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Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival finds a cure for cultural amnesia 

click to enlarge Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration
  • Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration
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our out of 10 Americans, President Donald Trump included, believe that America is and always has been "a Christian nation." But that doesn't stop us from turning our backs on refugees who've been displaced by war and persecution. Nor does it rule out other behaviors that seem less than Christ-like: Health care is still a luxury; discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, economic status and sexual orientation continues; white nationalists chant Nazi slogans in torch-lit processions, while our president tacitly cheers them on.

Jorge Santayana's warning that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" remains all too true, and the same can be said of those who do remember the past but fail to learn its lessons. In an era when politicians and media are virtually context-free, it's no wonder that our country is slipping further and further into a state of collective amnesia.

The 30th annual Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, meanwhile, is taking the opposite tack. North America's longest-running women's film festival will this year feature 60 independent films (up from last year's 32), a number of which show what can happen when we abandon basic democratic and humanitarian principles. And in 2017, many of those historical consequences feel all too familiar.

There are, for example, the tales of concentration camp survivors in director Serena Dykman's Nana and Kary Antholis' One Survivor Remembers, whose testimonials convey the grim realities of the Holocaust. Yet we still find Holocaust deniers and apologists marching through the streets of Charlottesville chanting "blood and soil."

Our own government's internment of Japanese-Americans, on the other hand, is rarely denied or rationalized; it's simply ignored.

click to enlarge Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration
  • Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration

In December 1941, Life magazine published a pictorial feature with the headline "How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs." The underlying premise was that our friends, in this case, were Chinese-Americans, our enemies Japanese-Americans. Two months later, the latter were being rounded up en masse and sent to internment camps. The order was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who famously declared, in his first inaugural address, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The internments would continue on for the next four years.

Co-directors Johanna Demetrakas and Vivienne Schiffer's documentary Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration is unique in its focus on the testimonials of the friends and relatives who remained behind, as well as the generation that was born after the camps closed.

"Why aren't we accepted as Americans?" asks one woman, before offering what is, in many ways, a rhetorical question. "Is an American a white person?"

click to enlarge Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration
  • Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration

The rationale for the internment camps was Japan's 1941 bombing of a U.S. military base in Pearl Harbor, an act of war vividly chronicled in TV documentaries and high school history books. The subsequent incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese-American citizens — a response even more misguided than the invasion of Iraq after 9/11 — has been reduced to a historical footnote, if that, to the point where many know nothing about it.

The filmmakers also includes interviews with higher-profile figures, including Bill Clinton, who suggests the implicit parallels between the two eras. "We were so scared after Pearl Harbor that we let our fears get the better of us," says the former president, whose second term ended nine months before the Patriot Act was signed into law. "Sometimes that's the ultimate victory in an act of terror, what they do to your mind and your heart."

The media, meanwhile, is all too willing to perpetuate those fears. A prime example occurred in 2012, when a Chicago Tribune supplement published an illustrated "Turban Primer," featuring five caricatures designed to help readers distinguish between "Sikh men," "Iranian leaders," "Taliban members," "Indian men" and "Muslim religious elders." The grim irony is that the article was published just two days after Wade Michael Page, a white-supremacist gunman, walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with a semiautomatic handgun, killed six people, and wounded several others. The shooter was obsessed with "impending racial holy war." His victims were reading scriptures and preparing a community meal.

The same year that our government began rounding up Japanese-Americans, Wilma Pearl Mankiller's family were among 45 Cherokee families whose land was seized by the U.S. Army, which invoked the rarely used law of eminent domain to expand one of its military camps. She and her family were later relocated from Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma, to the San Francisco Bay Area.

This time, the motivation stemmed not from fear itself, but from a contemptuous disregard for America's indigenous people, the kind exercised by President Trump when he signed an executive order to expedite construction of a pipeline through Native American burial grounds.

click to enlarge Mankiller
  • Mankiller

Valerie Red-Horse Mohl's Mankiller, another of this year's festival offerings, examines the life and legacy of the civil rights activist and first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Through archival footage and testimonials, the film explores Mankiller's lifelong devotion to civil rights, a commitment that was sparked as a teenager in the 1960s. Along with four of her siblings, Wilma took part in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, which the film shows in archival footage accompanied by Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." She also assisted in the early Black Panthers mission to provide food for Oakland's children and elderly residents. After returning to Oklahoma, she launched a clean water project that both protected the environment and brought work to unemployed tribal members. Her outreach efforts, over the course of two terms as tribal chief, increased the number of Cherokee Nation citizens from 55,000 to 156,000.

"I've done everything I could do to make everybody in the world mad at me these last four years," she said at the end of her first term. "I don't beat around the bush."

Mankiller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. "In a just country," says Gloria Steinem in an on-camera testimonial, "she would have been elected president."

Instead, Mankiller steadfastly advanced the cause of women's rights and Native American sovereignty. "It's a matter of meeting adversity time after time," she explained, "and getting up and starting over again, and beginning to rebuild."

The Reverend Martin Luther King expressed similar sentiments as he stood on the steps of an Alabama courthouse at the culmination of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Speaking with the cadence and eloquence of a Southern preacher, he engaged the crowd in the call-and-response speech that opens animators Michelle and Uri Kranot's short film How Long, Not Long.

click to enlarge How Long, Not Long
  • How Long, Not Long

"I know you're asking today, how long will it take?" says King, his words punctuated by shouts of approval from the crowd. "How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it? I come to say to you this afternoon — however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour — it will not be long, because 'truth crushed to earth will rise again.'"

The Kranots use rotoscope animation, the same color-enhancing technique employed in Richard Linklater's Waking Life, to trace over emotionally charged footage of atomic bomb tests, the Tiananmen Square protest, feminist performance artists Pussy Riot, and hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. The film ends on an optimistic note, with a montage of faces that blur together — women, men and children of all races. It's a sign of hope, finally, in a world where all these problems may one day be overcome.

click to enlarge How Long, Not Long
  • How Long, Not Long

"How long? Not Long," promised Martin Luther King. "Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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