Friday, January 27, 2012

Out of Infamy and Into the Spotlight

Find Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn on Video

"Out of Infamy" and Into the Spotlight


OUTOFINFAMYmichicomo.jpg Michi Nishiura Weglyn with Perry Como
I met Nancy Kapitanoff at a meet-and-greet party for the press and documentary filmmakers during the first week of the recent Tribeca Film Festival. She was there from California representing a short in the World Documentary Competition, Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn. It was her second documentary, following The Comet Model News, which she wrote, produced and directed. Back on the west coast was her cowriter and director on Out of Infamy, Sharon Yamato, a freelance writer and author of "Moving Walls: Preserving the Barracks of America's Concentration Camps" and "Jive Bomber: A Sentimental Journey." I was instantly interested when she told about her new short. Her accompanying publicist wasn't surprised that I drew a blank in regard to the name of the movie's heroine, though I was half-lying when I said it sounded familiar. I was surprised that she was surprised that I even knew about the film's subject, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. No doubt she felt that because it is a sensitive topic, it seems to be fading, conveniently, from the national consciousness--if it was ever there at all. What happened during WWII is a black stain on America that never fails to infuriate me, but since, I admit, I dont know enough about it, I welcomed this film. It wasnt until I saw it several days later that I had vague memories of Michi Weglyn when she made appearances as the costume designer on The Perry Como Show, which I watched as a kid. But who knew that she had been in a camp as a young girl and as an adult made it her mission to expose the crime perpetrated on those 120,000 people (70% citizens) imprisoned by the US government and seek apologies and redress for those whose lives were shamed and damaged? A Special Jury Mention was given this short that, the jury stated, focused on a life that had tremendous power; a woman whose talent and perseverance led her on a life path which began as a costume designer and evolved into a civil rights activist. Nancy, who also edits the Web sites, and once published a golf instruction book so we were, pun intended, "linked" by golf--returned to California after the festival, but as planned she, Sharon and I did following interview via emails.
Danny Peary: Talk about how you two became collaborators and the genesis of the project--including your need to tell the story.
Nancy Kapitanoff: Sharon and I had both worked at the KNBC TV in Los Angeles many years ago. We have worked on various projects together over the years. We were both in New York City in 1998 when the exhibit, ''America's Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience,'' opened on Ellis Island. Sharon was in New York to attend the opening, I happened to be there doing research for a photography exhibit I was curating, and I joined Sharon at the Ellis Island exhibit. Michi Weglyn was there and Sharon talked with her briefly. I had not known of Michi before I met her there, but Sharon told me that she was a very important person in the Japanese American community. She had read her book "Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps" when it was first published in 1976. Three years after the exhibit, Sharon called me and asked if I remembered Michi, which I did--of all the people I met that night, she had made the strongest impression on me because of her attentiveness and kindness in her conversation with Sharon--and to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a book about her life. Michi was married to Walter Weglyn, a German Jewish survivor of the Holcaust, and since I had been doing research on German and Jewish history, I would focus on his story. Sharon Yamato: I read Michi's book after graduating from UCLA in 1972 and was shocked to discover some of the facts she revealed. Other books about the camps had been written, but none by a Nisei and none with the personal impact and anger that Michi's book engendered. My family had been incarcerated at Poston, Arizona (grandmother, parents, and seven siblings), but spoke very little about that experience, which I came to believe was still a source of shame for them. For many third-generation Japanese Americans, like myself, who had only heard about the camps, Michi's book provided the factual evidence that answered many of our questions. It put the blame squarely on the US government, not on the Japanese Americans, and that changed the way we felt about ourselves.
 DP: Was the original idea to do a film about her; or about Japanese internment camps and then you decided a good way to tell that story was through her story?
NK: The idea was always to do a project on her life and to make people aware of this amazing person, the work she did, and the influence she had on her community. Through her compelling story we could tell the story of the incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens. Together with her husband's story of survival in Nazi-occupied Holland and his support of Michi's research to get the truth behind the incarceration, their combined story is a remarkably personal chronicle of the horrors of World War II, a testament to their strength of character as individuals, and a great love story. However, when it became obvious that finding funding to publish/print a book was unlikely, we decided that a better way to present her story would be in a film format.
DP: I'm amazed how much you packed into your seventeen-minute film, but did you initially think telling this story couldn't be done in less than an hour?
NK: We were working with a very small budget for a film, one that would never cover the production of a feature-length documentary. Because of that, we began the project thinking we would do a short film. We did not have a specific length in mind. We simply wanted to convey the significant aspects of Michi's life that would tell her story, based on the visuals we had. Michi was a mostly private person who did not seek attention for herself, so there is not a lot of film footage of her. Had there been more archival footage of her, the film probably would have been somewhat longer.
