Eric Paul Fournier: “Fred was a Japanese American, born and raised in California and here he was very much your average young American; he had a girlfriend, he had just gotten a convertible, he was working as a welder. He had no political background, no sort of lofty constitutional ideals necessarily. So when the government asked him, or told him, that he must report to, essentially, an internment camp or a concentration camp, he just intrinsically knew that it was wrong. He felt it in his bones and he didn’t see why he should have to comply with this. This did not jive with the America that he had been brought up to believe that he was living in.
One of the things that I tried to show in the film was the irony, if you will, of Fred being incarcerated for his actions by one president and 40 years later given the Presidential Medal of Freedom award by another president for the very same actions. I think that says volumes about the growth of America, about the changes in America, the changes in the face of America.
That said…at the time I made the film it was meant to be a cautionary tale. But obviously I had no idea how prescient, timely and extremely relevant the film and these issues would become by virtue of the attacks of September 11… and the subsequent round-up of people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern descent.”
POV: What interested you in the Fred Korematsu story?
Eric Paul Fournier (EPF): The story deals with many ironies. 1) That at a time we were fighting fascism, we were for all intent and purposes were perpetrating a similar ‘fascist’ act on a segment of our own population. 2) That one of the most progressive presidents of the 20th century, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), was responsible for the executive order that incarcerated 120,000 Japanese-American without any trail, evidence or due process of any kind. 3) That the Supreme Court considered to be one of the most liberal in our history upheld this decision. 4) That many of those same members of the court (that held with the majority) went on, later in their Supreme Court careers, to become titans of civil rights jurisprudence. 5) That Fred, once vilified by his own community, 40 years later became a hero to that very community. Finally, 6) That for the very same action that one president (FDR) tried, convicted and incarcerated Fred, another president (Clinton), over 50 years later, gave Fred the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian honor. I thought all of these elements combined would tell an interesting story about our democracy and how fragile it really is.
POV: How difficult was it to get Fred to agree to participate in this film?
EPF: The film was initiated by Ken Korematsu and Shirley Nakoa as original director and executive producer, respectively. Only after their realization that making a film is a very difficult task and that they needed a “professional” filmmaker to help them, did they come to me. As a good friend of Ken’s and a filmmaker, guess I seemed the logical choice (and I had been dropping hints from early on that I would be interested). My only condition was that I have complete editorial and creative control. Via Ken and with the support of Shirley Nakoa, my access to Fred was unlimited.
POV: Equally important in your film, is the involvement of the Asian-American lawyers — what interested you about their participation?
EPF: I made the decision early on that I did not want a narrator or voice-over in the film. I wanted the people that lived through this period, that participated in the main events being discussed as well as those people who deal with these issues daily to “speak for themselves.”
It was crucial that the members of the “Coram Nobis” legal team trust me to tell the story and their participation was critical with regards to “first hand” knowledge of the events that transpired. In a sense this was their story, too. In the case of the Asian-American attorneys, the internment had happened to their families. The internment or its aftermath had colored their lives. It was a fight for vindication, not only for Fred but their parents as well.
POV: Your film follows the legal struggles of Fred’s case, along with more personal details from Fred’s life — why did you feel you needed to illuminate both?
EPF: My interest was in making a political film that dealt with the legal ramifications of Fred’s stand and not just a traditional bio-pic. In this context, his court cases, their legal ramifications and the participation of the attorneys involved became very important to the process of framing the story. I also wanted to illustrate why Fred’s story and his court cases are so important to not only our legal history but to our daily lives. That the issues raised in the film are something that we still face everyday in America. But in the telling of any good story, you must care about the characters involved. You must have a vested interest, after a point, in wanting to know how the story ends, how this relates to you. That is always the struggle in dealing with abstract issues of legal matters, racism, cultural identity — to put a human face on it. Fred was that “human face.”
POV: What do you hope to achieve by making this film?
EPF: As a filmmaker, obviously I want to make a “good” film. I wanted it to be honest, fair, do justice to the enormity of the issues raised and, most of all, I wanted to get it right!
But, what did I want to say? I think there are two or three quotes in the film that say it all. One is Ronald Takaki’s quote referencing President Lincoln’s statement about the principle of freedom and equality being “America’s unfinished work.” Also, Peter Irons’ statement about “ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that can change our history.” One says that there is still work to be done and the other a realization that any of us, if we choose, can make a difference. And, of course, the idea that to round up and incarcerate a group of people based solely on their ‘group characteristics,’ without evidence trail or due process of any kind is a dangerous precedent in a free society.
In a post 9-11 context, I think the issues involved in the film are enormously relevant.