Of all the shameful, embarrassing things the United States government has done throughout this nation’s history, its forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II stands as one of the worst. And though few would argue over its status as a particularly ugly black mark on our history, the personal side to the story has remained largely unexplored. Enter Passing Poston, which tells the story of the Poston internment camp in the Colorado River Indian Reservation through interviews with several of the men and women forced to live there. There’s a good movie in Passing Poston, in its subjects’ sad faces and their responses to what they’ve gone through, but it’s stifled by directors Joe Fox and James Nubile’s frankly incompetent approach to both documentary storytelling and aesthetics.
Formally, the film could barely pass for a mediocre special on CNN, sloppily edited as a series of talking-head interviews broken up by stock photographs and footage of the camp. There’s no sense of rhythm or structure; interviews and footage are gracelessly cut together for no obvious reason other than to maintain chronological order, a decision that robs the film of any drama or overarching thematic thrust. Passing Poston has only narrative on its mind, which would be fine if its story weren’t so badly told. The revelation that should have been used as the film’s structuring conceit (or at least its climax), that the inmates at Poston were effectively exploited by the government in order to improve the quality of life for the Native Americans who would move in after the war, is instead casually revealed in the film’s last 10 minutes, tossed aside as if it held no more weight than any other minor fact in the story. The black irony of the government persecuting one race in order to help another race it had subjugated and abused just years before seems to goes unnoticed. It’s like an essayist burying his most important argument in an endnote, and it is indicative of Fox and Nubile’s approach to their material.
Even their interview subjects are treated as little more than a fact-delivery system. We never get an idea of who these people really are, and the most interesting among them—Leon Uyeda, an elderly man so damaged by his experiences that he can’t help but see discrimination even where there is none—is given by far the least screen time. When Uyeda says that he thinks the solution to racism is to intermarry until the Japanese race dies out and Fox and Nubile treat his statement with the same weight as a description of the weather, it’s clear just how badly they’ve missed the boat.