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Cristina Gonzalez-Delgado
Prof. Dierdre Boyle
History, Memory and Media
October 2014

History According to Hollywood: The Importance of Representation and Alternative


Narratives.

The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the
innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the
minds of the masses. -Malcolm X

If you make a search on Google for quotes about the media and history, this Malcolm X

quote is one of the first one sees. From Malcolm Xs time to today, Mass Media has grown

exponentially. Today with satellites, the World Wide Web, smart phones, and so many

more outlets and gadgets, the media has become an entity even more powerful. There are

drawbacks of course; one only needs to look at opinion pieces on how its destroying future

generations, on how people no longer connect and so many other issues that arise in our

modern world. But there is a very big advantage, and that is dissemination. Today a

message posted on one place can go viral and soon be all over the world. It makes

keeping things silent even harder, such as the events of the Arab spring or the recent

protests in the city of Ferguson.

Media is still very much controlled by a few conglomerates that control cable television

and internet service, companies who have worked very hard to able to actively control

these sources of information. 1 But the active campaigns under this and the rebellions

against government sanctions and censoring on the web means that the information will

find a way to get out and about. From a historical standpoint this is a gift from the gods. A
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lot of revisionist history can sometimes run into problems such a lack of sources of

information. A recent example of this is The Missing Picture, a film by Cambodian filmmaker

Rithy Panh, in which he uses clay figures to take the places of images not recorded or lost

to time about his childhood under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Panh has to deal with the

lack of footage from the time of the regime and he tackles this with the uncommon idea of

clay figurines acting out the scenes instead of doing them in life action. This gives the film,

and the message a new view. It helps get out a message and situation in history that had

been kept from the media, by using media itself to pass the message around.2

Reclaiming Memory

A good example of this reclaiming of media outlets is the films dealing with the history of

the Japanese-Americans that where sent to internment camps during World War II. Some

scholars see the Smithsonian exposition A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans And

The Constitution in 1987(Creef, 119) and Reagans signing into law measure for redress

payments to survivors (Boyle 1) as giving a new life into the desire to reclaim the memories

that had been suppressed by older generations of survivors. As Boyle points out, most of

the works that start coming out during these dates are made by Sansei, third generation

Japanese-Americans that most only know of the stories by second hand telling, those who

were sent to camps where too young to remember their time there. But when it came to

working with family stories they ran into two main problems, most of the survivors did not

want to talk about the time in the camps and they couldnt relay on archival footage

because there was very little available, most where from propaganda films done by the

army.

Boyle talks about how Rea Tajiri sought to deal with this problem by the use of media

clips, not just from the few clandestine images from inside the camps3 and propaganda
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from the army but also using Hollywood clips intermixed with stories from her mother. In

the presentation we see how Taijiri uses this attachment to Hollywood and the importance

society has attached to Hollywood and its fictional world to tell these stories:

The tape begins with reference to her sisters preference for taking pictures over

talking, which Tajiri somehow attributes to her sisters possession of her aunts wartime photos of

movie stars (couples like Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson and Dorothy

Malone). When her sister had a crush on a boy, instead of talking to him, she asked if she could take

his picture, and then she proceeded to pose him as he sullenly complained I cant believe Im doing

this. With this establishing sequence, Tajiri introduces the invasiveness of the (media) culture

(notably, the War Relocation Offices film units). Distant images of celebrities (all of them Caucasian)

were more real than a boy you had a crush on. (Boyle, 9)

This affinity is not something that only Tajiris sister had. We all know someone who seems

to live more in a fantasy world than in reality. Not only that but it seems the world itself has

become more like her sister if we listen to the media. News outlets treat celebrity weddings

and shenanigans with the same importance they give to real world news, if not more.

Channels like E! and A&E are comprised mainly of shows that follow the format of a news

casting, a desk and reporters or panels of experts, that only talk of what goes on in the

celebrity sphere. It is not only the actual people and events, with the rise of social media the

audience can follow the process of filming, with growing interactivity in video games or

films with elements like information that can blip on screen as it goes, the world seen

through a camera, as Taijiris sister did, has become almost palpable and real.

A Selective View Of The World

This brings to mind what Marita Sturken mentions in the collection of essays called

Resolutions. In hers, called The Politics of Video Memory: Electronic Erasures and

Inscriptions, she touches on how the invention of the camera has changed the way people
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remember.

The memories constructed from camera images are not only personal, but collective. History is

represented by the black-and-white photographic or cinematic image, and increasingly by a faded

color film image or low-resolution television image . The camera image produces memories, yet in

offering itself as a material fragment of the past it can also produce a kind of forgetting. (Sturken, 1)

Images have both helped us remember things and forget then since we depend on the

camera to remember for us. As Chris Marker says in Sans Soliel, he doesnt remember the

time in he spent in Tokyo, but the images recorded there. What is important here is to focus

on where Sturken mentions that these memories are not personal, they are collective.

Popular media has been shaping how we see and think of the world since the first images

where set down and the first words engraved. Old maps of the world show oceans full of

monsters and having a dangerous edge from where ships fell and never returned. The

images of the peoples of the Americas prior to the conquest have been mostly lost and

replaced in the larger collective mind of society as painted by the conquistadors- groups of

savages with a penchant for human sacrifice and in some cases cannibalism.

This is why there has been a growing demand for media to be more representative. In the

passage from Boyles work there is the mention of how all these starts where Caucasian.

This already excluded Taijiri and her sister from what was considered the average. They

where not in movies, just like the rights of the Japanese-Americans became null when war

started and they where sent to the camps. Hollywood made a conscious choice to paint the

world mostly white. In The Slanted Screen, filmmaker Jeff Adachi shows us a history of how

Asians, particularly Asian men, have been portrayed in film through the years. Most of the

films shown in the documentary are done by Caucasian filmmakers for Caucasian

audiences. The minority characters are at best a funny sidekick and at worst terrible
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enemies. Both images depended firmly on preconceived stereotypes, cues that would

create in the audience the character without giving said character much importance.

There is another kind of representative media that has been going on for some time. And

that is someone from outside the group portrayed making films. Come See The Paradise

came out in 1990, it tells the story of a family and how Executive Order 9066- the order

given to relocate all citizens of Japanese ancestry, affected it. The film is not perfect, the

story is by a Caucasian filmmaker and the central story involves a Caucasian character, a

man, Jack McGurn, who marries a Japanese woman, Lily Kawamura. But it does have

saving graces that can place it in the list of media that has helped expand representation

and bring back memories of events that media has done its best to forget or erase.

The Family Saga-Come See The Paradise And Representation

As mentioned above, while not completely done by or entering on the story of the

Japanese-Americans, Come See The Paradise does a remarkable job in bringing up the

history of the internment camps. It even touches on the importance of media in everyday

life, the main characters meet when the Jack begins working as a projectionist in the

cinema rented by the Lilys father. The cinema screens Japanese films and the Jack is seen

actually growing to enjoy them, an interesting comment on how films with minority

characters cannot be universal enough. The story does take a turn for the melodramatic,

they have a forbidden love, they run away, marry on a courthouse and crash a reception

that to them feels like their own to finally settle down with a little daughter, Mini, but

tensions with the Jacks activities and unions and an arrest push the Lily to pack up and

leave with Mini back to her parents home. Until this point the film has been like many other

types of melodramas like this. But when Lily arrives back to her family home, World War II

has started and her father has been arrested. The film could have decided then to move its
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focus to Jack as he is jail, the usual montage of letters being exchanged or something

similar could let us know how Lily and Mini are doing. Instead the film keeps its focus on

Lily, appropriate since the framing of the film is Lily telling Mini about her father and about

their life during the war.

