Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 (USA, 2018) [CAAMFest 2019]

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, he set in motion the incarceration of around 120,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in some of the harshest areas of the United States. This lasted until in March 1946. The trauma of this injustice has reverberated for decades and still resonates amongst survivors and their descendants to this very day. In 61 minutes of seamlessly interwoven interviews and evidence, Jon Osaki unearths the events leading to this moment when a whole group of people was subject to race-based imprisonment and proves, undeniably, that lies and racism led to it by intricately layering a wealth of information to show how it came about, the battle for redress which exposed political and legal malfeasance that occurred and how it set a dangerous precedent which is used in today’s politics.

A pathology of discrimination is unearthed as the film begins by painting a picture of Asian immigration to America from the late 1800s where the demand for cheap labour brought Chinese to the railroads and Japanese to farms along America’s west coast. Their hard work and ingenuity created progress as well as competition for whites who created a series of federal laws designed to marginalise entire racial groups. By the start of the war, nativist organisations and lobbying powers were working hard on politicians to restrict the influence of Japanese-Americans. The environment was open for exploitation by conniving military men and politicians with varying levels of prejudice. Figures such as Lt. General John L. DeWitt, his deputy Karl Bendetsen, and Earl Warren, California’s Attorney General emerge as central villains who, following Pearl Harbour, would stoke up enough hysteria amongst citizens by magnifying the dangers of Japanese-Americans even though official evidence put out by government and military bodies assessing threats could find no evidence. Osaki shows audiences the toxic atmosphere through the display of shrill propaganda, newsreel footage and images of racist anti-Japanese posters and newspaper headlines. This was nearly all based on lies and hysteria but still fostered by DeWitt to allow the idea of moving civilians from the “the enemy race” into interment camps to seem necessary to the government.

What the documentary does brilliantly from this point is to clearly and concisely show the legal battles at the heart of American democracy as DeWitt and his allies come up against a band of idealists including James Rowe Jr. and Edward Ennis in the Justice Department who waged a losing legal battle as they found that their opponents had mastered the art of spin and were willing to go as far as to lie and present false evidence to the Supreme Court in order to win. The twists and betrayals of politics are found in the reams of court and military documents (usually accompanied by images of the key players attached to each twist in the legal drama) which are displayed with any pertinent text highlighted as well being narrated and it flows by smoothly and easily so audiences will understand each development and see how the manipulation developed.  

As the wider political machinations grind on the story also looks at small fires of resistance that spark into life across the United States as Minoru Yasui in Portland, Gordon Hirabayashi in Seattle and Fred Korematsu in Oakland, California, peacefully challenged the military crackdown by deliberately getting arrested for breaking curfew. While their day in court may have been short-lived, their action set up a day of reckoning well into the future as their cases were investigated and the political malfeasance of the time uncovered by quiet heroes such as Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a humble but super-sharp and astute lady and also an internee as a child, and the humble academic Peter Irons who diligently went through the files and joined an epic legal fight.

A whole lot of weighty history continues to be unpacked and it is remarkable that it goes by so smoothly as to feel as light as a feather thanks to Osaki adroitly using a variety of source material to create a wider picture of the situation and to keep the rhythm pacey. The aforementioned legal documents, the contemporaneous television and audio interviews and news stories from the 1940s to the 1980s and a parade of informative and charismatic people giving talking-head interviews provide a chorus of voices and prove to be vital sources that add further layers of information. There is a certain kineticism achieved through the use of different ways of approaching the subject but we also get the feeling of how all-encompassing and vast this injustice is and it is the anger and idealism of students who talk throughout the film like Mika Osaki which hammers home the relevancy of learning from this chapter of American history in the age of Trump as his right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric stokes up fear of outsiders in the same way that happened to Japanese-Americans in World War II and this documentary is a perfect way to understand the issue. 

Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 18.