“The Bill of Rights is only a piece of paper unless we uphold those rights for all Americans.” from “Bamboo and Barbed Wire”
The internment of Japanese Americans in Idaho and other states during World War II is a dark part of our American history. Bamboo and Barbed Wire, a 2019 documentary by Karen Day, is having a renaissance of interest at the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival in large part due to the concern over the spiking Asian hate crimes and the afterburner legacy of the Trump Muslim ban.
Day tells the story of the Minidoka internment camp, located just outside of Twin Falls, in South Central Idaho. Spare and desiccated land was where barracks were built to house whole families relocated from their property and businesses, mainly on the West coast. In the film, we see white ranchers and farmers have happened upon markers that show a graveyard was there once, and perhaps on other parts of the land, a baseball field. There’s a simultaneous feeling of deep regret and wonder with Karen Day’s documentary that shows how easy it was for Americans to slide into the “otherism” trap and condemn fellow Americans solely on the basis of ethnicity and race because of high emotions during World War II.
The opening sees an Idahoan farmer fretfully wonder if there is a cemetery on his farmland. Tell-tale ruins and rocks, some marked with a Japanese kanji, reveal there was much more happening there and that the authorities in charge during that time long ago were happy to see it fade from any further attention.
After the attack at Pearl Harbor, the folly of the U.S. government was allowing widespread paranoia to take over the West coast. Racist propaganda-filled films and newsreels. This hysteria cemented the negative reactions of the western states’ political classes, even in Idaho, where then-Governor Chase Clark made the most disparaging public racial slurs against the Japanese Americans who considered themselves American first.
The irony of this reaction flies in the face of modern Idaho, quite welcoming to refugees from all over the world as the capital, Boise, is considered a refugee sanctuary city. It is heartbreaking to hear how bewildered American-born Japanese Americans were prejudicially classified as not patriotic or American enough.
The spiral of hatred in the last century, however, was shocking. Americans became increasingly afraid their Japanese neighbors might be spies. As a result, the Japanese Americans were persecuted, sent to internment camps while propaganda made by the government fueled the situation.
Day’s film goes into exhaustive detail and personal stories and recollections about how the internment affected those who endured it and how their children and grandchildren processed it still to this moment in time. Of note, actor and activist George Takai is interviewed and shares his anger at his father for not standing up and defying the order, and leading the family “like sheep to the slaughter” This recollection causes pain to Mr. Takei, who has since penned his graphic novel of the experience he called “concentration camps.”
But in Minidoka and elsewhere on the West coast, there was no choice to be made. People were forced out of their homes in not-so-subtle ways, often at gunpoint as they had to evacuate homes, farms, and businesses with a single suitcase of possessions.
Bamboo and Barbed Wire makes salient parallels to how Muslim Americans were the latest to be pinpointed in ginned-up American paranoia. Day introduces us to a young Syrian refugee, Lubnah, who immigrated to Boise, Idaho, with her family. The upshot is that her future looks bright and her feelings are positive overall in how Idaho has helped her family.
But the disinformation machine feeds on incendiary rumors and blatant lies, false news, and worse intentions. Other ethnic and racial groups are targeting American Jews in response to Israel and Hamas’ ongoing skirmishes. The energy of hatred and “otherism” incited by Trump and his followers is a formidable beast to slay in America.
The film is a solid and strong call to educate and uncover the real American truths, and not be afraid to teach them in classrooms or speak of them after the fact.
From the mistakes we make as a nation, the resolutions and the acknowledgment are the salve for the healing process we desperately need as a collective unified American people.
Karen Day’s poignant documentary leaves the viewer with this optimism that we can right wrongs to an extent and we are better for hearing and taking action on these swept-away secrets and shames that cling to the hems of our highest ideals as a nation.