arrived and not being able to find his way back to his parents, since all of the barracks looked alike. Lastly, over period photographs of children and schools at Manzanar, Nakamura recalls how his folks were outwardly cheerful most of the time, but how his mother burst into tears when he brought home a bad report card, concluding with "now I realize what she was really crying about." The film climaxes with the handheld camera walking through the trees, then picking up speed and running through the site as the music rise, then ends with shots of the memorial and its Japanese language inscription before fading to black.

Nakamura (1937– ) made Manzanar when he was a student at UCLA's film school as part of the Ethno Communications program. Along with fellow Asian American students Eddie Wong, Duane Kubo, and Alan Ohashi, he formed Visual Communications while remaining in school to retain access to UCLA equipment. Manzanar fulfilled his first year project requirement to do a project on Super 8 film. Nakamura went to become a pioneering filmmaker, teacher, and scholar, directing many subsequent films that touch on the concentration camp experience including Wataridori: Birds of Passage , Conversations: Before the War/After the War (1986), and Something Strong Within (1994).

Manzanar was heavily influenced by Nakamura's participation in the first pilgrimage to Manzanar at the end of 1969. "So, when I started film school it was a no brainer," he said in a 2009 interview. "I wanted to do something about camp, I just wanted to do something about camp. And, as I began thinking about it I decided to make it autobiographical. The idea was to see the camp through the eyes of a young boy." After completing the film, he screened it many times at community events. "We would screen our films in churches and community centers and schools, and we'd bring—carry our own 16mm projector and screen. So we did a lot, and then we had some fairly large community screenings. That was part of our mission—making the film, but the other part was getting people to see them." [1]

Film scholars have cited Manzanar' s significance as a pioneering work. Michael Renow called it "truly trailblazing" and "aesthetically triumphant," citing as a highlight the "film's emotional climax [that] occurs in a flurry of music and hand-held images as the filmmaker charges (in a blind rage?) across the desert landscape. It is as though Nakamura's lurching camera is exorcising a past officially buried and mastering it in an act of memorial reconstruction." David E. James wrote that it "... summon[s] an elegiac wistfulness to hallow the historical memory that the Japanese American community had so long repressed." Jun Okada cites it as "an attempt to use cinema as a device of preservation and documentation, with a decidedly ideological purpose: to redress the internment within the larger project of fighting racism." [2]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like Encounter with the Past: American Japanese Internment in World War II (1980); History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1992); Something Strong Within (1994)

Footnotes

  1. Los Angeles Film Forum, "Alternative Projections Experimental film in Los Angeles, 1945- 1980," Oral History project, interview by Adam Hyman and Pauline Stakelon, May 23, 2009, pp. 46, 54, accessed on Dec. 4, 2013 at http://alternativeprojections.com/assets/Uploads/Robert-Nakamura-Oral-History-Transcript.pdf .
  2. Michael Renow, "Warring Images: Stereotype and American Representations of the Japanese, 1941–1991," in The Japan/America Film Wars: World War II Propaganda and Its Cultural Contexts , edited by Markus Nornes and Yukio Fukushima (Philadelphia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994): 110–11, David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 339; Jun Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 19.

Might also like Something Strong Within (1994); Encounter with the Past: American Japanese Internment in World War II (1980); Remembering Manzanar (2004)

Media Details
Release Date 1971
Runtime 16 minutes
Director Bob Nakamura
IMDB Link http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2098874
For More Information

For More Information

Los Angeles Film Forum. " Alternative Projections Experimental film in Los Angeles, 1945- 1980. " Oral History project. Interview of Robert Nakamura by Adam Hyman and Pauline Stakelon, May 23, 2009.

Okada, Jun. "'Noble and Uplifting and Boring as Hell': Asian American Film and Video, 1971–1982." Cinema Journal 49.1 (Fall 2009): 20–40.

Renow, Michael. "Warring Images: Stereotype and American Representations of the Japanese, 1941–1991." In The Japan/America Film Wars: World War II Propaganda and Its Cultural Contexts . Edited by Markus Nornes and Yukio Fukushima. (Philadelphia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994): 95–118. Reprinted in Michael Renow, The Subject of Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004): 43–68.