Imagine the high school newspaper editor's father being arrested by his best friend's father and sent out of state for the crime of being of Japanese.
The Empty Chair in the title of the film refers to a chair on the stage of the 1942 graduating class at Juneau High School. The valedictorian, John Tanaka, wasn't there. He'd been relocated with his family to an internment camp after Pearl Harbor was attacked. John's best friend's dad was the highest ranking military officer in Juneau at the time and was ordered to arrest John's father, and later to round up all the Japanese-American residents and ship them south to an internment camp.
I got to see The Empty Chair Sunday morning - at its world premiere on the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Heres a bit of video I took during the Q&A after the Sunday showing.
This film is a testament to how a dedicated film maker can preserve a small but significant part of history with his camera. Greg Chaney interviewed Juneau residents who experienced those events. Japanese-Americans who were kids back then and were sent to camps during the war. Their white classmates, and a few others alive at the time like Katie Hurley.
Chaney chronicles a small Alaskan town - the film estimates Juneau had about 5000 residents then - where the Japanese residents were well integrated into the community and how some key members of the white community struggled when they were required to deport these citizens to the camps.
The film also takes advantage of vintage film and photos from any number of archives and from some family film that includes footage of playing in the snow on Dec. 7, 1941.
This is a huge contribution to Alaska's history and because it focuses on high school (and younger) kids, it would be a terrific addition to Alaskan history curriculum in high schools throughout the state.
It plays again tonight (Tuesday) at the Alaska Experience Theater at 7pm.
The programming is tight this year, but if you're seeing The Ambassador to Bern at 5:30 at the Bear Tooth, which I also recommend, there will be time enough to get downtown to see The Empty Chair. It's ok if you're a few minutes late, though you might want to reserve a ticket in advance if you can.
The movie is quite well done, even on the minuscule budget they had.