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Lost and found: Archivists unveil footage of WWII relocation center

July 30, 2006

Brian Davis could hardly believe his eyes when he saw a large brown film canister marked “Poston Color Dupe.”

Could there possibly be a film about the World War II-era Poston Relocation Center that no one knew about?

It turns out that the 16mm film – rediscovered in the Arizona Historical Foundation archives last summer – was just that: a 25-minute, silent color film about Poston, one of the two Japanese internment camps set up in Arizona during World War II. The camp was located in La Paz County, Arizona, 12 miles south of the town of Parker.

“I had been producing documentary shorts about the Poston camp myself, using one of our oral history recordings, and was frantically looking for footage to combine with the words,” says Davis, an academic associate for media development at ASU’s Hayden Library.

Linda Whitaker, an archivist at the AHF, found the film canister last fall as she was preparing an exhibit on World War II Japanese internment camps, “A Celebration of the Human Spirit: The Art & Artifacts of Arizona’s World War II Relocation Camps,” on display in the Hayden Library rotunda through Aug. 11.

Since the AHF has no film equipment, Whitaker called Davis for help.

One of Davis’ first concerns was the condition of the film. Was it crumbling and broken? Could it be shown?

“The film was certainly as brittle as I expected, and therefore stood no chance of being played without a thorough inspection,” he says. “Using hand-cranked rewinds, a loupe and light table, I inspected the 800-plus feet of film.”

Davis found that most of the original splicing had failed, so he respliced it.

“It was at this point that I realized that this was, indeed, a color film,” he says. “I thought it had been made by the federal government, due to the levels of access that those making the film had. This was a highly secured site, and I can’t imagine anyone but the government being allowed to film there.

“I didn’t know at that point that the federal government had seized all color film in the United States for the war effort, and that most war-related activities – both abroad and at home – were documented in color.”

Davis used the Department of Archives and Special Collections’ film-to-video converter to make a VHS copy of the film. He then connected the film converter to a digital video bridge, captured it on his computer, and finally produced DVDs for public viewing. He believes that there was, at one time, a narration.

The first half of the film is devoted to scenes of almost frantic construction, as contractor Del Webb’s 5,000-member construction crew sawed wood, poured foundations, nailed boards and installed utilities.

“What makes the film powerful is the editing that follows the construction scenes,” Davis says. “The camera pans, block after block, across the newly constructed camp and then fades into another panning shot.

“This time, it’s block after block of abandoned Japanese-American-owned restaurants and shops.”

The film continues with scenes of Japanese-Americans arriving at Poston, many wearing what appears to be their Sunday best, and shots of life in the hot, dusty desert camp.

Whitaker doesn’t know who made the film and has been unable to learn anything about it. The donor, W. Wade Head, who was director of the Poston camp from 1942-1944, is deceased, and none of Whitaker’s inquiries have borne fruit. So questions remain: Who shot the film? And what was its purpose? Was it widely screened? Are there other copies lost and waiting to be found?

No matter what the answer is, says Whitaker, “ ‘Poston Dupe’ is a powerful reminder, lest we forget.”