Monday, March 02, 2015

Documenting the March 11 disaster: four years on

It is hard to believe that the 4th Anniversary of the March 11 disaster, known here in Japan simply as "3.11", is approaching.

4th anniversary screenings of 'A2-B-C'

Over the next week and a half leading up to the anniversary, there are several international screenings of my documentary 'A2-B-C'  (website ENGLISH/ 日本語), including:
  • Germany in Arnoldshain (March 3) and Dortmund (March 11)
  • USA in San Diego (March 8), Kailua Kona (March 10) and U. of Hawai’i (March 11)
  • Canada in Vancouver (March 11)
  • New Zealand in Otago (March 13)
full list and links HERE
There are also domestic screenings of 'A2-B-C' being held all over Japan (国内上映スケージュルここ).  Yesterday was the first of these screenings, and it was not without controversy: I had to make the decision to cancel what would have been the first public screening of the film in Fukushima City just days before the event was to take place (story below).

Documenting 3.11: the first ten days

My journey documenting 3.11 started with the first entry I wrote (HERE) and a short documentary I filmed about panic buying in Tokyo a couple of days after the disaster (story HERE).  This was followed by several short documentaries posted in quick succession.  A compilation VIDEO of all of these early short documentaries that I edited together and posted for the 2nd anniversary is below, and the accompanying guest blog published by Discovery News is HERE.  The full collection of my early short documentaries about the disaster is HERE and all of the guest blogs I wrote for Discovery News can be found HERE.

3.11 changed the lives of so many people, including my own:

Documenting 3.11: One month later
After reading a newspaper article describing the government's plan to re-open schools near the zone 20-30km from the nuclear power plant just one month after the nuclear disaster, I traveled to Fukushima with friend and cameraman Colin O'Neill.  We documented the children living there, and soon after we returned to Tokyo we posted a four part "making of" documentary, beginning with this Video (part 1 below, all 4 parts HERE)

This would become my first feature documentary about the disaster, 'In the Grey Zone' (TRAILER below and website HERE):

Documenting 3.11: Six months later
Six months later while editing 'In the Grey Zone' in Japan with friend and colleague Ed Ison, Colin and I traveled back to Minamisoma City in Fukushima where we filmed an update that we posted in three parts (Part 1 story HERE and VIDEO below, stories about Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE, with all three VIDEOS HERE).

Documenting 3.11: One year later

For the 1st Anniversary of the disaster in March 2012, I filmed a three-part update about the children living in the 20-30km zone which I posted to my channel (Story Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE, VIDEO part one below, all three videos HERE):

Documenting 3.11: Fifteen months later

A couple of months later, I returned to Fukushima, this time with friend and cameraman Koji Fujita, and in the summer of 2012 I posted two short films about the continuing nuclear disaster.  The first of these was 'Nuclear Refugees: the people of Iitate Village, one year later' (story HERE and VIDEO below):

The second short documentary I posted that summer was 'In Containment', a five-part series that documented some shocking revelations about life in Fukushima after the disaster and found me entering the no-go zone for the first time (VIDEO for Part 3 below and those for Parts 2, 3 and 4 HERE).  During the filming and editing of 'In Containment', I realized I was uncovering a story much larger story than just an "update", and that I had in fact started making a new film.  Parts 1 and 5 would eventually form the beginning of my second feature documentary about the Fukushima disaster, 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語).

Documenting 3.11: The children in Fukushima

I continued filming throughout the autumn of 2012 and early winter of 2013, focusing on the children and families living in Fukushima.  Posting the trailer in February of 2013 (TRAILER below), it was serendipitous that the last day of editing I did on the film before handing it off to Ed and Colin back in the UK to finish the post-production was on March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the disaster (STORY).

Documenting 3.11: The story continues

In between the continuing international and domestic screenings of 'A2-B-C', I am currently filming the follow-up to 'A2-B-C', in what will be the third film in my series about Fukushima.  Thank you all so very much for your continued support and encouragement.


