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Originally published Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Passing Poston": The heartbreaking testimonials of Japanese Americans interned during WWII

In the moving documentary "Passing Poston," "hell" is the word most consistently used by surviving Japanese Americans forcibly interned...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Passing Poston," a documentary with Ruth Okimoto, Mary Higashi, Kiyo Sato, Leon Uyeda. Directed by Joe Fox and James Nubile, from a screenplay by Fox. 60 minutes. Not rated; suitable for sophisticated schoolchildren and up. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday (1515 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-329-2629 or www.nwfilmforum.org).

Joe Fox will be in attendance tonight; Ruth Okimoto will be present tonight and Saturday; a panel discussion will be held after the 4 p.m. screening Saturday.

Another documentary on the internment, "Rabbit in the Moon" (1999), will be shown Saturday and Sunday at NWFF. For an interview with producer Chizuko Omori of Seattle, see Saturday's NW Home & Life section.

In the moving documentary "Passing Poston," "hell" is the word most consistently used by surviving Japanese Americans forcibly interned during World War II.

"It was nothing short of hell," says Ruth Okimoto, whose father, a church minister in San Diego, was arrested following Franklin Roosevelt's 1942 executive order relocating people of Japanese ancestry from the U.S. Pacific Coast to internment camps around the country.

Okimoto, who was 6 at the time, recalls the day soldiers with rifles moved her and her family, temporarily, to the Santa Anita Race Track, where her pregnant mother gave birth in a horse stable.

The early days of relocation, says Mary Higashi, were especially "like hell." A college student whose family lived in Los Angeles, Higashi recalls how she and her mother sobbed when they entered their barracks for the first time and saw only a coal-burning stove and dust.

Okimoto and Higashi, along with Kiyo Sato and Leon Uyeda — two other subjects in this film by Joe Fox and James Nubile — were among 18,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals held against their will at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona. (More than 110,000 people were detained among all 10 camps in the U.S.)

Fox and Nubile provide a general history of the internment years. But they zero in on the memories and experiences of Okimoto and the three other survivors, driving home the day-to-day, bottom-line, concrete reality of the camps.

Upon arrival, detainees were given a sack and told to fill it with hay for beds. American schoolchildren began their days with the Pledge of Allegiance while living behind barbed wire. People from all walks of life were ordered to build the camp's infrastructure: schools, irrigation, farms.

Poston's prisoners discovered their labors had a secondary purpose sanctioned by, of all things, the Office of Indian Affairs (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs). The federal department needed to pay for improvements at the Indian reservation upon which the Poston Relocation Center sat. The answer was forcing another people of color to do the work.

The second half of "Passing Poston" focuses on postwar adjustment by the film's interviewees. Much of what is said is heartbreaking, particularly Uyeda's obvious, lifelong agony as a target of racism.

"I hope to die soon," he says, "so I don't have to experience this constant hatred."

On Saturday and Sunday, Northwest Film Forum will also be showing "Rabbit in the Moon," a 1999 documentary (produced by Seattle's Chizuko Omori) about events at Poston and other camps. The films complement one another remarkably well.

Where "Passing Poston" focuses on people who rode out the madness believing they would be accepted as good citizens again, "Rabbit in the Moon" tells the story of detainees who took an activist role in protesting their treatment. Both films are well worth seeing.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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