A dark chapter of U.S. history brought to screen

Area filmmakers make documentary exploring plight of Italian Americans during WWII

click to enlarge A dark chapter of U.S. history brought to screen
PHOTO BY SCOTT REEDER
Chatham native Zach Baliva is part of a trio of central Illinois filmmakers who produced Potentially Dangerous, a documentary about how the U.S. government persecuted Italian Americans during WWII.

While much has been written about the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II, the story of how the U.S. government persecuted Italian Americans has largely gone untold.

A trio of central Illinois filmmakers is changing that with the documentary Potentially Dangerous, which tells the story of the internment of Italian Americans as well as other discriminatory governmental actions.

The documentary unveils 80-year-old secrets and shares never-before discussed stories about the Italian American experience during World War II. More than half a million Italian immigrants were labeled as "enemy aliens."

Members of the Japanese-, German- and Italian-American communities were all held without trial during the war. While Japanese Americans bore the brunt of the policy with 120,000 people forcibly relocated to camps, about 250 Italian immigrants were relocated to a facility in Missoula, Montana.

"They were considered to be 'potentially dangerous' to the safety of the United States," said Larry DiStasi, a California writer who has researched the issue. "Now you can see just through simple logic that being 'potentially dangerous' doesn't really mean very much. But that's what they were accused of. Attorneys tried to figure out: What are the charges? And there were no charges. They had not been accused of anything because they hadn't done anything," he said.

Unlike the Japanese, who were incarcerated based solely on their ethnicity, regardless of citizenship status, the Italians held had not yet become U.S. citizens, he said.

While internment was not as common for those of Italian descent, other harsh restrictions were imposed. For example, in certain geographic areas where there were military installations, thousands of people deemed "potentially dangerous" were forced to relocate.

Italian commercial fishermen in the San Francisco area had their boats requisitioned by the U.S. Navy. DiStasi said they had no choice on whether to turn the boats over, and they were paid only a fraction of the value.

The documentary features interviews with a variety of Italian Americans who lived through the harsh wartime restrictions.

"When we started interviewing people, they would say, 'Oh, you need to talk to my friend so and so.' It was 600,000 Italians nationwide who were considered enemy aliens," said Zach Baliva, a Chatham native who is directing the film along with his wife, Naomi Baliva, and Noah Readhead of Taylorville.

Award-winning actor and director John Turturro joined the Russo brothers to executive produce the project. Brothers Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo are among the most commercially successful directors of all time, largely based on their work directing four films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Zach Baliva and Readhead are alumni of the area theater community, having often performed on stage at the Springfield Theatre Centre and Springfield Muni Opera.

The movie recently won Best Documentary at the Ferrara Film Festival in Italy and will have its television broadcast premiere on Public Broadcasting Service member stations next year.

The producers will host a screening at the Hoogland Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. Nov. 14. Tickets are $14 and are available now at the box office and at hcfta.org. The screening is sponsored by The Italian American Podcast and the DelGiorno Law Office.

"Potentially Dangerous is a critically important film shining light on a story that was nearly lost to the ephemera of history. As an Italian American, I'm honored to help bring this film to a wide audience that will discover how the pertinent issues it raises are still applicable today," executive producer Turturro said in a prepared statement.

Springfield-area actors were used to recreate the events described by eyewitnesses and several scenes were shot at the Christian County Historical Society.

"This became a passion project for my team, and our goal now is to help educate others about this forgotten chapter of history. I'm thankful that many people from around Springfield helped us bring it to the screen, and we look forward to sharing the results with the local community," Zach Baliva said.

Potentially Dangerous was produced through a grant from the 2021 Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum. Partnered with the Italian Sons and Daughters of America and the National Italian American Foundation and AGBO studio, the Russo Brothers Film Forum Grant awards multiple $8,000 grants to filmmakers around the world to create films that explore the Italian-American experience.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

About The Author

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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