"The worst thing about the internment camps was what they did to people's spirits," says Chizuko Omori, a producer of the documentary "Rabbit...
“The worst thing about the internment camps was what they did to people’s spirits,” says Chizuko Omori, a producer of the documentary “Rabbit in the Moon,” directed by her sister, Emiko Omori. “Nobody knew how long they would be there, or where they were going. Families were torn apart.”
“Rabbit in the Moon” (1999), which screens at Northwest Film Forum today and Sunday, is an evocative, haunting work about surviving the so-called “War Relocation Camps” that forcibly held more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt authorized the internment of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the United States.
Detainees were taken to one of 10 internment camps spread over the U.S. The Omori siblings were sent with their parents from California to a center in Poston, Ariz. There, Chizuko spent part of her adolescence, from ages 12 to 15, while Emiko was a toddler.
Upon their release, Chizuko quickly put the experience behind her.
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“I repressed that stuff for years,” she says. “It’s still hard to remember it.”
In time, Chizuko attended college in California. She married, had two children and moved to Seattle. Eventually she became involved in a decadelong effort to advance legislation calling upon the U.S. government to apologize for internment policies. Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1988.
During those years, Chizuko, now 78, says she learned more about the record of detention.
“I became educated on material buried in government files,” she says, such as a “loyalty questionnaire,” which tried to determine who was loyal or disloyal to the U.S. and which placed Japanese immigrants in a situation that could have left them stateless.
“It dawned on me that the loyalty question was a little-known episode of the history,” Chizuko says. “I thought there must be some way to get this out there. I approached my sister, who is a filmmaker.”
“When we found out about the loyalty question, it made us angry,” says Emiko, 67.
Calling from her home in San Francisco, Emiko says discussions with Chizuko returned them to the long-suppressed subject of the camps.
“Rabbit” won several awards, including a Sundance Film Festival prize for Emiko’s cinematography. Much of the story’s historical ground is covered in a uniquely personal way.
“I avoided using stock footage as much as I could,” she says, though she did make ironic use of government-produced propaganda full of staged scenes of detainees happily engaged in the camps.
Nothing in that material suggests the many ways families were uprooted from homes and successful businesses. Or how tensions over whether detainees should surrender to or resist government policies divided relatives and neighbors.
Emiko, who attended film school at San Francisco State in the 1960s, interviewed numerous camp survivors and captured insightful commentary from Chizuko. But “Rabbit” has also been praised for the muted emotions of the filmmaker’s stylized images, which lead to the strange, somber heart of the internment story without illustrating every detail.
Among other things, Emiko, who cites French director Chris Marker as an influence, visited some of the ruins of former camps and found many possessions hurriedly left behind by freed detainees. Her camera captures shards of dishes and scraps of clothing scattered like unburied bones.
“It’s important to visualize what’s not easy to see,” says Emiko. “The impressionistic, the emotional. It’s a way of saying: Don’t forget us.”