Minidoka (USA, 2018) [CAAMFest 2019]

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.