First public screening of 'A2-B-C' in Fukushima City cancelled

Although the first public screening of 'A2-B-C' in Fukushima City was scheduled for yesterday, after careful consideration, I made the decision to cancel the screening late last week (「A2-B-C」の福島上映が已む無き事情により、中止となりました。ここ).  There were many factors that impacted my decision to cancel the screening on such short notice, and these included my feeling that the film could be shown safely and freely in Fukushima while both protecting the people in the film and those in attendance at the screening.  The fact that it was general consensus among the team and the screening organizers that this film about Fukushima could not be screened in Fukushima at this time says more about the current problems in Fukushima than the film itself.  Silence speaks louder than words.

The event in Fukushima, arranged by Watanabe Kazumi from NPO Mommy's Tummy (who has organized screenings of the film before like THESE ones in Kyushu), still took place.  A film about Chernobyl was screened in place of 'A2-B-C', and this was followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Konta (GP) and Dr. Kobayashi (psychiatrist) with whom I have been filming and presenting occasionally over the last year (STORY).

Yesterday's event began with me apologizing for the sudden change of program and accepting responsibility for the cancellation.  Not knowing what kind of situation I would be walking into, I had felt sick to my stomach all morning.  Interestingly, no one seemed surprised that the film could not be shown, and I felt something that seemed like relief in the room when the announcement was made.  Or was that just me...

After the event in Fukushima, we all headed for the city of Sendai, the epicenter of the 3.11 earthquake, where 'A2-B-C' was screened so successfully that after the stress of having to cancel the screening in Fukushima it was almost surreal.

One of the scariest parts of the current situation in Fukushima is a thickening atmosphere of not being able to speak out, or share one's thoughts, or have a healthy debate.  Self-censorship is endemic.  And silence, like radiation, can be an invisible killer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Talking film

Last night I spoke at the Japan Visual-media Translation Academy (JVTA website HERE) about making documentaries in Japan.  The event (TRAILER and posters below) was aimed at students of subtitling, but was open to the public.

I first met Mr. Ishii and several of the Japan-based JVTA staff at the 2013 Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival in Germany, where JVTA sponsors the Nippon Visions Award.  I received the award that year for my film 'A2-B-C' (STORY), and the rest, as they say, is history.

The talk last night was moderated by Mr. Ishii, who had spent a lot of time watching my films so that he could share clips and guide the conversation.  It was really fascinating for me to see how someone views the entire body of my work and to hear about the connections they draw between the different films (websites and trailers HERE).

It was a great honour to have so many students, colleagues, and even a few friends present and engaged in the work that I do. 

The next time I will be meeting Mr. Ishii and the JVTA staff will be not in Tokyo, but in Germany at the 2015 Nippon Connection Film Festival, where the German premier of my new film '-1287' (WEBSITE) will take place (more info on that soon!).  I am so grateful for their continued support and look forward to our future collaborations.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Choosing the Edge

As the 4th anniversary of the March 11th disaster approaches, screenings of my documentary 'A2-B-C' continue.  On Thursday morning in Japan (Wednesday evening in the US), I joined the screening of the film held during the 2015 Global Film Festival held at William and Mary College, Virginia, USA (INFO).  This year's theme was "Film and Renewal" (INFO).

Photo by friend and filmmaker Adrian Storey (WEBSITE)
On Thursday and Friday, the final classes for the course I am teaching at the University of Tokyo were held (INFO).  Part theory and part filmmaking, the students' final film projects were screened at a mini film festival on Friday evening before their peers and a panel of three international film and media specialists.  I was extremely proud of the students' achievements and grateful for all that I learned through the opportunity to teach on this course.

The Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo
I brought my students' final papers with me to the airport on Saturday morning so that I could read them on the plane as I was off again for more screenings, this time in Shimane Prefecture.  'A2-B-C' was screened in two cities, Ota and Hamada.

After the first screening in Ota, I joined filmmaker and event host, Mr. Hanada, who has also filmed extensively in Fukushima, on stage for a discussion about our work and a Q&A with the audience.  I have written here many times before about how I really prefer to be close to the audience rather than onstage, and as soon as we sat down I knew it was not going to be a good discussion if we remained there.  Asking Mr. Hanada if we could join the audience, I headed for the stairs.  Perhaps both he and the audience thought I was going to remain at the base of the stage, but I there was a perfect place to stand right, an aisle in front of the first row where there were people sitting, and so there was some nervous laughter when I stood so close to the audience.

