What begins as a straightforward docu on an elderly homeless artist in New York City winds up as an indictment of U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII in Linda Hattendorf’s startlingly timely “The Cats of Mirikitani.” A quiet little man of Japanese descent, Jimmy Mirikitani sits under the awning of a Korean grocery store drawing cats. But post-9/11, helmer Hattendorf takes Jimmy home, discovering more about him as reports on racist attacks against Muslims in the U.S. raise frightening specters of his past. Always surprising docu makes excellent use of its many serendipidities and should find shelter on cable.
Cats are not the only thing Mirikitani draws. He also draws myriad renditions of the bleak, barbed wire-surrounded barracks of the Tule Lake, Calif., internment camp where he was imprisoned. Pieced together from Jimmy’s bitter memories, a handful of faded photographs and Hattendorf’s Internet-illustrated research, a grim vision of the unhealthy conditions at the camp emerges as internees are routinely coerced into renouncing their American citizenship while their homes, assets and sources of livelihood are confiscated.
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Background coverage of the sometimes racist aftermath of 9/11 provides contemporary counterpoint to the 50-year-old injustices caused by ethnic paranoia.
Meanwhile, in the filmmaker’s apartment, another scenario plays out, one which curiously recalls the Polish black comedy biopic “My Nikifor” wherein a diminutive elderly folk painter slowly takes over the home and commandeers the career of the young artist who befriends him. Hattendorf’s attempts to find alternate housing and funding for her not-so-temporary guest are met with Jimmy’s polite but adamant refusals.
Soon Hattendorf’s days are spent phoning Social Security, visiting various senior citizen advocacy groups, and writing letters to a well-known San Francisco poetess named Janice Mirikitani, while Jimmy demands more paint supplies.
A joint pilgrimage with other ex-internees to the Tule Lake camp, not unlike those trips taken by Auschwitz survivors, proves remarkably therapeutic, as does a reunion with family members long since given up for dead and new relatives.
Tech credits are OK, the intensity of the links between the paintings, the photographs, the television footage and ongoing everyday details supplying the video imagery with a variegated texture and satisfying tension.