In response to the recent groundswell of anti-Muslim sentiment in American politics, activist filmmaker Frank Chi—whose previous work has addressed women’s representation in government and African-Americans’ tragic mistreatment at the hands of white police—was moved to remind his country of a previous era in which state-sanctioned xenophobia was allowed to flourish in the United States: World War II, the era of Japanese internment.
This period, which FDR worshippers are quick to gloss over, saw more than 100,000 Americans interned within their own borders by express order of the executive—prisoners in their own home. Whole families were forcibly removed from their places of residence and sent away to high-walled, barbed-wired concentration camps, often with nothing in their possession save hastily filled trash bags.
Seeking to resurrect the humanity of these persecuted innocents, Mr. Chi pored over hundreds of letters that young Californian internees had sent to a sympathetic librarian in San Diego during their confinement, a woman known to the prisoners as “Miss Breed.” The letters, which are by turns hopeful and dejected, forgiving and fed-up, tell compelling human stories.
Frank Chi’s ingenious idea for his new video was to put these stories in the hands of Muslim-American children, whose families are the modern-day targets of nativist vitriol in the United States. “Children are everything,” Chi says. “When we live in times of heightened hatred toward other people, we tend to forget that.”
In the short film, titled “Letters from Camp,” these young practitioners of Islam read the Miss Breed letters to former World War II internees, whose faces tacitly betray the hardship they endured in the 1940s as they listen.
Eventually, the Japanese-American elders assist the youngsters with their reading, reinforcing their voices in a powerful show of transracial, trans-generational solidarity. The video ends with an erstwhile internee who, through choked sobs, reads a letter prophesying the elimination of racist bigotry from the globe following the conclusion of World War II—a notion that now seems as far-off as ever.
In bringing the voices of Muslim-American youth to the personal narratives of those interned after Pearl Harbor, Frank Chi unites past and present, and reminds us how thoroughly destructive us vs. them attitudes can be. His, and theirs, is a message of compassion.
“We are talking about people that many Americans don’t understand,” Chi says. “Everybody is just trying to do the best for their family. We have a lot more in common than we have that is different.”
Mr. Chi's video, along with numerous other artistic social commentaries, will be presented this Memorial Day Weekend at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C., as a part of Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality.