Albert H. Fulcher| Contributing Editor
George Takei special guest at opening night celebration
Founders of the GI Film Festival announced in May that San Diego is the official home of the military dedicated festival. The shift to the West Coast is a natural one for the national festival, which launched in Washington, D.C. in 2007.
San Diego has one of the largest military populations in the U.S., with seven major military bases between the Navy, Marines and the Coast Guard. San Diego County has the third largest veteran population in the country (240,000) and more than 100,000 active duty members. San Diego is also home to a thriving film and media production industry with dozens of film festivals year-round.
Documentaries, shorts, and narratives highlight stories of heroism, resilience, and honor. The festival includes Local Film Showcase, which features San Diego’s filmmakers, events, people, or places. Panel discussions with filmmakers, actors, and documentary subjects are also part of GIFFSD.
The festival is organized by KPBS in partnership with the GI Film Group and Film Consortium San Diego. The GIFFSD is a proud member of the San Diego Veterans Coalition.
Now in its fourth year, the six-day military film festival is back to feature more untold and underrepresented stories of America’s military through film. GI Film Festival San Diego (GIFFSD) kicks off with the opening night screening and reception on Tuesday, Sept. 25 from 7–10 p.m. at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The evening includes screenings of the narrative short “American,” followed by the documentary short, “The Registry.”
Special guest George Takei is attending as the leading actor in “American.” Both films focus on World War II events and the important roles and services that Japanese-American military members provided. In addition to Takei, the directors of each film are expected to attend the opening night celebration and will participate in a panel discussion after the screenings.
In “American,” actor and activist Takei plays a 94-year-old veteran who works as a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum. His character encounters a mother and her young daughter, triggering events that happened in his past, including his time as a young man in a Japanese American internment camp and later serving with the 442nd Regional Combat Team in World War II.
The history of the Japanese American internment camps is personal for Takei. From the age of 5 to 8 and a half years old, his family transferred from camp to camp. Takei said his father influenced his knowledge and eventual activism to ensure this part of American history was not forgotten.
His role in “American” first came to him with a call from “American” producer, creator and director Richie Adams. The more Adams talked about the film, the more Takei got excited about participating in this project.
“First of all, the subject matter, the internment of Japanese Americans and the heroism of the young men that were taken from barbed wire imprisonment who fought with such incredible, amazing valor and indeed heroism, the telling of their story is very important to me,” Takei said.
But there was more to the story that drew Takei in. Executive Producer Ken Whitney married a Japanese American woman. Her mother was Takei’s father’s secretary while imprisoned in the Arkansas camp.
“My father was a block manager,” Takei said. “The camp was divided into blocks. Each block had a block manager who was the liaison between the camp command and also dealt with whatever issues came up within the block. I remember that. She was a young teenager then. I went to my father’s office and she was tapping away at this amazing machine [typewriter], I was 5 [years old] and had never seen that. It fascinated me.”
Takei said after reading the script and additional reading material for the short film, he already knew the story of heroism of the young men who were drafted from those barbed wire prison camps and that it was an important story to tell.
“It’s really a small world and a world of not coincidences, but I think this was all meant to be,” Takei said. “In San Diego, I did another passion project of mine, ‘Allegiance,’ a musical at The Old Globe Theater. It was the biggest box office success in Old Globe history. I love San Diego because of all of these wonderful things that have happened in connection with San Diego. These projects, that happened in an almost a pre-ordained way, is something in life that I believe that some force is controlling our lives. That’s how ‘American’ came to me.”
Takei said he was able to share much of the information that he has gathered throughout his life with the producers.
“As many people know my mission in life is to try and raise awareness of that chapter of American history, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans,” Takei said. “Because of the inability of this country to draw the distinction between the Japan that bombed us and American citizens of Japanese descent. They thought we were the same as them. So, that story is very important to me.”
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Takei said that like many other young Americans, young Japanese Americans rushed to the recruiting office to volunteer to serve. He said this act of patriotism was answered with a “slap in the face.” They were denied service to their country and categorized as enemy aliens.
“They were born, raised, educated … they were Americans,” Takei said. “That’s the kind of hysteria that Japanese Americans were subjected to. At the age of 5, I was classified as an enemy alien too. But I was 100 percent non-alien. I was American. My mother was born in Sacramento and my father was a San Franciscan, and they married in Los Angeles, where I was born. So we are Americans. And then, to take everything away from us, impoverish us, and imprison us for the duration of the war was crazy.”
“American” is a movie about a veteran of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. It is best known for its history as a fighting unit composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans who fought during WWII, recruited from the internment camps.
“He [the character] saw his buddies die right next to him,” Takei said. “The character I play is a veteran in his 90s who volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum. A museum which I am one of the founders of, chairman of the board from 2000–2004. He volunteers as a docent to honor his buddies that died. This subject is so near and dear to me, I was impelled to do this film.”
Following the screening of “American,” there will be a viewing of “The Registry,” a documentary directed by Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone. “The Registry” breaks open the hidden history of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during World War II — a story made possible because of a few aging veterans, a little internet savvy and a lot of determination. There’s little doubt the 7,000 soldiers of the MIS helped shorten World War II by as much as two years. Many have told their stories, recorded for history.
But for those in the MIS that were Japanese Americans, also known as Nisei, and who fought in the Pacific against the Japanese enemy, many of their stories have been lost, as the unit was sworn to secrecy for decades after the war. The documentary “The Registry” profiles a few of those who served in the MIS, including surviving veterans, Seiki Oshiro and Grant Ichikawa, as well as other veterans who help tell the unit’s story. The film looks at decisions made during a time of war regarding loyalty to this country while facing racism and the mass internment in the U.S. of people of Japanese descent.
“Films like ‘American’ and ‘The Registry’ remind us all of the sacrifice and service that all active duty and veterans have given to be considered proud American soldiers regardless of their country, origin or cultural background, and they deserve to have their stories be told,” said Jodi Cilley, founder and president of Film Consortium San Diego. “Even in today’s current affairs, we’re seeing immigrant military members who have served our country to become citizens being discharged and deported. By viewing these films, we may begin to discuss the connections between the past and present day.”
Following the GI Film Festival San Diego’s opening night, festivities will continue through Friday, Sept. 28 at the Museum of Photographic Arts. The festival moves to UltraStar Cinemas at Hazard Center for Sept. 29 and 30 screenings.
All access passes for entry into festival events and screenings, general admission tickets for the opening night screening and reception, as well as the rest of the festival screenings are available online. Many events are open to the public with discounted opportunities for active duty personnel and veterans. More details on the full film festival lineup are available at gifilmfestivalsd.org.
— Albert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org