Editor’s Note: The 2017 New Orleans Film Festival is full of fierce female filmmakers, and we are talking with some of our local ladies to find out their inspirations and movie-going rituals.
Who: Mira Kohl
Title of film: Camp of the Innocents
One line summary of film: A look at U.S. internment of Latin American “enemy aliens” during World War II in New Orleans and across the U.S. South.
Screening date and place: Saturday, October 14 at 5:00 PM at The Prytania Theater (screening as part of Louisiana Shorts: Portraits series)
Q: How do you feel like living in New Orleans influenced the making of this film?
MK: In a lot of ways, this film wouldn’t have been possible without New Orleans. New Orleans is the frame that anchors a much larger history that spans two continents. Without the anchor of New Orleans, we wouldn’t have been able to highlight individual stories. We interviewed several locals, bringing together diverse narratives about World War II.
We were able to talk to some older New Orleanians, like Forrest Villarrubia, who is a WWII veteran and volunteers at the National WWII Museum. Forrest is in his nineties. We began our film with Forrest’s interview because, in many ways, his personal recollections of service reflect that master narrative of the U.S. as a global champion for democracy in World War II. It is within that larger frame that we place the hidden history of internment camps, including Camp Algiers, that held Latin American internees across the U.S. south.
While the story really emerged from New Orleans, it was a difficult and complicated story to string together. New Orleans was the point of entry for these internees who were coming through the city on their way to other internment camps. New Orleans was the refuge for Jewish internees harassed by Nazi sympathizers in other camps. But New Orleans was also home to the WWII veterans who served abroad, and like Forrest, were excited to return to their brides and their families here.
For those who were in Camp Algiers during the war, ultimately New Orleans did not end up being their home. They spread out across the United States, and the traces of them are very thin in the historical record. Since they didn’t end up here or in any other central location, there’s just not that much information about them. In some ways, we were trying to reconstruct a story that had not only been forgotten, but whose actors were absent in the historical record. Using New Orleans as the anchor was our attempt to give these otherwise silenced stories roots.
But with any story about displacement, there is a constant tension between absence and presence, present and past, throughout the film.
Q: What food would you pair with the screening of Camp of Innocents if anything was an option?
MK: I’m a vegetarian, so the only food that really seems to pair well is a very leafy and tough salad. It’s good for you and you can think as you chew. Maybe there would be some nice pomegranate seeds in there for some colorful surprises as you go.
Mostly, it’s a tough kale salad.
Q: Where do you like to sit in the movie theater when you are watching a film?
MK: I like about row seven. I want to be up front and center, but I don’t want to have a kink in my neck for a week from sitting too close.
For my own film, I might want to sit in the very first row so I don’t have to see anyone’s face as they’re watching the film [laughing]. For that screening, maybe I’ll go front row right in the middle. If that’s not available, I’ll go to the very back for the exact same reasons.
Q: Why do you think film is important?
MK: For all three of the filmmakers on this documentary, this was the first time using film as a medium. We are all graduate students at Tulane, and this is quite different from what we do on a day-to-day basis. It opened up a new world for me, and I think it did so for my co-filmmakers.
The power of film to express emotion, and the power of film to affect your audience and really engage them is something I have never seen in terms of my written production in writing for a more scholarly audience.
Just the ability to widen your audience is fantastic. The papers I write might get an audience of 10 people, maybe my dissertation will be read by 20 people. Camp of the Innocents is something that has been seen hundreds of times, and now the film festival will be bringing it to an even larger audience. These are subjects and materials that people may otherwise not have an interest in that gain traction through the medium of film.
Film also offers a unique opportunity for collaboration. The conversations that went into the production of the film, the connections I made with WWII veterans in New Orleans, with the WWII museum, with The Historic New Orleans Collection and various other actors were all so important. That whole process brought together a disparate group of people from scholars and local residents to public historians. It opened a dialogue around this historical event that might have otherwise not have gotten a lot of reception.
In that way, the importance of film is not only the product, but also in the process itself.
Mira Kohl’s film (made in collaboration with Jack Collins and Joe Hiller) Camp of the Innocents will be playing at 5:00 PM at The Prytania Theatre on Saturday, October 14 for the New Orleans Film Festival. Mira Kohl is a PhD student in Tulane’s History Department. She received an MA in Latin American Studies from Tulane University in 2015 and a BA in Anthropology from Macalester College in 2010. Mira has conducted ethnographic and archival research in Bolivia and Brazil where she studies the politics of citizenship, nation-state formation, and migration in the mid-twentieth century. Before moving to New Orleans in 2013, she worked in immigrant rights advocacy in Boston and taught English in Andalucía, Spain.