Camp Diaries

A film by William Noland

Camp Diaries merges two radically different archives to get at the underlying meaning of Japanese-American internment and its continuing relevance in a post-9/11 context. In this collision of powerful imageries, each with an embedded agenda of its own, U.S. government propaganda materials are juxtaposed with photographer Dorothea Lange’s authoritative, jarring and ultimately subversive work documenting the stages of internment from its inception.

Lange was commissioned by the federal government to document Japanese-American “relocation”, and she set for herself a delicate task: how to carry out the job to the satisfaction of her employers and yet impart the outrage she felt about what was taking place. She embedded her critique deep within her images, creating portraits of people looking into the lens of the camera towards Americans in an unknowable future who would, some day, have the perspective to understand the injustice and harm being done. Suppressed and impounded during and after World War II, Lange’s many hundreds of photographs have rarely been distributed or promoted in any way, with only a few exceptions. They remained hidden in the National Archives until the Nisei children of the camps had matured into adulthood and helped to begin to circulate them in the 1960s.

The propagandizing “documentary” films made by government agencies at the time alternately describe the menace of invasion and show the internment program in its best possible light, arguing aggressively that the action was both benign and necessary for the security of the homeland. Familiar to generations of film students, the films have been somewhat re-tasked. Short cutaway shots are extracted and slowed down for quiet, careful examination; strident voiceovers are at times re-scripted to better get at underlying truths. Lange’s images have aged well, their original agenda having become crystal clear with the passage of time. Inserted into the narratives of propaganda, they are as relevant today as they ever were.

Completion date: 2008
Running time: 15:00
Sound design & editing: William Noland

Photographs: Dorothea Lange, stills from the National Archives, produced through the War Relocation Authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Films: A Challenge to Democracy (1944) Office of War Information & Office of Strategic Services; Japanese Relocation (1943) Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures; Our Enemy The Japanese (1943) Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures; Target Tokyo (1944) Universal Pictures Newsreel.

Racist propaganda cartoons: Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss