“The Empty Chair” documentary to be shown tonight

The Empty Chair Memorial installed at Capital Park in downtown Juneau.

The Empty Chair Memorial installed at Capital Park in downtown Juneau.

The Day of Remembrance, an annual event held on Feb. 19 to preserve the memory of the injustice Japanese-Americans faced when placed in federal detention camps during World War Two, will take place at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library tonight where local filmmaker Greg Chaney’s documentary “The Empty Chair” will be shown.

The film shares the name with the Juneau-Douglas City Museum’s exhibit and the memorial in Capital School Park, which is of an empty chair to represent the one left by the class of 1942 on the graduation platform for their peer John Tanaka.

Chaney, the Lands and Resources manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, heard about the Empty Chair Project when the Project Committee was looking for land for the monument. In a phone interview with the Empire, Chaney said he found the story compelling. He began interviewing people involved in the story to record their perception of the empty chair in 1942 and how the internment of the Japanese-Americans affected Juneau.

“It didn’t take me long to realize this would be a feature documentary,” he said.

“The Empty Chair” is a documentary about how Japanese-Americans from Juneau were sent to federal detention camps, and how Juneau responded to the injustice. John Tanaka, born and raised in Juneau, was the valedictorian for Juneau High School in 1942. Since he was to be interned before the graduation ceremony, the school board voted to hold a special, early graduation ceremony for him. During the official graduation ceremony, the class of 1942 left an empty chair on the platform to acknowledge Tanaka’s absence and underscore the uprooted Japanese-Americans.

Chaney interviewed people in Juneau and even went to Washington to talk to people who used to be in town and were present during the incident of the empty chair and those who remembered the internment of Japanese-Americans.

“Several times when I was interviewing people their children were there,” Chaney said. “They said that the children had never heard the story told.”

Chaney emphasized how important it was to collect, preserve and share this piece of history.

“We are at the twilight of memory,” Chaney said, commenting on how many people who lived during the incident of the empty chair are no longer able to retell the tale because they have either passed away or can’t recall the details due to dementia or other memory problems.

On the creation of the documentary, Chaney said, “there’s no narration, no all-knowing voice.” He used archival footage or people’s own words to tell the story. He said he sometimes took people to places where events occurred and just let people verbally reflect and remember.

From the individual stories, he said he tried to build a coherent narrative. It became “The Empty Chair” documentary that he later showed at the memorial dedication ceremony where people involved in the story watched along with the rest of the audience.

Chaney said he has created three different versions of the film, the original, which he premiered at the memorial dedication ceremony, the abridged version he created for local schools, and the one that is now on sale at the City Museum. The DVD version includes footage of the dedication ceremony and people’s reactions to the film.

The film has been featured in several film festivals, and in conjunction with the Day of Remembrance this year, it will be shown at three different locations on the west coast. Today, the film will be shown in Juneau, as well as Anchorage (in Anchorage, Chaney will be present to discuss the film). On Saturday, Chaney will be present for the Seattle showing along with Mary (Tanaka) Abo who is in the film, while Peter Hikido will be at the Feb. 20 showing in San Francisco.

Additionally, Chaney received an invitation from the Japanese American National Museum to show the film on April 2, which he said was “a big honor.”

Since Chaney will not be present at the Juneau showing, others involved with the film and the memorial project will be present to discuss the film. The showing will be from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.


What: The Day of Remembrance showing of “The Empty Chair” documentary

When: Friday, Feb. 19

Time: 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Where: Mendenhall Valley Library, 3025 Riverside Drive

Can’t make it? Visit The Empty Chair exhibit at the library or see it online here: http://www.juneau.org/parkrec/museum/exhibits/exhibit5/vexmain5.htm.

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