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'Manzanar, Diverted' Documentary Untangles The Complex History Of California's Payahuunadü Valley

Still from "Manzanar, Diverted" documetnary
Courtesy of Ann Kaneko
The valley of Payahuunadü from the documentary film "Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust."

The Milwaukee Film Festival has arrived early this year as the festival transitions to a new spring event time. That means great films from across the world are descending on Milwaukee, all virtually this year.

Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust is a documentary about the difficult and complex history of the valley of Payahuunadü, or Owens Valley, in California and the people who continue to fight for the land to this day.

At the base of the Rocky Mountains, this valley was once home to two Indigenous nations — Nüümü (Paiute) and the Newe (Shoshone). In 1860s, the U.S. Army violently removed them from their homelands. During World War II, the valley was home to a Japanese-American internment camp near the city of Manzanar. Since the U.S. Army arrived, the valley of Payahuunadü, which translates to “the land of flowing water," has had its water taken and diverted to cities like Los Angeles.

The film’s director, Ann Kaneko, says from the first time she visited the valley, she could feel the weight of the history that the area held.

“You look at that land and you look at the water flowing there and you’re like, ‘Wow, you know, we’re looking at so much history, blood, sweat of so many people in that place,” she says.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power currently owns over 90% of the valley, meaning many residents of the city get water from the area without ever knowing. Producer Jin Yoo-Kim was one of those people and says she couldn’t help feeling partially responsible for the current, dried-up state of Payahuunadü.

“When you’re on the land, knowing what you do, it’s the heaviness, like the weight of knowing that you have blood on your hands. You know, living in Los Angeles, using the water, not knowing,” says Yoo-Kim.

The documentary attempts to untangle this history and show how each important moment is connected. From the forced removal of native people to the internment of Japanese Americans, Kaneko says these events need to be more clearly taught as atrocities committed in the United States.

Yoo-Kim connects its past to the current day rise in racist acts against Asian people in the United States and points to the fact that different cultural histories exist in the U.S. and that they exist in conversation with each other and this needs to be taught to all people. Something, she says, this documentary can help achieve.

“One way is for this documentary to be able to tie these histories and also show that these things didn’t happen so far from each other. It overlaps, when we don’t know another person’s story, when we don’t know another community’s plight, it could happen to your community and we won’t know how to build solidarity,” Yoo-Kim says.

Manzanar, Diverted is not just about history but also follows current day residents who are working to protect the land. The documentary features the fight against further monetization of the land through a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power project that would have constructed a massive solar power site on the historic valley.

Kaneko says her desire is that the documentary offers a positive end. “Hopefully this film gets people to think in a larger way and really contemplate, maybe a paradigm shift that really has to happen here, in terms of our connection to land and water,” she says.

The film will be available to stream through the Milwaukee Film Festival until May 20.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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