Megumi Nishikura is an American documentarian who works to reveal aspects of our common humanity through film. Her most famous title is Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan (2013) but for her latest documentary, Minidoka, she stays stateside and looks at the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Nishikura’s way into this weighty subject is a young
Seattle-based activist and journalist named Joseph Shoji Lachman whose
great-grandparent’s were incarcerated in a concentration camp. The audience
follows Joseph as he makes a pilgrimage to the Minidoka Internment National
Historic Site in the wilderness of Idaho. His goal is to feel the atmosphere of
the place where his great-grandparent’s and their children were locked up, to
imprint it in his memory in order to understand his family and community’s
history. Lachman allows Megumi Nishikura to track him by using a handheld
camera to document his tour where he and the others walk amongst cell blocks
and inside barracks to get a feel for life in the camp which would house up to
10,000 people. These scenes are intercut with archive footage and photographs
from that period as well as some poetic visuals. Along the way, Joseph and
others speak eloquently about the suffering and anguish experienced by their
relatives. It is clear that everyone on screen is connected by this place as
people who are ostensibly strangers talk to each other; they share this history
and the attendant emotions they discover.
This angle of the film gains extra relevance in the era of
Trump and anti-immigration rhetoric as parallels are drawn between the mass
incarceration of Japanese-Americans and the Muslim ban, which was being debated
around the time the documentary was made. Nishikura confidently and
convincingly makes the parallels by inserting news footage of Republicans on
FOX and CNN justifying their goals through the invocation of the precedent of
mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans with misleading claims of efficiency
and justness for which the rest of the film acts as a counterpoint. Lachman
acts as an engaging centre in this regard as he is eloquent on how it was a
massive injustice and one that echoes through the ages.
Nishikura shows her skill as a documentarian by calmly and
smoothly inserting everything into proceedings with good editing that allows
the story to flow so that the journey of Joseph Shoji Lachman remains deeply
personal but broadens out into a timeless lesson of how injustices can be
repeated. She helps to concentrate these ideas in a documentary that uses
history to illuminate present-day issues in this well-shot doc.
Minidoka is showing at CAAMFest 2019 before Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 on May 18.
Jason Maher is a UK-based film fan and freelance writer. He has combined the two to write about films at his blog Genkinahito as well as writing for Anime UK News the movie magazine Gigan. Having grown up watching films from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, he has developed a love for East Asian cinema and specialises in writing news articles, reviews, and has even been known to occasionally interview a director or two. He spends his private time learning Japanese, watching films, and hanging out with friends and family whom he bores with film trivia. He can be contacted via Twitter.