Dorothea Lange photo of an incarceration camp, combined with animation from film.

NEWPORT BEACH — Yuriko Gamo Romer’s “Baseball Behind Barbed Wire” will be screened on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 6 p.m. at The Lot 2, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, as part of the Newport Beach Film Fest’s “Totally Real Short Docs” program.

The documentary tells the story of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, through the uncommon yet popular lens of baseball, America’s national pastime. There is great irony in the popularity of the All American Sport being played in the camps. Incarcerees had their citizenship and civil rights taken away and the entire community was forcibly confined from 1942-45. And yet, playing baseball invoked some semblance of normalcy under duress.

Playing baseball was a chance to assert their citizenship and affirm their loyalty as Americans, even as guards in towers pointed their rifles inward and the barbed wire kept them confined. Making the best of a bad situation, camp communities as a whole would get involved, as mothers and grandmothers sewed uniforms out of produce sacks, old clothing, and deconstructed mattress ticking. Some ordered baseball equipment from the Sears catalog, while others wrote to their Caucasian friends back home to get their team uniforms out of storage and shipped to them.

The spine of the film is the story of the Gila River Camp in Arizona, brought to life by a handful of characters that were its primary baseball players. Best known is Kenichi Zenimura, a small but athletic figure known as “Zeni.” He had already made a name for himself in the world of baseball, having even played with the famed Babe Ruth. With the help of his two sons and several other avid young players, they built a real baseball diamond complete with stands and dugouts from pilfered scrap lumber and fence posts. They even rerouted the camp’s irrigation system to cut down on flying dust.

The all-American pastime became a favorite for many incarcerees at all ten camps stretching from California to Wyoming to Arkansas. Some of the camps had two or three fields and some had as many as 30 teams, including anyone who wanted to play. They even managed to negotiate permission from government authorities for teams to travel long distances for games at other camps.

Showing with “Willie’s Wings,” “Astor Place, the American Dream,” “Bare Metal,” “Parodi — The Petite Museum,” and “Sheep Over Venice Pastures.”


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