It turned out to be one of the best Q&A's I have done in Japan.

Moving on to the city of Hamada, the screening was followed by a panel discussion led by Mr. Hamada with Dr. Kanda, from the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health in the Faculty of Medicine at Shimane University, and Ms. Kajitani, who evacuated to Shimane with her children following the nuclear disaster.

Although the discussion was extremely interesting and informative, it was also slightly staid, and when it came time for the Q&A, I jumped up from my chair and made a beeline for the edge of the stage.  In this life when I am given the choice of the comfort and relative safety of an office chair or a cold, hard edge, I always seem to be choosing the edge...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Swords Into Ploughshares

Sitting next to where I sleep is a small statue depicting a verse from Isaiah that my father gave to me at Christmastime.
And they will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war. HERE
Fashioned out of recycled material taken from decommissioned nuclear warheads, the statue not only depicts the breaking of a sword about to be turned into a ploughshare, but is itself an example of such a re-purposing: an instrument of war transformed into a message-giving piece of art.

Rising tensions in the Middle East are entangling more countries, most recently Japan with the release of videos depicting the killing of two Japanese citizens who were being held by ISIS.  While the murder of these two men (and so many countless others) is terrible and shocking, the reaction of Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe only served to increase the shock of so many peace-loving people in this nation: Abe vowed revenge* and then appeared to be using these killings as justification to continue his attempt to amend Japan's pacifist constitution. **

Yesterday, a Peace Rally was held to remember Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, the two men killed by ISIS, and it should be noted that it was a Peace Rally that took place and not a demonstration.  At the Peace Rally, a friend of the humanitarian and journalist Goto-san was quoted as saying: “I think the onus is on us all to keep his wishes for peace alive".***

ISIS uses killings as a weapon to draw more countries into the conflict.  By vowing revenge, Prime Minister Abe plays directly into the hands of ISIS succeeding only in further involving Japan in a war that it can never win.  But I believe that Goto-san would never have wanted that, that he would have asked for his own killing to be transformed into a renewed call for Peace.  And that is what the attendees at yesterday's Peace Rally have done: Swords into Ploughshares.

* "Departing From Japan’s Pacifism, Shinzo Abe Vows Revenge for Killings" by Martin Fackler (Feb 1, NYT) HERE

** "Abe Is Said to Have Plans to Revise Pacifist Charter" by Martin Fackler (Feb 5, NYT) HERE

*** "Goto, Yukawa mourned in spontaneous gatherings nationwide" by Yoshiaki Miura (Feb 9, Japan Times) HERE

Monday, February 02, 2015

Family, Love and Health. And Red Wine!

The inaugural Snowtown Film Festival (WEBSITE) took place this past weekend in my hometown of Watertown, NY, and it was an honour to have my short documentary "Even the Birds Need to be Loved" screened in the short films strand (INFO). 

It was an additional honour to receive a Filmmaker's Award, and although I was not able to make the trip from Japan to be in attendance at the festival, my longtime friend (and former boss!) Rebecca, read out my statement:
Although I am not able to be at the inaugural Snowtown Film Festival in person as I am in Japan, I am there with you in spirit.  I was born in Watertown, and although we moved around a lot when I was child, I returned as a teenager where I graduated from Watertown High School.

Watertown is where I had so many “firsts”, the experiences in my youth that helped to form who I have become.

I had part time jobs in Watertown like waiting tables, working in a restaurant kitchen, and I even delivered singing telegrams there for a time.  I attended Jefferson Community College, where I continued to learn from experiences in the classroom, part-time jobs and leadership opportunities.

It is therefore a great honour and privilege to have one of my earliest Japanese-language short films “Even the Birds Need to Be Loved” screened and recognized at Snowtown Film Festival in my hometown.  Thank you all so very much for your continued support and encouragement.

The Uno’s, the elderly couple documented in the film, are both well and still very much in love.  May their story remind you of what is most important in this life: Family, Love and Health. And Red Wine!
An article about the festival and awards published in the Watertown Daily Times (Feb.1) can be found HERE.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

In other news...

