Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, An Environmental and Cultural Memoir

Visitors at Manzanar, California today will find a desert-like landscape dotted with low brush as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by the towering Sierra Nevadas to the west. While the landscape may seem like a natural extension to the parched, unforgiving conditions of Death Valley to the east, it was not always this way. The name Manzanar means “apple grove” in Spanish, and Payahuunadü, the name that the native Paiute people called the land, means “land of the flowing water,” hinting at a more vibrant past. Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, directed and produced by Ann Kaneko and Jin Yoo-Kim, tells the history of how this land was transformed, the stories of those who lived here, and the cultural legacy that must not be forgotten.

Filmed over five years, the documentary weaves together the interlocking histories of indigenous displacement, Japanese incarceration, and water extraction, revealing the injustices that were inflicted while also illuminating acts of resistance and radical joy. It does a good job giving each piece of the story equal weight, making connections between the unique perspectives shared by the interviewees and humanizing the past.

The title of the film pays tribute to the book “When Breath Becomes Air,” a profound memoir of a neurosurgeon’s quest to find meaning in the face of a terminal illness, and while the film may not be as soul-wrenching, it shares a key theme with the book: reckoning with painful realities and seeking greater meaning and purpose through these experiences. “You make peace with the past and try to use it to educate other people, to try to learn a lesson,” shares Sue Kunitomi Embrey, reflecting on her incarceration at Manzanar. Sue became a prominent activist and a founding member of the Manzanar Committee after the Japanese internment, and she worked to make Manzanar a historic educational site. In many ways, the film continues Sue’s legacy of inspiring solidarity through education and the retelling of personal stories.

Towards the end of the film, Monica Embrey, Sue’s granddaughter, asks, “What would a world designed around watersheds look like?” At the risk of sounding too much like an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan, her question is more fundamentally, “How do we live in harmony with the earth, water, air, and fire?” Instead of prescribing solutions, the documentary invites viewers to see the past through the eyes of people who have called this land home and to reflect on their own personal histories. Interviewees shared stories about the Japanese creating beautiful gardens and koi ponds in Manzanar, about friendship between the Japanese and the native peoples, about colonial brutality and ongoing conflicts over water rights. Through this, viewers get a sense of how much this land means to the people who have inhabited it and how their own lives impact the future of Owen’s Valley. The hope is, in the words of Nancy Masters, a board member of the Owens Valley Committee, not to make people feel guilty, but to help them appreciate where their water is coming from and feel empowered to help protect the land and its life-giving resources.

Fittingly, the soundtrack features Japanese and indigenous instruments and songs, delivering slightly haunting melodies that render a surreal quality to the black-and-white pictures and historical clips. The long, slow pans across the landscapes and the steady, almost drone-like hum of a solo cello serve as canvasses for internal reflection. Through these scenes, the film gives space for the viewer to feel not only the vastness and beauty of the landscape, but also the scale of transformation and the weight of trauma embedded in the water and the land.

Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust illuminates the environmental and cultural history below the surface of the water tables we take for granted. The accessibility of the film makes it a great addition to anyone’s watch list, whether you’re an environmental activist, a concerned citizen in a world facing overlapping crises of climate change, racism, and environmental extraction, or even if you haven’t thought much about where your water comes from.

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