"Persona Non Grata" and the Legacy of Chiune Sugihara

In the summer of 1940, a Japanese diplomat serving as the Counsul-General in Kaunas, Lithuania, defied his government’s orders and issued more than 2,000 visas to Jewish refugees, enabling them to escape the Holocaust. Often referred to as the “Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara’s act of bravery and humanity led the State of Israel to name him “Righteous Among the Nations” and many others to write books and produce films about his extraordinary life.

The most recent such film is Persona Non Grata, produced by the film division of Nippon Television, and it will have its New York festival premiere as part of the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema. Unlike previous films about Sugihara, Persona Non Grata is a historical drama, not a documentary.

“I can’t speak for Nippon Television, but historical pieces tend to be less dry,” says director Cellin Gluck via Skype on the decision to go the biopic route.

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Director Cellin Gluck. Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador

Gluck was born and raised in Japan. His father, Jay, was Jewish, and his mother, Sumi, was a Nisei (a second-generation Japanese American) who was incarcerated in Rohwer War Relocation Center during WWII. Sumi attended Hunter College in New York after being released from camp, and she eventually became the first foreign exchange student in Japan after the war. Jay followed Sumi to Japan, where he studied tea at the famed Urasenke Center. Gluck’s film credits include director of the Japanese version of Sideways starring Oscar-nominated Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi and screenwriter of Oba: The Last Samurai, working with actor Toshiaki Karasawa.

Gluck first heard about Sugihara’s story ten years ago, when a friend of his wanted to make a movie based on The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II, a book by Mary Swartz and Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, Lifetime Honorary Rabbi for the Jewish Community in Japan. The project didn’t take off, but in 2014 Nippon Television approached both Gluck and Karasawa about a Sugihara film to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Since the film would be shot outside of Japan, Karasawa, who plays our hero, requested the bilingual Gluck to helm Persona Non Grata, and Gluck could not refuse.

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Shot on location in Poland, Persona Non Grata delves deeper into Sugihara’s past, showing us his early days in Manchuria, which led to his eventual post in Lithuania. There are action scenes with intrigue and feats of derring-do, and Nippon Television took some liberties with a few details of Sugihara’s life.

“We can’t claim to say that the specific incidents happened the same way that they happened [on screen] – it is a movie,” says Gluck. “But that doesn’t change the nature of Sugihara’s deed.”

Sugihara’s altruistic actions were brave considering Japan’s alliance with Germany, but Persona Non Grata shows us that he didn’t act alone. Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk (Wenanty Nosul) devised the plan to provide entry to the Dutch colony of Curaçao, but the refugees would need to travel to Japan via Vladivostok first. It would be up to Sugihara to provide transit visas to Japan, but his requests to his government were denied. Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko (Koyuki), served as his moral compass. His driver, Pesh (Borys Szyc), was a Polish military man whose family had been murdered by the Germans, while his secretary, Wolfgang Gudze (Cezary Łukaszewicz), did not hide his disdain for the Jews. Yet they worked tirelessly together to aid Sugihara’s humanitarian effort. Japan wasn’t accepting any refugees, but the diplomats stationed in Vladivostok were also compelled to help the Jews make the passage to Japan, despite being in clear insubordination of their government’s orders.

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Toshiaki Karasawa as Chiune Sugihara and Cezary Łukaszewicz as Wolfgang Gudze in “Persona Non Grata”

Although there hasn’t been a theatrical release in the US, Persona Non Grata has made the festival rounds. Among them, in January 2016 the film was screened at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and in March of that year, it was featured at CineMatsuri in Washington, DC, presented by the Japan-America Society. In New York the film screened at the UN in January of this year as part of its Holocaust remembrance program.

Gluck says that every screening has been well received with a capacity crowd, including a couple of “Sugihara Survivors,” as the recipients of those precious, life-saving visas are called, including Nathan Lewin, an influential attorney who lectures in law at Columbia Law School, and Leo Melamed, a finance pioneer who is universally recognized as the founder of financial futures. Their presence, along with descendants of Sugihara Survivors who attended the screenings, bolsters Gluck’s resolve that Persona Non Grata is an important film.

“Unfortunately the topic of the film is very timely,” says Gluck, referring to the current political climate. “Things like this need to be discussed, and we can’t lose perspective . . . We say in our film that more than 40,000 descendants are alive today [because of Sugihara’s selfless act]. At one screening we met a man who is one of 256 descendants,” proving the impact of Sugihara’s visas has a ripple effect of almost 80 years.

With an unfortunate screening time of 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 9 at Kew Gardens Cinemas in Queens,one can only hope that there will be enough people in the audience to learn about this amazing moment in history.

“We would love to have more screenings in New York,” says Gluck, who adds that the filmmakers are working on getting distribution in the US, as well as online streaming.

For those who can attend the screening in Kew Gardens, the history lesson is well worth the price of admission ($16). What Sugihara did to save the Jews happened 77 years ago, but the morality and humanity behind those actions resonate today.

“Here is a man who, country aside and believing in his core principles, did what he felt was the right thing to do,” says Gluck. “One person can make a difference.”

Persona Non Grata screens at the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema on at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 9 at Kew Gardens Cinema, 81-05 Lefferts Blvd in Kew Gardens, Queens. To purchase tickets, please visit the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema website.