'Stout Hearted': A film on preserving art preserves the preservers
When researching for a new film, Kevin Kelley, an Iowa film director, said the stories stumbled upon along the way are often his most treasured. For his new documentary about George Stout, a fellow Iowan who helped recover and preserve art endangered by World War II, Kelley found himself in an unlikely apartment in Detroit.
Stout was one of the now famous Monuments Men, and consequently to tell the story, Kelley and producer Marie Wilkes spoke with historians, family members and biographers. This path led them to the apartment of 95-year-old Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite.
"Her eyes lit up as we spoke," Kelley said. "She had an energy about her."
Displayed on a table in Fujishiro's room was a Congressional Gold Medal with a Dwight Eisenhower quote in relief: "It is our privilege to pass on to the coming centuries treasures of past ages."
Kelley came to Fujishiro's apartment because she worked for a time for Stout and the Monument Men. But as Kelly found, Fujishiro's story began well before the end of WWII. In her interview, Kelley heard firsthand what a fearful country was capable of.
The damage done by the bombing of Pearl Harbor extended well past the lagoon that day. The mainland did not have to be anywhere near Oahu to have felt the attack, to fear the attacker. It was this fear that led the United States to intern its own citizens.
After the bombing in 1941, life became difficult for Fujishiro. She was 14 at the time, born in Boston. Her father, a first generation Japanese immigrant to the U.S., ran a dental practice there in the city.
Fujishiro told Kelley that life became more difficult after the war broke out, as concerns about spying and national security were used to rationalize racist suspicion against Japanese nationals. Stores refused service. Fujishiro's father began to lose clients.
Both of her parents were Japanese citizens. And on June 18, 1942, her family decided to take refuge in Japan. Her father, who stayed behind, was arrested by the FBI and sent to an internment camp.
Meanwhile, Fujishiro survived the terror of Allied bombings in Tokyo, the food scarcity of a city under siege. And when Japan surrendered and the United States occupation began, Fujishiro got a job as a clerk working for the Civil Information and Education Section under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. She was part of the organizational effort to prevent looters and American soldiers from stealing art. It was for this work that she received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.
"I was watching her through the lens of my camera and she was telling her story," Kelley said. "And I was thinking these are the kinds of things when you make documentaries that make them more powerful."
Even if it seems circuitous, the context Fujishiro offers to Stout's story, for Kelley, informs the work that his protagonist George Stout was doing to protect art in Japan.
"I didn't think we would go into the (United States') concentration camps, but when I first started researching George Stout, I learned about Motoko and it's a part of this story," Kelley said. "There was a tremendous amount of fear after the surrender about what would happen to the art in Japan."
What began as an interesting wrinkle helped fill out the story, and echoed for Kelley a phenomenon he is seeing today.
"Today there is a lot of fear," Kelley said. "What I love about history is the parallels you can see with the country today. You can see what they were doing."
Kelley's documentary Stout Hearted: George Stout and the Guardians of Art will have its Iowa City premiere at 7 p.m. April 5 at FilmScene downtown. The screening will begin with a Q&A with Kevin Kelley, the director; Marie Wilkes, the producer; Jim Leach, a former congressman; Giselle Simón, a conservator with the University of Iowa Libraries; and members of the Stout family. A reception will follow at MERGE. Tickets can be pre-purchased at icfilmscene.org or at the box office.
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Zachary Oren Smith writes about government, growth and development for the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7354, and follow him on Twitter @zacharyos.
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