The film also differs in how the family facts to Lilys return, the well known clich of the

stone cold Asian parent that will only go for tradition seems to be at play when Lilys

mother seems to be refusing to acknowledge her, but when Mini comes into the room her

grandmother not only looks at Lily but embraces Mini with open arms. The family doesnt

reject Jack either as time passes. When he gets conceded parole he goes look for Lily and

Mini the whole family is happy to see him and the film seems to be telling us that they have

moved past the initial rejection and have accepted him. There is even a touching scene

between Jack and Lilys father at a point that seals his full acceptance into this family.

Between these subversions to racial tropes, the insistence of the Nisei children that they

have never been to Japan or the demonstration of how little of their language they know

the film manages remarkably well to give a fair representation. The family is not made

solely of archetypes that seem to have been made with a checklist where every aspect

needed to be met. It is a refreshing change, especially on a film of a subject few where

tackling in the time.

Caucasian POV

The film is not perfect, for the positives mentioned in the previous section there is a

glaring negative. The film is still made with a mainly Caucasian audience in mind. The life in

the camps is shown to be more uncomfortable than anything else. There is a level of

romancing of the camps and the people in them. The main demonstration of this is in the

young women in the camp. Most are shown with the complex hairstyles and the
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impeccable makeup that define the times aesthetic. There is even a scene where they are

shown having a beauty pageant in the camp. While one can stretch believe to think that the

women would seek a level of normality in the little things, like doing their hair and make up,

the way they are shown to look very put together is a bit disconcerting. Recordings of the

time, such as the newsreel for the government explanation of the internments in 19424,

show this need for normalcy, but there is a feeling of weariness that we dont see in the

film.

Jacks role is also a problematic aspect. While the positives mentioned above are strong,

it cant be overlooked that this story needed a Caucasian character to be able to be told.

The elements of melodrama and romance could have been kept even with a Japanese male

character replacing Jack. But without this character it is probable this film would not have

been made or it would have been a much smaller production.

The film still keeps the issue of the internments in a way that is comfortable for the US

audience to see. It doesnt go as far as it could on the experience of the camps. Lilys

parents represent the biggest emotional stresses. Her fathers slow decent after his arrest

and how he looses himself, her mothers attempts at keeping inside her feelings until she

cant anymore and we have the scene of her breaking down after one of the sons is killed in

battle. They are among the most powerful moments in this film, along with the scene of

Lily and her siblings breaking their records and when one her brothers, Henry, is shown

cutting his hair as he gets more radical. They are reminiscent of stories that have come out

of the experiences in real life in these camps5.

The Little Victories

Even with these imperfections, there are the positives mentioned before and some

more. The cast is comprised mainly of actors that are either Japanese of Japanese decent.
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With recent issues on the role of race in casting in Hollywood this is a mayor achievement.

The joke at the start of the film where Lilys brother Harry, who is an actor, is described by

his father as playing mostly Chinese characters6 is very appropriate. The Slanted Screen

mentions how in many cases there is little to no regard on the nationality of the actor as

long as he looks Asian. That the makers of this film went the proverbial extra mile in

casting its a step towards the right place. That the story doesnt follow Jack after the

separation, and aspect mentioned above, is another good aspect-even with his presence

through the film the story is that of Lily and her family. It is their problems, their struggles,

and their emotional journey. The scene mentioned before, the breaking of the records, is

an example of the parts where the movie doesnt shy away from showing the anger the

characters, standing in for the people sent to the camps, felt at this situation. Lilys tone as

she tells the siblings to break them, a solution to not being able to sell them for being all in

Japanese and just leaving them in the house, and when she takes the last one and breaks it

herself makes this anger and frustration very palpable.

The film does have the trope of the family standing in for every person they represent-

they go through all the different situations, from the sugar beet plantations one sister goes

to work in, to the Loyalty Questionnaire and how one brother signs yes and another no.

This is probably looking to be as all encompassing as possible if the variety of situations and

experiences that took place. The hundreds of thousands of people that where rounded up

and taken into the camps is difficult to represent in the short time of a feature fiction film.

