When it was a crime to be Italian

Documentary to explore WWII internment camps

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ZACH BALIVA
Courtesy of Zach Baliva

Zach Baliva's grandmother, who lived to be 102, settled in Springfield after her family immigrated from Italy. She spoke Italian fluently but "didn't pass on the language to my father," said Baliva, who was raised in Chatham and now lives in California. Baliva applied for dual citizenship to reconnect with his roots and he has worked in both Hollywood and Italy.

To recover lost history and Italian heritage, Baliva is making a documentary called Potentially Dangerous. It will be a film about the temporary internment of Italian Americans, during the first half of the 1940s, and the resulting trauma that impacted generations.

Baliva said after World War II, some Italian families who immigrated to the U.S. made the decision "in some cases conscious, in some cases not, to seem ultra-American." Many Italian families asked their children to only speak English and avoided passing down strong Italian values to "blend in" and assimilate after the war, he said. "What I think we lost is the Italian side of being Italian American," said Baliva. "What we are left with are stereotypes."

The filmmaker's experience and difficulties applying for dual citizenship inspired the documentary in the making. Questions surfaced as he applied to to have his Italian citizenship recognized and the process was difficult without knowing the language. Baliva said he wanted to spend time understanding how his family moved to the U.S. and about the town his family had immigrated from, "but you get lost in the paperwork and the signatures," he said.

Baliva revisited the documents he collected while applying for Italian citizenship, and concluded Italian Americans were traumatized by government-sanctioned suspicion as tensions grew between Italy and the U.S. He realized the lasting impact of lost heritage and family history in applying for dual citizenship. "A lot of them (Italian Americans) experienced curfews and evacuations and exclusions and internment without trial," he said.

Baliva and his wife, Naomi, are producing the documentary. Baliva attended Columbia College in Chicago and started his film career with Warner Brothers, working on the set of "ER," the popular hospital drama show that ran from 1994 to 2009. "It was a really big deal and a good place to learn," said Baliva.

Noah Readhead was raised in Taylorville and attended Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. He's a cinematographer with the production. On the set of the film, Readhead is in charge of filming, photography and editing. "I see myself as a storyteller and I think that has lent itself to the documentary," he said. The film will include the account of a 91-year-old man who remembered his home being raided and the U.S. government categorizing his family as "enemy aliens." The family lost their established business as a result.

Most of the Italian Americans Baliva and Readhead have interviewed are in their 80s and 90s. Baliva said there's power in their stories, "especially as it is shared for the first time while we have these people with us."

One woman interviewed for the film remembered her father being interned in the U.S. without trial. "Her earliest memory is of the FBI taking her father at three in the morning," said Baliva. "All she remembers is coming home every day asking when her father was coming home, too." Regardless of the pain and trauma that comes with remembering, many people Baliva and Readhead have interviewed have been eager to tell their stories. "We are losing people every month that were around to experience these events and that can still tell the story," said Baliva.

He wants to include as many in the project as possible "before it's too late." The small film crew of five is applying for grants and has started a fundraising campaign. "It's a passion project," said Baliva. "Everyone's hands are on deck and we have to blur the lines of traditional roles," he said. Potentially Dangerous will be completed by this September and Baliva is working to schedule showings in the fall. More information about the film can be found at https://tinyurl.com/3ah4ktpn.

Contact Madison Angell at mangell@illinoistimes.com.

This story has been updated to change the word "videographer" to "
cinematographer" and to change a sentence about Balilva's grandmother whose family immigrated to the U.S. and who was born in the U.S.  A sentence about Baliva's citizenship was also changed for accuracy.

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