Monday, April 5, 2010

Political History: It's More Than Just Local

Recent efforts by the Texas Board of Education to reshape American history as it is presented in the textbooks used by schools in Texas have led to accusations of historical revisionism. Essentially, the Christian-dominated Board of Education is cherry picking the facts it wants to enshrine as truths in the minds of its young students.

Whether or not the lesson plans they are shaping contain any truth -- or have merely been drenched in Christian dogma -- has been a topic of fierce debate. The situation reminds me of Muriel Spark's novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I still treasure the memory of watching Zoe Caldwell's riveting performance onstage in the title role. Here is Maggie Smith in a key scene from the film version:

The journalistic credo of The New York Times ("All the news that's fit to print") has not always been mirrored in its pages. For many years, The Times and other mainstream news sources carefully edited out news they did not want to publish. Whether the news concerned minority groups, inconvenient diseases like AIDS, or criticism that the newspaper was not doing its job properly (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller), certain news items received short shrift.

The gay press was built on a simple philosophy: "If you don't like the news you're reading, make your own." During the past 50 years, as independent filmmakers, alternative publications, bloggers, documentarians, and citizen journalists have found their voices, the concept of what constitutes an important story has undergone radical change.

Just as people around the world were shocked by the images sent home after American troops liberated Jews from Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s, today's ability to document an event with a cell phone and upload a picture to the Internet has given news coverage a new kind of urgency. Think back to the fateful day that Captain Chesley Sullenberger guided USAIR flight 1549 to a safe landing in the Hudson River. On January 15, 2009, one person's quick action -- and his ability to post a photo to the Internet using his Twitter account -- made the story go viral within moments after it happened.

When I was growing up in New York, there were only three television networks. There wasn't any news about LGBT rights. Nor were there many stories about the Asian-American community to be found in the mainstream press. There were only a handful of sushi restaurants in Manhattan and a branch of Takashimaya (a Japanese department store) on Fifth Avenue.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1972, some friends of the family came through town and took me out to lunch. As we toured the city, they asked "Are there enough restaurants and laundries to take care of all the Chinese people who live here?"

Ignorance was bliss.

Even for those two well-meaning librarians, it would have been impossible to imagine people having easy access to a news clip like this speech, recently given by Lieutenant Dan Choi after he had been arrested for chaining himself to the fence that surrounds the White House:

One thing that makes the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival so valuable is the educational material it showcases in its choice of documentary films. As people from "the greatest generation" start to die off, it's important to capture their life stories and properly frame their work for research purposes.

Three documentaries screened at this year's festival did an exceptional job of educating audiences about suppressed or little publicized aspects of important events in the history of the 20th century. What these documentaries share in common is that their subject matter would never appear in a textbook being used by schoolchildren in Texas!

To follow the arc of history, let's start in Asia in the early 1940s and move our way eastward across the Pacific Ocean as time moves on.

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In order to understand the controversy covered in Lessons of the Blood (an engrossing documentary written and directed by San Francisco filmmakers Yin-Ju Chen and James T. Hong), it's important to consider the role of propaganda during wartime. December 7, 1941, became known as a day of infamy following Japan's sneak attack on the naval base at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor.

In retaliation, the United States launched the famous "Doolittle Raid," targeting the island of Honshu. In order to succeed, 16 American B-25 bombers took off from the deck of an aircraft carrier in enemy waters, the U.S.S. Hornet.

Following the raid, their flight paths took the bombers over Japan and headed toward China. With their planes low on fuel, the American pilots were forced to choose between a crash landing, ditching at sea, or parachuting somewhere over eastern China's Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces.

Although most of the American pilots made it to safety (thanks to the help they received from Chinese civilians), the Japanese military followed up with the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign, a brutal military onslaught that killed nearly a quarter million Chinese. Unbeknownst to the Chinese, Japan's military was also experimenting with biological weapons by testing the use of weaponized fleas that could spread anthrax, plague, cholera, and typhoid in the area along the Zhejiang-Jiangxi railway.

In 2005, there were still several hundred people suffering from incurable, open wounds on their rotting legs. These survivors, who live in remote enclaves known as "Rotten Leg Villages" were young children or teenagers when Japan tested its biological weapons on the Chinese. For nearly 70 years they have suffered from horrible pain and ugly, open Glanders lesions that never have (and never will) heal.

