Karen Day on BAMBOO & BARBED WIRE, Idaho and Social Justice – April Neale interviews
War correspondent, author, filmmaker, danger seeker for social justice, and mother of four, Karen Day has done more in a lifetime than most. Day’s documentary Bamboo and Barbed Wire (2019) is about the Minidoka internment camp, located just outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, which became home to Japanese-American families who were ripped from their real homes on the West coast during World War II. The internment of Japanese Americans in Idaho during World War II is a slice of history known to some, but forgotten by many.
Karen Day was prompted to create the film partly as social criticism against the way in which Muslims were vilified during President Trump’s term. The memory of Japanese internment and the need to acknowledge their hardships and honor their sacrifices is still a solid call to action for concerned Americans who never want past social injustices to be repeated. On the occasion of Bamboo and Barbed Wire‘s showing at the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival, Karen Day spoke with April Neale about how the documentary correlates the past prejudice and suspension of civil liberties and how easily our democratic ideals in America can be skewed by paranoia, deep-seated prejudices, and misinformation.
April Neale: If we don’t remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it. And I kept feeling that when I was watching this, it was the film’s underlying urgency. So many Americans have been done a disservice by not being educated about what’s happened in this country. Why did you choose the subject?
Karen Day: Well, my career in documentary filmmaking was given birth out of working in Iraq and Afghanistan, social justice, and I was working for NBC Nightly News as a stringer. Every time I risked my life to turn in a story, what would end up on the Nightly News was edited to a completely different angle than what my intention was for the story. So I decided to go into documentary filmmaking on my own. And, this film Bamboo and Barbed Wire, is my 17th independent social justice documentary. I did not have to make this film. I was making a commercial for Destination Idaho, played on NBC, and I went to Minidoka because I had toured the entire state. It was just really, truly tumbleweeds.
There was no visitor center. I talked to the National Park person who had been in charge of many Sites of Conscience; she was in charge of the Suffragettes, the National Monument, and Martin Luther King. These are not national parks. They’re monuments. She told me that there had once been a baseball field at Minidoka during the internment. And that there was a man from California who was featured in the film who was trying to rebuild the sense of solidarity and to restore [the field], to remind people exactly what you’re saying about what happened to the past. That the Japanese Americans that were interred, yet played baseball because it made them feel American. And the incredible thing was the hair on my arms stood up, and I turned to my videographer, and I said, I sure hope you make a documentary about this place because if you don’t, I’m going to have to.
At the time, Trump was the candidate for U.S. President, and I was horrified by the rhetoric that America embraced. So that’s how I came to make this film. I was ignorant of the fact that there was an internment camp in Idaho. The interesting thing was when I went around Idaho, and the film was premiered in 16 different towns, around Idaho, for Destination, Idaho. And the people afterward, if they were under 35, the majority said, “I didn’t know, there was a Japanese internment during world war two.” And if they were over 35, it was, “I didn’t know, there was an internment camp in Idaho.” It just reaffirmed my belief in exactly what you were saying. There’s no more than maybe a paragraph or half a page in American history book about this aspect of what happened during World War II that we were responsible for, and I determined that I had to be the person to do that. That’s what I do. I bill myself as a filmmaker who gives a platform for more marginalized people who do not have an opportunity to voice their experiences; I do have that kind of platform. So that’s my job. My job is to offer them a platform.
April Neale: When you’re putting together your documentary, and I talked to many documentarians, where do you begin with a project? Do you send out feelers to see who will participate, like George Takei? Where did you start with this particular documentary?
Karen Day: The truth is documentary, just like features, is really all about the story. I was given the universal storylines the first day I was there touring, when [National Park officer] told me about the person trying to redo this baseball field.
I asked this National Park person, can I please have the contact for that person. I called him in California. He told me the story of his family and the Japanese American communities. There’s hardly anyone on the West coast who does not have that legacy within their family line within one to two generations of being interned. They all know each other.
And from that one true story, the stories began to evolve and what’s true is there had not been a documentary about it. People wanted to tell their stories, and I told the truth. I was transparent about my ignorance. In that way, I have to say that’s one of the gifts of being a journalist or a documentary filmmaker because I always choose subjects that I want to learn about as well. That I want to be informed about, too; I’m a very informed person, which usually means that the audience will not be very informed as well. That’s how I start.
