As a Japanese American whose family was incarcerated during World War II, filmmaker Ann Kaneko grew up hearing about Manzanar, the remote Southern California camp where over 11,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated from 1942 to 1945.
As a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, Kaneko grew up hearing about water scarcity, too. Watching her mother conserve water while doing the dishes and the wash, and using bathwater to flush toilets and water the garden, Kaneko appreciated the finiteness of our natural resources from a young age.
But it wasn’t until much later in life that she connected those seemingly disparate dots. On frequent road trips along U.S. 395, the desolate highway that cuts past Manzanar through Payahuunadü (which means the land of flowing water) — more commonly known as the Owens Valley — Kaneko was stunned by the region’s mountainous beauty.
She was also stunned by its lack of development and, even more so, by the reason behind it: 89 percent of private land in Inyo County, where Manzanar sits, is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The city of 4 million, though hundreds of miles away, sources roughly one-third of its water from the valley.
With her interest piqued, Kaneko readily agreed when a friend asked her, in 2014, to make a short film about Manzanar. “Earlier films focused on the experiences of Manzanar incarcerees. I decided to investigate the land where the camp was situated and ties and parallels to Native Americans, including the history of the place before and after the War,” she says.
What she discovered was a history that was as raw as its beauty — and a saga that went far beyond the confines of a short film. She spent the next five years creating a feature-length documentary, Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, which premiered in February.
The film tells the story of three groups through three centuries — the forced removal of Native Americans, the forced arrival of Japanese Americans and the struggles of ranching families — all united by their fight over the region’s most precious resource: water.
As someone who has lived in the desiccated cities of Southern California and whose own Japanese grandparents were incarcerated during WWII, I was eager to watch this film and speak with Kaneko. Here are some highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
AARP: The film includes many shots of Payahuunadü’s sweeping vistas, as well as striking images of how the land has changed over the years. Why was it important to you to create such an environmentally driven film?
Kaneko: Because water is a crucial issue, in this moment of climate change. … We all need to think about a real paradigm shift in the way that we interact with our world. … We are of the mindset that we can just extract and take and take. But we are seeing the impacts of climate change now.
Your parents and grandparents were incarcerated in Arkansas during WWII, and you live in Los Angeles, which gets one-third of its water from Payahuunadü. How did your background influence your work?
I’d always been a little intimidated by making films about [Japanese incarceration], and also wanted to steer away from it because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. … I feel strongly that I have other stories to tell.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how important this story is and also how important that legacy is to who I am. Not all of us can tell this story, because not all of us have these very personal connections to it.
So I think this film has allowed me to really embrace my own history and, equally, my own identity as a resident of Los Angeles. My family has lived in Los Angeles for three generations; unlike many, many other people, we have deep roots in the city. And so I feel like that also is a real part of why this film is important to me.
The film goes from the 1800s to the present and covers three different intergenerational groups. Why did you choose to paint such a wide-ranging picture?
The film, in many ways, is kind of the antithesis of what you’re maybe supposed to do, because usually you have one story and you focus on it, and you can go deep. But I think this film allows you to see this much larger panorama of how these different stories are connected … the enormity of everything presented together is very impactful.
It brings together three different strands of a story that maybe people know separately. Some people may know about the Japanese incarceration story, or some people may know about the California water story, or they may know about Native American forced removal. …
There are different points of entry to what this film is and what this topic is — for people to understand that they are all tied together, it’s kind of a revelation.
What do you hope for the future of Payahuunadü? What do you hope people take away from Manzanar, Diverted?
I hope that we are able to figure out a more sustainable way forward with water in Southern California and that that can be a model for other people and other places around the world. … I hope [the film] encourages people to learn and then take action. [Payahuunadü] is a really beautiful place with a lot of stories, and hopefully, people can appreciate that.
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