This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Sonny Izon’s ground-breaking documentary, “An Untold Triumph: The Story of the 1st & 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments, US Army.” A highlight of June’s focus on Filipino American stories “Triumph” reveals the hidden history of the 7,000 Filipino Americans who volunteered for the US Army during WWII, to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation. Through the voices of surviving veterans, less than half of whom are alive today, the film delivers touching personal accounts of the men’s contributions and sacrifices during the war. A film which has had enormous impact, and which recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its release, “Triumph” brings an important chapter of American history to light, and explores the complex position of the veterans: despite the fact that they endured a bleak, racist prewar climate and were not even considered U.S. citizens, these individuals rallied to join the war effort and cement their rightful place in American history.
Izon sat down to answer a few questions about the making of “An Untold Triumph.”
An Untold Triumph tells a side of American history that is often not taught in classrooms or part of popular knowledge. What drew you to exploring the experiences of Filipino American soldiers during WWII?
SI: I was born in 1946 a year after the Battle for Manila. I grew up amidst the rubble of war and abandoned US Army materiel. When my friends and I played war, it was with real trucks, real tanks and real radios. Fortunately for us, the Army had the foresight to remove most of the guns and rifles, although we found plenty of bullets. I remember feeling frustrated that something big had happened just before I got there. Later, this boyhood frustration evolved into a full-blown obsession with World War II. I wanted to know what happened. But, more important, I wanted to discover if there were any stories which still remained untold.
Fifty years later in 1995, I got my first opportunity to become part of the story. Members of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment asked me to help document their unique regiment and the missions they executed in the Philippines during WWII. In 2002, An Untold Triumph premiered at the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Three years later, it premiered on PBS prime time reaching an initial audience of over two million and continues to air to this day. What started as a single program soon gave birth to another.
In 2007, a friend approached me about making a film on the unknown story of African American soldiers who went to Britain in preparation for D Day. Two years later, Choc’late Soldiers from the USA premiered at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden as a work in progress to a standing room only audience. It recently premiered at the 2013 GI Film Festival is currently being marketed for US and foreign distribution.
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You have a long history in documentary production, with many films which have appeared on both PBS and National Geographic Television. There is an enormous range of topics you’ve covered, from the Everglades to the first PBS series on Asian Americans, “Pearls”. What draws you to a story?
SI: First and foremost, I think the fact of being a first generation immigrant has had an enormous impact on why I make the films that I do. I immigrated from the Philippines to the US in 1967. I was twenty years old. Having come from the majority culture in the Philippines, I was ill-prepared to deal with the sudden invisibility that confronted me in America. My face, my image, my voice was nowhere to be found. It was as if I and my kind did not exist except in the stereotypical images of cooks, drivers or kung fu masters. Having grown up with a father who ran a weekly news magazine, I had some inkling of the power of mass media. When I got an opportunity to join the staff of a television station, I grabbed it and I have not looked back since. I quickly realized that I could help fill in the missing pieces of our history, make us visible to the rest of America and the world by producing films which dealt with the forgotten or neglected aspects of our history and culture. And when I saw the ability of television to reach millions of people in one night, I was forever hooked. From the very beginning, my body of work has dealt with issues of equality and social justice: whether it’s the history of Asians in America, or Black participation during the American revolution or the art of Chinese opera or Navaho sand paintings, the themes remain the same. I am drawn to stories which have never been told before and which expand and enrich our understanding of ourselves and the people around us.
An Untold Triumph was released in 2002 and has had screenings across the country, in film festivals, classrooms and on television. You led a very engaged outreach campaign to build audiences for the film, particularly in the Filipino American community – how would you assess the impact of the film a decade later?
SI: Between 2002 and 2005, we crisscrossed the country traveling to film festivals, colleges and universities, community events and galas. We won nearly a dozen awards and were able to show the film to thousands of people and engage them in conversation about the film. The film is still a perennial favorite during Bataan Day, Memorial Day, Philippine Independence Day, Filipino History Month and Veterans Day. It continues to have a major impact and is still the only nationally broadcast film about this subject. It is in the collection of many major universities and educational institutions.
What are you working on now?
SI: While on a visit to the Philippines in 2008, I found out about a story so important and yet so unknown that I was immediately intrigued. It was the story of the rescue of Holocaust Jews in the Philippines. Little did I know that I was to have such a personal connection to it. In 1935, when the anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws were passed in Germany, Manuel L Quezon was elected the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth. His influence on Philippine immigration policy saved the lives of 1,305 Jewish refugees.
Two of these Jews are vital to why I am here today and who I have become. The first was a very talented doctor named Otto Zelezny. When he could no longer practice medicine in Berlin due to the ban on Jewish doctors, he was one of twelve doctors who were able to find safe haven in the Philippines. In 1945, when my father was deathly ill, he found his way to my father’s hospital bed and saved his life. I was born the following year.
Ten years later, when I was in the 5th grade, a European conductor came to my school and brought the entire Manila Symphony Orchestra with him. The experience is etched is my mind because it was the first time that an adult spoke to me as an equal. He patiently explained the construction of an orchestra – the various sections of it, how one instrument might start a melody and another might pick it up in a different register and so on. I was hooked. So much so that in two years, I was playing in a band and continue to do so to this day. That man was Dr. Herbert Zipper. A Philippine visa saved him from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I never got a chance to thank these two men – one who made my life possible and the other who gave me my lifelong love for music. My next film “An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines” is dedicated to them and the other Jewish refugees who brought their skills and talent to the Philippines and accomplished so much including the saving of lives.
My trilogy of WWII stories are pieces of a much larger tapestry. In weaving them together, I hope to add and hopefully complete some of the missing threads of this historical fabric. But no matter how numerous the stories of WWII, the warp and weft remain the same – at the core of each story are the twin values of courage and compassion. As long as we have ignorance, as long as we have prejudice, as long as we have genocide, these stories will remain relevant and timeless because the values of courage and compassion are timeless.
I hope that these stories will inform future generations and inspire them to make the righteous decision when their time of trial comes.