I start with one true story. It’s not like a feature [film]. There’s magic in making and writing, or whenever you’re looking for the one truth, the one true story and many stories evolve out of that, like a hub.
April Neale: You wove in the story of a Syrian refugee in Idaho. Many people outside of Idaho don’t realize that we have many refugees here and how their stories dovetail and overlap with the Japanese American stories. Are you from Idaho?
Karen Day: I am not. I’m from California, San Francisco. I’ve been here [in Idaho] for 20 years.
April Neale: So you’re almost a native.
Karen Day: No, according to Idahoans. It’s almost one of the first things they ask you, especially with many relocators we’ve seen in the last few weeks. They definitely want to know if you’re born and raised here. Far more of them here than, say, if we’re in California, where everybody seems to be from somewhere else.
April Neale: It’s a question that never comes up in California. I lived there for 30 years. Everybody was from somewhere else. But strangely, there’s an openness and welcoming of people who have moved here in Idaho, like in the Syrian community getting away from an untenable warlike situation. How important was that for you to wedge that into your film about the Japanese Americans?
Karen Day: Well, one thing is we [Idaho] are a Republican state, but we have more refugees per capita than any other state. Which is an interesting irony. Only in the sense that if you are a Republican, that is, a hard-line Trump supporter, which is pretty much how you’re starting to fund it’s either a Chaney or Trump supporter. Right?
If you were to look at my filmography, I spent a lot of time in the Middle East.
Then I met Lubna at the Treefort [Music Festival]. She had been here six weeks, and she was on a student panel. And this was still when Assad was bombing, and she had family members she couldn’t even talk to anymore. Kids she had known in school were suffering, and she was still very much suffering from PTSD, which I recognized. I had suffered from that myself, which was one reason I moved to Idaho after working in the war zones. I spoke to her afterward, and I just basically wanted to voice my support and understanding for her. But then the Muslim ban took place. I was still, of course, friends with her family. I was in the middle of making Bamboo and Barbed Wire. I began to hear the parallels. I mean, I could not turn away from them. So it was not my intention initially, but then I began to feel this was a generalized feeling within the United States that was building anti-refugee. It was kind of ubiquitous. I had also met on that same panel a boy who had come from the Congo, and he was experiencing the same thing. Because of the Muslim ban particularly, and Lubna, her dream was to become a doctor and go back to Syria. She has since enrolled in Boise State University on a scholarship she’s pre-med, and I have no doubt that she’ll go on to be a physician and go back to Syria. She’s an extraordinary girl. And sometimes somebody needs a little bit of help, you know?
April Neale: You’ve got a benefit screening benefit at the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival, and there will be a panel discussion with George Takei, whose family was interred, and social justice activist Dr. Karen Korematsu were both featured in your film. Tell me about that event.
Karen Day: For me, it’s a great honor to have met and worked with Dr. Karen Korematsu and George Takei. The reason for that came about with this screening. Bentonville Film Festival is coming onto its sixth year, and they focus on diversity and inclusion and giving visibility to female filmmakers and minority voices. When we have Asian hate crimes spiking up 192%, I thought this film was an incredible tool and approached them. I have four out of five Bentonville Film Festival film premieres. I’m a veteran, I would say. Maybe the only filmmaker that can claim that. But the bottom line is they embraced it immediately.
Karen Korematsu, her Institute, of course, schools have been out in California. That is where her Institute concentrates their work. They go into classrooms to teach children about incarceration and the value of inclusion and diversity, and the legacy of racial discrimination in our country, which is so relevant. Karen’s Institute was languishing for that COVID year, and she’s ready to go back at it. And as Asian hate was spiking, I spoke to her, and I said, ‘let’s do this,’ and it had been embraced by many different organizations promoting it. We hope people tune in. And the conversation, moderated by Wendy Guerrero, the executive director of the Bentonville Film Festival, with George and Karen, was so compelling, and it was so different than what you would hear on the media. That’s so raw and real by these very articulate and experienced, and knowledgeable Americans. It’s so informative. We want to encourage people to take a chance to see Bamboo and Barbed Wire. And, of course, listen to George Takei and Karen Dr. Karen Korematsu discuss this.