Award-winning docudrama ‘From a Silk Cocoon’

by Angela Jeffs

It is 1986, the year that the U.S. government passes the Civil Liberties Act for providing financial reparation and an apology to all Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

Visiting the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., to see a major exhibit on the subject, Satsuki Ina goes into shock — not because she does not know that she had been born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center during her parents’ 4-year imprisonment, but because there on display is a large photo of her father standing in a prison cell.

“It was at that moment, 20 years ago, that I realized how little I knew about my parents’ experience,” she says from the U.S. recently, just before flying to Japan. “For the sake of my family, I was determined to learn more.”

What she learned is the subject of a prizewinning drama-documentary film, “From a Silk Cocoon,” screened in Nagoya as part of this month’s Aichi Women’s International Film Festival. “I got invited along as executive producer, codirector and writer.”

In May, “From a Silk Cocoon” was awarded the Northern California Emmy for outstanding achievement in the historical/cultural section, and best director award from the New York Independent Film and Video Festival.

Now professor emeritus in the School of Education at California State University, Sacramento and founder of the Family Study Center, Satsuki is a psychotherapist. “I specialize in cross-cultural counseling, and work with groups of Japanese-Americans who, like me, were children in the prison camps.”

Asked how she began the process of making “From a Silk Cocoon,” Satsuki explained that after her father died in 1977, she and her mother had found the letters her mother had sent him while they were in separate prison camps. “She was surprised to find them and said, ‘Somewhere I have the letters he sent to me.’ ”

After her mother died in 2000, Satsuki was cleaning up her apartment and came upon the metal box with the 180 letters that her parents had exchanged inside. “It was as if she had left that box for me.” Working with one of her Japanese students to translate the letters, her parents’ story slowly unfolded — a story she had never known about. “My student and I often wept as we worked.”

With the backlash from Sept. 11, she decided that her parents’ experience, personal as it was, would be an important story to share in an effort to prevent a repetition of history in the current atmosphere of the fear of terrorism and suspending of constitutional rights in the name of national security.

“With my family’s blessings I had started editing the letters and writing the narrative links. I went to Japan to do some family research and had a film shoot in Nagano Ken at a silk farm and silk factory. We began production in 2003 and had our world premiere in Sacramento in February 2005.”

Using censored letters, diary entries and haiku poetry, “From a Silk Cocoon” tells the true story of a young Japanese-American couple whose struggle to prove their innocence and fight deportation, during a time of wartime hysteria and racial profiling, leads them to renounce their American citizenship while held in separate prison camps.

The hardest part of the process, she says, was trying to make a quality documentary with limited funds — a problem shared by most independent filmmakers.

The most amazing part was how the Japanese-American community came forward to help with money, food, labor and talent. One of her favorite memories was the day 12 men in their 70s and 80s — all carpenters and former internees — came to the Florin Buddhist Church gymnasium to construct a replica of a camp barracks.

“Others came to do makeup and period hairstyles!” she continues. “Soon we had 50-60 people swarming around helping us with lighting, sound and garbage patrol. We didn’t have much money, but we had faith and love pushing us to make a quality documentary.”

While “From a Silk Cocoon” has no message per se, Satsuki believes historical truth can shed light on the dangers of suspending human and constitutional rights during time of war. Also she wants people in Japan to know about what happened to their emigrant citizens.

“At a personal level, I grieve for the suffering of my parents and other Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned for up to four years of their lives,” she says. “At a professional level, I have gained a deep understanding of the psychological trauma of an experience that has been suppressed and minimized in our society. I’m able to see how racism, wartime hysteria and the failure of political leadership can lead to devastating human loss even today.”

Although she has always been a pacifist, through delving deeply into the issues of community trauma and racism and the tragedy of war, Satsuki is now much more actively involved in social justice issues and education.

“Before my mother passed away, she gave me her blessing to use the letters to educate people about the injustice of the internment. My older brother, Kiyoshi (also born in the camps), was actively involved in the production as a labor of love. My younger brother, Michael, has lent financial and emotional support all along the way.”

She says that none of them really knew what their parents suffered until the letters were translated and put into context. “It’s brought us closer together, realizing what our parents went through in order that we might have the lives that we have today.”