Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The scene is set in downtown Los Angeles, California. It is December 7, 1941. The camera focuses on a dial radio, broadcasting the attack of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire, reporting that many American lives were lost. A young Japanese couple sit at a dimly lit dining room table as the disc jockey pipes upbeat jazz music through the speakers and the country awaits a statement from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The wife holds a swaddled baby to her shoulder while her husband steeps his tea when there’s a sharp knock at the door.
The husband peers through the curtains to find two men dressed in dark suits and fedoras, their faces solemn. “Sir, you’ll need to come with us,” says the man in a black fedora.
“What’s this about?” The husband inquires. The men grab him roughly by the arm and lead him away without a response.
“Where are you taking him?” His wife calls after them, still cradling the baby, as the scene fades to black.
Four months later, African American journalist Robert Parker opens The Daily LA newspaper to the headline: “Japanese Civilians Arrested Hours After Pearl Harbor Attack.”
Parker closes the newspaper and begins typing on his typewriter as the camera pulls away, revealing newspaper clippings from across the country hanging on the wall, all declaring war with Japan.
The dramatic scene is a glimpse into Kiyoka “Kex” Rhodes’s new film “Desolate Dreams,” which resumes after a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The short drama will follow Robert Parker (played by Deon Tillman) as he advocates for justice alongside his Japanese American friend Kazu Sakamoto (played by Brent Yoshida), who is forced into a prison camp with his family after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which sent nearly 120,000 people of primarily Japanese ancestry to concentration camps across the United States.
Rhodes, an Emmy-nominated and award-winning filmmaker, writer and producer, was inspired to make this film during the summer of 2019 when she and her sister took their Japanese mother to see a traveling exhibit called “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Through documents and personal stories, the exhibit shared the history of Japanese people who, for two-and-a-half years, were displaced from their homes and crowded together in hastily built camps, under persistent watch by military guards, showing the complexity of wartime life for Japanese Americans — when Japanese American men went to war, risking their lives to fight for the same country that unjustly imprisoned their families and friends.
Rhodes was moved by the stories of the incarcerated citizens but was particularly touched by the story of the Shishimas, a family who owned a small grocery store called Mercado Plaza in a neighborhood known as La Plaza or la placita, the birthplace of Los Angeles. Over time, the multiracial population of La Plaza consisted of Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican American residents who all worked and lived alongside one another. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Shishima family, like many other Japanese Americans, were involuntarily relocated to a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, losing their business, home and most of their possessions.
“It was there, at that exhibit, where ‘Desolate Dreams’ began,” says Rhodes. “I felt I needed to do a film to raise awareness about this important part of history and pay homage to the Japanese Americans and their families who were incarcerated.” She began to dig deeper into the Shishima family history and eventually spoke with Bill Shishima, who shared his family’s journey to the prison camps.
The film is inspired by the Shishimas story, but with an added personal connection to weave Rhodes’s upbringing into the plot. Rhodes, who describes herself as a “‘hafu’ biracial blasian,” is a west coaster turned east coaster, born in San Diego, California, but raised in the “D-M-V”— the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.
“At a young age, I learned that society and the rest of the world sees me as a Black person or Black and ‘something else,” says Rhodes, who’s often asked if she’s Hawaiian, Brazilian, or even Portuguese. “However,” adds Rhodes, “I was blessed to have parents that raised my sister and I to embrace both sides of our culture equally and be proud of who we are. I am half Japanese American just as much as I am half African American. I was raised to see color, love every shade and to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Being mixed has shaped me into being a person that loves connecting with people from different backgrounds, learning about their culture and bringing unity.”
As “Desolate Dreams” began to take shape, Rhodes’s research led her to the story of journalist John Kinloch, who was dedicated to educating The California Eagle readers about the problems confronting Japanese Americans and encouraging African Americans to advocate for other communities of color. Kinloch’s advocacy inspired Rhodes to create the lead character of Robert Parker.
While Rhodes says although she’s not a historian, she ran into “little sparks of information,” which she gathered to develop the narrative and screenplay for “Desolate Dreams.”
