“Potentially Dangerous” is a feature-length documentary on the untold story of Italian immigrants interned and persecuted as America’s “Enemy Aliens” During World War II. It was produced through a grant from the National Italian American Foundation, the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, AGBO, and Hollywood directors Joe and Anthony Russo. “Potentially Dangerous” won the 2021 Russo Brothers Film Forum.
Director and producer Zach Baliva started his career working for the writers and producers of the hit TV show ER. He left to produce “My Name is Jerry”, the feature film that gave Steven Yeun (Minari) his first on-screen role. Baliva traces his roots to Italy’s Abruzzo region and has lived and worked in Rome and Venice. Works of art in general, and documentaries in particular, often spring from some deep sentiment or attachment that bubbles up and demands to be expressed, and I was curious about what had led Zach to create a documentary about such painful events from a past long gone. That proved to be a point of departure for a stimulating conversation about history, the history of Italian Americans in the US, and the journey to find our roots.
What led you to make this video after such a long time from the events?
“When I obtained my dual citizenship in Italy, I realized that I had little connection to my ancestors’ homeland, and I wondered why. Then I discovered the reason – Italians in America were persecuted during World War II, not for anything they had actually done, but only for who they were and where they were from. The trauma led many of them to hide their language, culture and customs. “Potentially Dangerous” reveals the untold story of what happened to Italians in America during WWII and examines the lasting effects of these events. This story has modern-day implications and can help us learn to treat others with empathy and understanding.”
How were the Russo brothers and NIAF involved?
“I was aware of the Russo Brothers Film Forum from NIAF, and was looking for an important Italian American story as the deadline approached. That’s when I found out that Italians in America were persecuted as enemy aliens during WWII and started looking into it more. Like many people I’ve since met, I was surprised because I had never heard of these events before. I found out early on in my research that Italians were actually detained at Ellis Island, and that’s one of the moments when I knew I wanted to tell this story. I had family members who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, which was a beacon of hope for them and later a symbol of pride for my family. Learning that it was later used as a detention center based only on wartime hysteria and suspicion was an interesting juxtaposition to explore.”
How personal is it for you?
“My dad’s side of the family is Italian and I’m a dual citizen. I’ve lived and worked in Rome and Italy and have spent many years learning the language because it wasn’t handed down to me. I’ve learned thorough making this film that these events accelerated the loss of culture as Italians tried to ‘blend in’ and forfeit some of what made them Italian to seem more American. I think these events damaged the expression of our culture in America in some ways, and we’re left with a more stereotypical caricature of what it means to be an Italian American.”
How did the Italian American experience differ from that of the Japanese who were also interned as potentially dangerous?
“The Japanese experience is of course much more well known because of the numbers and other factors. Many more Japanese were interned, and whole families were held. For Italians, the numbers were smaller and usually only men were detained and interned. Many of the harshest penalties happened along the west coast and in other parts of the country near military installations. Still, it’s important to note that broad restrictions and the enemy alien status applied to about 600,000 Italians in America regardless of location. While it’s important to recognize the deep suffering of the Japanese community, we can say that both groups were persecuted by the government they were loyal to and by the country they had chosen to make their home, in many cases for decades.”
What was the total number of interned Italian Americans in the US and the places they were from?
“There are many different legal definitions that make this question difficult to answer, and these events were never studied, quantified, or even acknowledged by our government in any way until the department of justice issued a report in 2001. That report says that over ‘10,000 Italian Americans on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes and prohibited from entering coastal zones’ and ‘more than 50,000 were subjected to curfews.’ We know that hundreds of thousands had to carry ID cards and had flashlights, radios, maps, and other personal property seized. The report lists 418 Italian men who were actually interned. Many more were held and detained without an official order of internment. These were people of Italian ancestry who were living in the United States but had not yet, for various reasons which we explore in the film, completed the naturalization process. Many were married to American citizens, had children serving in the U.S. army, had started the naturalization process, and/or had lived in the country for years and even decades.”
In some cases, as for Scudero’s mother, families were broken apart because only one of the parents wasn’t an American citizen. Tell us more.
