‘The Manzanar Fishing Club’: Chilly waters

September 13, 2012


It seems like an innocuous title – until you realize (or learn) that “The Manzanar Fishing Club,” a new documentary by Cory Shiozaki opening today in limited release, deals with one of this country’s most shameful chapters: the internment of Japanese citizens after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Shiozaki’s film uses archival footage and interviews with survivors – or children of survivors – to look at the impact of the law, enacted after Pearl Harbor in early 1942, that forced naturalized and American-born Japanese to leave their homes and their belongings behind when they were forcibly moved to the American equivalent of concentration camps.

Manzanar was 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a former Native American reservation that became a collecting place for those rounded up in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. The camp was a collection of army-like barracks, surrounded by barbed wire, in the middle of nowhere. But it also happened to be near a terrific trout-fishing stream – which led a group of the internees to form their own clandestine group to sneak out of the camp on a regular basis and go fishing.

The film looks at the larger issue of internment – and the fear and racism that went into that decision. There were, after all, no similar camps for Americans of German birth or ancestry. But because Japanese looked different and could be categorized easily as “the other,” they were targeted for this kind of treatment, It would be decades before the American government apologized; reparations are still forthcoming.

Shiozaki’s film creates context, but its collection of witnesses tend toward the academic, rather than natural story-tellers. There are a couple of those, but the director errs on the side of letting them tell their stories their own way. The result can be rambling and digressive; the academics lack the weight to make the kind of impact that Shiozaki hopes for.

Still, some of the stories of ingenuity – whether in creating fishing equipment out of scavenged materials or hiding their activities from authorities – are amusing or moving.

American history is dotted with episodes like these, probably starting with slavery and moving into the present, with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. “The Manzanar Fishing Club” shines a spotlight on a particular stain on the American ideal, one sanctioned by the government and reinforced by the fears and prejudices of its citizens.

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