DP: Do you think viewers, particularly liberals who condemn the camps, will be surprised that the chief villain of your film is Franklin Roosevelt? (And a secondary villain is Ramsey Clark?) And George W. Bush comes across well?
NK: First let me correct you regarding George W. Bush. It was 1988 when redress legislation passed, so it was George H.W. Bush who was president, not his son. I don't really think Bush senior comes off well or not well. He just happened to be president when the appropriations legislation finally passed. It was an election year and both Reagan and Bush needed to be politically allied on this issue. By then, there was also major support in the legislature for the bill.
FDR's reputation on a variety of issues continues to be examined and reevaluated based on historical records that have become available to the public. If anyone is surprised by the film's point that FDR made the decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II, it will be because they had not been
aware of the historical record. outofinfamynancy.jpg
It shows that there were many members of his administration who recommended against rounding up and incarcerating Japanese Americans, but FDR ultimately ignored their evidence that Japanese Americans did not pose a threat to the security of the United States and made the decision to sign Executive Order 9066.
DP: Was Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to the camp strictly PR or was she sympathetic to the plight of Japanese-Americans?
NK: In one newspaper article, it was said that she visited the camps to find out if there was either coddling or abuse in the camps. She was quoted as saying that she found neither. Here is a link to an essay written by Eleanor Roosevelt after her visit to Gila:
This online version begins with this statement:
"This essay is a draft of an article that had been written for Collier's Magazine by Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt visited the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona in 1943 in response to charges that the Japanese American evacuees there were being "coddled" The manuscript, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (Hyde Park, New York), was published in a revised form October 10, 1943. It is reproduced here from the original draft with only minor editorial changes."
And here's the conclusion of Eleanor's essay:
"To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally but we seldom have the foresight. Therefore we have no choice but to try to correct our past mistakes and I hope that the recommendations of the staff of the War Relocation Authority, who have come to know individually most of the Japanese Americans in these various camps, will be accepted. Little by little as they are checked, Japanese Americans are being allowed on request to leave the camps and start independent and productive lives again. Whether you are a taxpayer in California or in Maine, it is to your advantage, if you find one or two Japanese American families settled in your neighborhood, to try to regard them as individuals and not to condemn them before they are given a fair chance to prove themselves in the community. "'A Japanese is always a Japanese' is an easily accepted phrase and it has taken hold quite naturally on the West Coast because of fear, but it leads nowhere and solves nothing. A Japanese American may be no more Japanese than a German-American is German, or an Italian-American is Italian, or of any other national background. All of these people, including the Japanese Americans, have men who are fighting today for the preservation of the democratic way of life and the ideas around which our nation was built."
DP: Were you surprised to learn that Japanese who lived in South America were sent to the camps?       NK: Yes, it was something I had not known before. SY: The issue of Latin Americans used as prisoner hostages has been a major one in the Japanese American community-- particularly after the passage of the redress legislation in 1988, which excluded them (among others) from receiving redress. Their plight was particularly abhorrent in that they were rounded up to be used specifically in a prisoner-hostage exchange with Japan. Those who weren't sent to Japan were left in US concentration camps, and following the war they weren't allowed back in their own countries. Since then, there was a bill passed offering them $5,000 each. There is currently legislation mandating a commission to investigate this issue. The movement for redress, once again, is being led by a coalition that includes many Japanese Americans.
DP: How was Michi able to go to college as early as 1944 if she was in the camp?
NK: During the war, there were concerned individuals and organizations who lobbied for and set up a scholarship fund for Nisei students, called the National Student Relocation Council. The American Friends Service Committee was appointed to lead this effort. The NSRC obtained leave clearances, managed funds, arranged college permissions, etc. As we state in the film, Michi was an honors student in camp. She took the appropriate exams, just as any student seeking a college scholarship would do, and qualified for the scholarship to Mt. Holyoke, aided by one of her camp teachers and managed by the NSRC.
DP: Do you think Michi was politicized while in the camps and became determined to eradicate the stain of "dishonor and disgrace" then or wasn't it until years later? Did she ever consider herself a political activist?
SY: As we state in the film, it was not until years later that she came to realize that the camps were a result of civil injustice perpetrated by the US government. We are not sure exactly when that change took place, but clearly she was still the victim of racism while in New York and working on The Perry Como Show. I don't believe she considered herself a real political activist until she started research on the book in the late '60s. After it was published, she took an active stand against civil rights injustices through speaking, continued research, major letter writing campaigns, and testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation.