“First, it’s important to recognize Rose Scudero and the many dedicated people like her who have tried to get this story out there for many years. We’re grateful for the people in and around Pittsburg, California, where Rose’s family was part of a mass evacuation of people from an Italian community near a major military zone. Many of these stories were first uncovered by Larry Di Stasi who has written extensively on this topic.
Rose was 12 when her mother received a letter stating she had to leave the family home in Pittsburg because she had not become a U.S. citizen. Rose’s father, a U.S. citizen, was employed in the shipyards building ships for the U.S. government. She had many older siblings, but since Rose was a minor, she was forced to leave the home and be with her mother. She left her junior high friends behind and moved 19 miles away with her mom. Almost 2,000 people were evacuated from that town, and there is a striking picture in the documentary of some of their faces in photos like mug shots, and you can see that most of these are elderly people who clearly posed no threat to the United States.”
The premise of “Potentially Dangerous” is crucial: that it was impossible for those targeted for internment to prove their loyalty and innocence. Was that a bad-faith ploy of the American government simply to punish nationals of the enemy?
“It can be easy to think that some of these actions were justified because we were at war, but none of these people had committed a crime, yet they were targeted simply for where they were born. For where they were from. From what they ‘might’ do based on those factors alone. They were persecuted, detained, and in some cases interned, yet they were never accused of a crime and they could be informed upon by anyone without being told what they were suspected of. The U.S. government has recognized that none of these measures, like internment, ever uncovered even one threat or planned act of sabotage by any of the individuals affected.”
In the documentary there is a clear implication that the Italian concept of citizenship is/was radically different from the American. Tell us more.
“This is another interesting concept I wish we had more time to explore, but Luca Signore explains how the way the two countries view citizenship affected these events, because Italians weren’t rushing to become naturalized American citizens. Some people have also explained or argued that 100 years ago, it wasn’t understood as something one needed to do immediately upon arrival. Many of these Italians moved to dense Italian cities like Pittsburg, California, where they had everything they needed (in Italian) and they didn’t have either the means, transportation, or language skills to complete the process.
Italians view citizenship as handed down through heritage, not birthplace [ndr: jure sanguinis vs jus soli]. The U.S. has automatic birthright citizenship but the children of foreigners born in Italy are not automatically Italian citizens. I think many Italians therefore viewed their original Italian citizenship as an inherent part of them that couldn’t be changed through paperwork.”
You included a heartbreaking letter from Louis Joseph Sdraulig who tries and fails to understand how he has fallen short of American standards of loyalty and civic duty. Can you tell us more?
“We don’t know much about Sdraulig, but we have a letter he wrote during his appeal process and you’re right that it’s heartbreaking. He clearly doesn’t understand why he is being accused of something or what he is suspected of doing wrong. The process creates a lot of self-doubt and he ends up blaming himself, basically saying that if the government has imprisoned him, they must be aware of something evil inside of him that he is unable to see.”
“The American dream came to a screeching halt all because? They were Italians. And they were not citizens.” How similar were those events to things going on today, for example, at the Mexican border?
“We purposely chose to leave this question open-ended but I think there are clear implications for the modern-day discussion about immigration, justice, and empathy.”
Was making this documentary cathartic?
“This became a passion project for many reasons. Most of the people we interviewed have never been able to tell their stories on video before. These events happened 80 years ago, and they’re not going to be with us forever. We need to tell this story while we still can, and it’s important that we raise awareness for these forgotten events and do our part to preserve this story for future generations. That’s why we’re so grateful for historians like Larry di Stasi, those we interviewed, and all the groups affiliated with NIAF like AGBO, the Russo Brothers, and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. This film never would have been possible without their participation and support.
We’re currently entering many film festivals in the US and Italy and also working hard to finalize broadcast and distribution deals to bring “Potentially Dangerous” to a wide audience. I am also booking community, educational, and corporate screenings.
Email email@example.com for booking info.
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Russo Brothers NIAF link: https://www.niaf.org/programs/russo-bros-film-forum/