“While some voices try to put the Asian and African American communities against each other, there is history of shared solidarity that deserves to be told,” says Rhodes, who emphasizes the importance of showcasing the two cultures standing alongside in solidarity, especially with rise of Asian hate crimes and police brutality that has been ongoing for the past several decades.
After the pandemic forced the film into a two-year hiatus, “Desolate Dreams” is resuming production and is actively seeking financial contributors and sponsors. Funds will go towards period-accurate costumes, locations, props, transportation, meals, lodging, payment for the cast and crew. Principal photography will take place primarily in historic towns of Virginia, with exteriors potentially in Los Angeles and Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
While fundraising has been the film’s biggest roadblock, “Desolate Dreams” continued production by attaching the main talent to the production. In the summer of 2022, auditions were held in New York and Los Angeles and principal roles were cast. Filming hopes to commence this year.
“I am honored to work with Kiyoka and be part of the ‘Desolate Dreams’ story,” says Tillman, who will portray the role of the journalist Robert Parker. “I feel it is important to tell these types of stories and make people reflect on what this country has been through.”
Actor Brent Yoshida, who will play Kazu Sakamoto, has personal ties to his character. Yoshida’s grandparents and multiple family members were incarcerated in prison camps and his great uncle Alan Nishio was the founder and co-chair of the National Coalition of Redress/Reparations, an organization that played a significant role in the redress campaign for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Japanese native Noriko Sato will play Momoko Sakamoto and is excited to tell a story with such historical significance.
Rhodes’s aim for all her projects are to use film to tell stories with purpose and to make an impact. After graduating from film school at the American University in Washington, D.C., with a minor in graphic design studies, Rhodes built an extensive resume in writing, producing and directing commercials, branded content and films for multi-screen platforms. In 2019, Rhodes launched Kex Studios, her production company that provides film, video, branded content and graphics design services. She has produced and directed with networks such as The CW Network, Comcast Spotlight, BBC Studios and online with 60 Second Docs. Her work has featured Denzel Washington, Mandy Moore, Don Cheadle, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. In 2019, Rhodes received a regional Emmy nomination for a suicide/substance abuse prevention PSA campaign titled “BTheOne.” Her comedy short “Donut Give Up!” was a 2021 Official Selection at the Oscar-qualifying film festival HollyShorty Monthly Screenings as well as DC Black Film Festival and Awesome Con. Her short film “Xosphere” was a 2017 winner at Rosebud Film Festival. After receiving several awards and recognitions, her domestic violence awareness short film “Tunnel Vision” ended its festival run at the 2017 Global Impact Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
Rhodes hopes to continue her impact with “Desolate Dreams” by telling the story of Japanese American incarceration through a Japanese and African American lens while not only honoring but also learning from history.
Throughout her research for the film, Rhodes was able to speak with many surviving Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. “All of them have voiced they have been waiting to see a film like ‘Desolate Dreams’ that raises awareness about their incarceration and that it never happens again.”
To help make “Desolate Dreams” a reality, readers can contribute by donating online at desolatedreamsfilm.com through Venmo, CashApp, PayPal, by check or sponsoring the film. Sponsors at various levels will receive incentives ranging from special thanks in film credits, tickets to the movie premiere, signed movie posters and logo displays. The sponsorship tiers available are:
-The Little Tokyo Package, $50
-The Justice Package, $150
-The Dream Package, $350
-Little Tokyo Package, Deluxe, $1,000
-Justice Package, Deluxe, $2,500
-Dream Package, Deluxe, $5,000
For more information about sponsorship and to watch the portrayal of “Desolate Dreams” opening scene, please visit desolatedreamsfilm.com. Follow the film’s journey and share its progress by going to the social media accounts: Instagram: @desolatedreamsfilm; Twitter: @desolatefilm; and Facebook: Facebook.com/desolatedreamsfilm. For more information about Kiyoka “Kex” Rhodes’s projects, please visit kexstudios.com and kiyokarhodes.com.