Outof InfamySharonheadshot1.JPG Sharon Yamato
DP: You say only her husband supported her in her efforts to right a great wrong--was it really only him?
NK: When she first began her research, it was her and her alone. Only her husband gave her the support, both emotional and financial, to do her research. Of course, archivists and librarians were helpful, supportive of her work by assisting her in digging out the relevant documents. And as time went on and she began to share her information with friends who had also been through the camp experience and she received their support, too. But she wrote her book on her own through her own sheer will, and in complete obscurity. It was not as it is today, where previews or blurbs get sent out to get some word of mouth going on a book or film. When the public first heard about Michi's book, what they got was the complete book, written the way she wanted to write and present it.
DP: Talk about the significance of the Munson Report and did anything happen when Michi brought it to light? Or was it insignificant to others and only served to confirm for her in a personal way that an atrocity had been committed and those in power knew that but weren't admitting it? Also, were there other similar, significant documents she uncovered?
NK: Michi's spotlight on the Munson Report and the report's revelation that the FDR administration knew that Japanese Americans were not a threat to the security of the United States were very significant. Other historians had written about the report and were familiar with it, but Michi was the first Nisei who was actually in a camp to write a complete expose on it. Bringing the Munson Report to the light of day proved to be a catalyst for the beginnings of the Redress and Reparations movement in the Japanese American community.
DP: Did she get any pressure to stop her research or threats that she wouldn't be able to work in show business again?
NK: We found nothing that indicated anybody pressured her to stop her work. Given that next to nobody knew what she was doing, there wasn't really anybody around who would pressure her to stop her work. Her work on the book also began many years after leaving The Perry Como Show. She gave up costume design work when she started her research for the book.
DP: Viewers may think your goals in making this film were 1) to honor Michi and 2) to get financial restitution for the Japanese Americans and their families who were affected by layoffs, property confiscation, and internment. I agree with that, but is it not also a cautionary tale in regard to what might happen to America's Muslim citizens in today's political climate?
NK: In making the film, we simply wanted as many people as possible to know about Michi's life and her extraordinary determination that made a difference within her community and serves as a model for all civil rights activists. This really is a story about how one person can make a difference in many peoples' lives, how one person can motivate others. It is a cautionary tale for any group of people who may be singled out and discriminated against solely on the basis of their race or religion or any particular aspect of their being. As Michi states (and as we close the film): "[It]t is my sincere hope that this story of what happened only a generation ago may serve as a sobering reminder to us all that even Constitutions are not worth the parchment they are printed on unless vitalized by a sound and uncorrupted public opinion, and a leadership of integrity and compassion.
DP: Talk about Sandra Oh's involvement in the project.
NK: We were thrilled that Sandra agreed to narrate our film. Her willingness to do that speaks for itself.
DP: What was your experience screening your short at Tribeca l like and how meaningful was it to receive the Special Jury Mention?
NK: The Tribeca Film Festival was an exceptionally positive experience all around. We had good crowds for our screenings (the short documentary program, Flashback, that included Out of Infamy, screened five times during the festival), and these audiences were enthusiastic about our film, taken by Michi's story, and, in particular, her strength of character. Several people commented, as you did, that we packed a lot into just 17 minutes, and others wanted more, which I don't mind hearing. It was particularly satisfying to receive the Special Jury Mention, to be recognized for our work. It is a great reward for all the struggles that go with producing this kind of film on a shoestring budget. And it was an emotional and thrilling experience to read the jury's statement calling our film an "elegant portrayal of a unique individual" and saying that we told Michi's story with "incredible clarity." To paraphrase a line from the film that a friend of Michi's says about her, "[We] accomplished [our] purpose."
DP: How can people see your short?
NK: Following production of the film, we began developing a website dedicated to Michi Weglyn's life and work, Although, the site won't be fully online until this summer, there is information on this website about how to purchase a DVD copy of Out of Infamy.
DP: Do you have new projects in the works?
NK: Currently, Sharon and I are working on different projects. As I think I mentioned to you when we met at Tribeca, I am doing research on women golfers who played the game in the early-20th century with the idea of producing a short documentary film on the subject.
SY: Matters related to the incarceration continue to interest me, especially in terms of getting more exposure for that story, especially to those who know little or nothing about it. I am currently working on a documentary on a talented young writer/artist, Stanley Hayami, who kept a diary and drawings of his years at a camp in Wyoming. I am also working on a book of one of the founders of the Japanese American National Museum, who was incarcerated at Manzanar and served in the MIS.
DP: And readers with interest in your projects can email me at

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