Lessons of the Blood educates audiences about Unit 731 (the Kempeitai Political Department and Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory), where the Imperial Japanese Army conducted research into ways to develop and deploy biological and chemical weapons. According to Wikipedia, under the direction of microbiologist ShirĊ Ishii, experiments such as the following were carried out:
"To determine the treatment of frostbite, prisoners were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water until frozen solid. The arm was later amputated; the doctor would repeat the process on the victim’s upper arm to the shoulder. After both arms were gone, the doctors moved on to the legs until only a head and torso remained. The victim was then used for plague and pathogens experiments."
Unit 731's two-room facility, which has since been converted to the Japanese Germ Warfare Base Museum near the district of Pingfang (about 15 miles southwest of Harbin, China), is now a tourist attraction.

Lessons of the Blood also examines the controversy surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto monument in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo dedicated to the spirits of soldiers who died fighting for Emperor Hirohito. Due to the insidiousness of Japan's war crimes, the Japanese government's attempts to make amends to China's victims of germ warfare are an essential part of this film's story.

Lessons of the Blood is not an easy documentary to watch. Like many films about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, it offers a model lesson in the cruelty of man. Here's the trailer:

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During the 2008 Presidential campaign (and even after Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America) many Americans clung to the belief that Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii. Some showed astonishing ignorance about the historical fact that Hawaii is one of the 50 states in the union. Here's Cokie Roberts doing a spectacular job of putting her foot in her mouth:

Partially funded by a research grant from the General Services Administration (GSA), Anne Misawa's new documentary, State of Aloha, re-examines Hawaii's path to statehood and the controversies which raged throughout Hawaiian society along the way. Her access to the Hawaii State Archives (which includes many personal collections that were donated by local Hawaiians) produced a huge amount of material to help Misawa and her student researchers from the University of Hawaii to better understand Hawaii's history. As the filmmaker explains:
"Students have often come to the topic with very strong opinions on Hawaii’s statehood (and issues of sovereignty), sometimes placing the blame of the current problems in Hawaii on statehood itself, while not often having a lot of informed historical context to their opinions. This process of examining the history from personal narratives of witnesses and academics allowed them a more well-rounded insight into what the motivations were for people in Hawaii towards statehood, and also against it, as well as being able to recognize the complexity of its legacy and the issues surrounding the current dialogue of statehood and sovereignty.

Hawaii has such a vivid history. Today, part of what it means to live together in these islands is to experience our diversity -- even the current discourse over Hawaii’s statehood. We wanted to illustrate that richness of history and perspective in this film. It is important to be respectful of the people who met and continue to meet the 'great hopes' and 'silent fears' that are the challenges of statehood. Challenges so many met with courage and a “state of aloha.”

As we worked and researched, it became clear that it would be important to show in State of Aloha the historical steps towards statehood for Hawaii, the motivating forces that wanted or did not want statehood, as well as address some of the legacy of statehood and allow expression for some of the current dialogue. What interested me as a filmmaker especially was this opportunity to be able to put to film and archive personal narratives of many of our kupuna. Since our interviews, some have passed away."

While watching State of Aloha is often revelatory, the testimonials by people who have lived in Hawaii for most of their lives is especially poignant. They express a genuine love for the islands that shows deep concern for preserving key parts of Hawaiian culture.

What would really be fascinating would be to see Misawa's State of Aloha on a double bill with a new biopic based on the life of Princess Kaiulani that is due out next month. One is a documentary, the other a romantic interpretation of the history of a state like no other. Here's the trailer:

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For people who grew up on the East Coast, the mention of the name Aoki instantly brings to mind Rocky Aoki, who founded the Benihana chain of restaurants. However, a new documentary entitled Aoki tells the story of a very different Bay area personality: the late Richard Aoki.

Richard Aoki

A native of West Oakland, Aoki and his family were taken to the Japanese Internment Camp in Topaz, Utah during World War II. A third generation Japanese-American, Aoki -- who became friends with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale while enrolled at Oakland's Merritt College -- later became one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (and the man who contributed the first two firearms to the party).

After serving eight years in the U.S. military, Aoki went on to became a pivotal figure in the founding of AAPA (the Asian American Political Alliance). He was a key force behind the three-month-long strike by members of the Third World Liberation Front that led to the creation of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

What many people might not know about Aoki is that, while insisting on very strict discipline, he was also a man with a great sense of humor (at one point in the film he refers to himself as the oldest living revolutionary after Fidel Castro). His description of how the FBI attempted to assassinate members of the Black Panther Party stresses why the group was known as "The Black Panther Party for Self Defense."

This documentary is a first feature effort by Mike Cheng and Ben Wang who, in the course of covering some rare Bay area history that is, no doubt, unknown to most viewers, have also accomplished something rarely seen in documentary film: contrasting the anger, fury, and athleticism of young revolutionaries with the elders they have become (sweet, lovable mentors to young activists). The filmmaking team can be seen discussing their project in this video clip from the recent festival:

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