By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Frank Abe’s documentary film “Conscience and the Constitution” begins with two old men discussing the past. They look out over a landscape they seem to know, and swap stories of old.
We quickly learn that the two men are Frank Emi and Mits Koshiyama, two leaders of the draft resistance movement of Japanese Americans during World War II. The landscape they’ve come back to is their wartime internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Over the course of the film, director and editor Abe uses direct testimony from survivors, as well as archival footage and photographs, to tell an under-appreciated story of Japanese American Nisei. These sons and daughters of Japanese immigrants had American citizenship. They felt wronged by forced internment, further wronged by being called up to fight for rights that were being denied to them, and paid the price for their stances. The resisters endured federal prison, family shame, and up until now, a good deal of obscurity.
Frank Abe, originally from Cleveland, came to Seattle in 1976 at age 25. As a Sansei, third-generation Japanese American, he said, “Like most of my generation, I did not learn about the camps until I was in high school or college. And then my first question was, like, ‘Mom, Dad, why didn’t you resist?’
“And they’d pat us on the head and say, ‘Oh, you weren’t born yet. You don’t know how it was back then. You can’t apply your Berkeley, civil rights activism of the 1960s to those times. You weren’t born yet. You weren’t there. You can’t judge us. So back off.’ ”
But Abe became intrigued by the resisters and felt a historical link between their story and the anti-war movements of the 1960s.
The stories from the internment camps, he said, were “like discovering the missing link. Then, I saw that the Constitution was not an invention of the 1960s. And resistance, real, organized resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was not a figment of my overheated imagination.”
Locating and interviewing as many survivors as possible was not easy, especially with the project’s original budget.
“We started on a shoestring, $2,000 bequest from the late Michi and Walter Weglyn, that we nursed … to shoot the initial interviews with the resisters all in one sitting in a friend’s dance studio in Los Angeles. I suppose the secret for staying on budget was simply that no one got paid for their time. We couldn’t have done it without the active interest of a friend from KIRO-TV, Northwest Hall of Fame videographer Phil Sturholm.”
Grants from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and Independent Television Service in San Francisco eventually followed. Notable film editor Lillian Benson worked over the raw footage.
“[Benson] took our footage and our script, which was laid out in linear form like a book, and turned it inside out to make our film a real movie,” said Abe. “When she screened her first rough cut for me, I kept seeing shots and images I’d never seen before. I asked her where she got them and her answer was always, ‘It was in your footage.’ That was the value of bringing in a fresh set of eyes.”
Abe just released a two-disc DVD set, containing the original hour-long film, plus an enormous amount of outtakes and supplemental material. Taken together, one disc at a time, the longer story broadens and deepens the original shorter take. The package forms a fascinating home-study course in Asian American history, and the ongoing struggle for equal rights, civil and otherwise, for any American, skin color aside. (end)
For information on the “Conscience and the Constitution” DVD set and the resisters of the camps, visit Frank Abe’s website at www.resisters.com .
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.