And would be hard to sell, particularly in the early 1990s when these theme was just

starting to come out to the public light. This is why its important to note the small victories

this film manages to get. While not perfect and not as much of a step forward as it is

needed to bring true diversity and tell stories that otherwise would go untold in the media,
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its a step.

The Next Step Forward

This step is important because its in the right direction. While the film was not the most

successful of films, and still under the direction of a filmmaker outside of the group

experience, its representation. The fact that the story gets told, and that those involved

can see themselves in it is something that not many historical movies have done. Similarly,

the large cast of actors of Japanese descent in roles that are not the stereotypes they

usually get pigeon holed into is important for future generations. If one was to change the

story, and set it either in a different war or even in some fictional world, if there was no

mention of the ethnicity of the characters they could be anything.

The importance of this representation is precisely that this was not done. The story is not

hidden behind metaphors; it is shown plain and simple. It is a bit sad that it still is rather

romanticized and kept from getting its audiences to uncomfortable. The audience should

be uncomfortable; its a story that is uncomfortable. Similar to the use of images from the

concentration camps and Nazi campaigns in documentaries and films set during this time in

Europe, there needs to be a level of unnerving. It runs the danger of the way films at a point

portrayed slavery in a way that made it seem like slaves where happy to be subjugated. Just

like there has been a move away from the thought of forbidden images of the Holocaust.

There is still time to reclaim this, time to not let it fall into silence. The imperfections of

Come See The Paradise should not be seen just as negatives, they are opportunities, doors

open for future filmmakers to tackle this theme even more in depth. And not just the story

of the internment camps, its the step forward for any story that needs to be brought to the

light, hopefully with a less romanticizing view from an exterior view. After all, who better to

tell our stories than ourselves.


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Endnotes
1
An example is the recent allegations to Comcast and Verizon of them slowing the

bandwidth of sites such a Netflix or Amazon and the FCC making new rules where

service providers can make faster lanes for companies willing to pay more.

2
The Missing Picture is just the latest of a series of films taking back the media of the powerful and used it to

bring out not only unknown stories- films from around the world that offer new views of stories like

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner or Whale Rider that show legends or traditions told from the cultures themselves

instead of the eyes of an outsider. Documentaries such as The Slanted Screen and Reel Injun not only show us

histories many might not be familiar with, but they aim to reclaim and re-write the stories the masses had

been told by the media.

3
Cameras where prohibited in the camps. In Come See The Paradise this is made a point

of in a scene where one of the family members gets his camera confiscated as they are

being admitted in the camps.

4
The nine and a half minute propaganda film is available online in YouTube.

5
In a recent interview with the University of Arkansas for their documentary on the

internees in Rohwer relocation Centre, actor George Takei talks about neighbors who

burned their furniture instead of letting them be taken by people waiting outside for the

homeowners to leave. He also talks of his fathers attempt to save his collection of books

through storage and how he saw his parents discuss the Loyalty Questionnaire that

would result in the family being transferred to Tule Lake Segregation Centre where

disloyal internees where kept.

6
Mr. Kawamura: [Harry] thinks he's Sessue Hayakawa...but all he plays is Chinese houseboys, can you
imagine? We've come all this way to be Chinamen?
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Works Cited

Adachi, Jeff. The Slanted Screen. N.p., 2006. Film.

Boyle, Deirdre. History and Memory: On Visual Media and The Collected Memory of The

Japanese American Internment. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Creef, Elena Tajima. Museums, Memory, and Manzanar: Contesting Our National

Japanese A American Past through a Politics of Visibility. Imaging Japanese America: The

Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body. New York: New York University

Press, 2004. 119143. Print.

Interview with George Takei, Internee at Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas. N.p., 2013.

Film.
Japanese Relocation - U.S. Govt Explanation 1942 (Japanese Internment Camps). N.p., 2009.

Film.

Parker, Alan. Come See the Paradise. N.p., 1991. Film.

Sturken, Marita. The Politics of Video Memory: Electronic Erasures and Inscriptions.

Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices. Ed. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg.

Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 112. Print.