Today I had the honour of speaking at Sophia University, Tokyo, for Professor Mori Yoshitaka's class "Globalization and Culture".  I had not seen Professor Mori since I had the honour of speaking at Tokyo University of Arts last summer with fellow filmmaker and friend Adrian Storey about making films in Japan (STORY).

During the semester-long class, the students focused on themes such as exporting Japanese culture abroad, issues of free speech and freedom of the press.  Today was their last session, and I was honoured to share with the students about my work which Professor Mori described as "a great example of the cultural practice in the age of globalization."

After talking about my films and showing the trailers of 'Jake, not finished yet' (2010, VIDEO), 'A2-B-C' (2013, VIDEO), '1287' (2014, VIDEO) and THIS VIDEO I edited for the 2nd anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, it was time for students to ask questions.  A young woman raised her hand and asked, "If you were Prime Minister Abe, would you pay the $200 million ransom to ISIS in exchange for releasing the two Japanese hostages they are threatening to kill?" (NYTimes story HERE)


A friend recently was looking online for information about my newest film, '-1287' (WEBSITE) and found some reviews of the film that I had yet to see.  Reading them, my deep sense of responsibility to share this story with as many people as possible was renewed.

After the showing of the film, one of the audience members (while sobbing) said, "I'm so sad and can't find words because I feel like someone I knew has just died." That may sound a bit too dramatic if you haven't seen this film, but I shared this sentiment, and so did the rest of the audience, I'm sure. I couldn't stop crying. It wasn't so much about her death itself that made me cry— instead what moved me was how she lived and the tender and honest conversations she had with the filmmaker, Ian Thomas Ash.
 --- The Lost Note Book Returns Film review: Ian Thomas Ash's "-1287" (READ)
With this documentary, Thomas makes death approachable, something you can bare to stare in the face if only for a short while, and that is definitely an experience worth having.

--- Raindance Film Festival – Review + Q&A -1287 (READ)

アメリカ人監督がガンに侵された日本女性を追った記録映画が登場 (記事)

Recently, I have also received the news that my short film 'Even the Birds Need to Be Loved' (STORY) will be screening in the inaugural Snowtown Film Festival in my hometown of Watertown, NY (January 30 and 31, WEBSITE).  Having been completed shortly before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the film has only been publicly screened twice, both times in side events for the Lake Champlain International Film Festival (story HERE).  The screening at Snowtown will therefore be the first official screening at a film festival.


As the fourth anniversary of the March 11 disaster approaches, screenings of my film 'A2-B-C' continue strong.  I am extremely honoured that the film continues to find an audience and contribute to the ongoing campaign to raise awareness about the situation in Fukushima.

Screenings are scheduled to take place in multiple cities across Japan (in Japanese 上映スケジュールここ) and upcoming international screenings can be found HERE, including:
  • February 11, 2015 at William and Mary College
  • March 8, 2015 in San Diego
  • March 11, 2015 at the University of British Columbia
  • March 11, 2015 at the University of Hawai'i
  • April 9, 2015 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
2015 has only just been begun, but it is already shaping up to be a busy year with more exciting news to come...

Monday, January 19, 2015

No respect

Over the weekend, I attended screenings of ‘A2-B-C’ (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) for the third time in Kyushu.  The first time was in Usa (STORY) and Nakatsu (STORY), and the second time was in Fukuoka and Oita (STORY), while this time I was in the City of Beppu, perhaps best known for its multitude of natural onsens, each with their own unique characteristics.

Arriving in Beppu on Saturday, Mr. Kotegawa, the organizer of the screenings, gave me a “Tour of Hell”, the name given to the onsen hotsprings district, including the “Lake of Blood”, “Sea Hell” and “Shaven Head Hell”.  The area is also known for a variety of delicacies cooked over the “Steam of Hell”, baskets of food, such as hard-boiled eggs and pudding, being lowered into or hung over the pits of steam.

In the afternoon, Mr. Kotegawa took me for a “steam bath”. On the floor of a little hut built directly over one of the “Steams of Hell” was a grate covered with medicinal grass upon which we laid naked side-by-side, in a fashion not unlike the puddings we had eaten earlier (!). After 10 minutes, the limit that one is recommended to remain in the steam, we crawled back out on our hands and knees through the small wooden door, where we then washed the sweat and grasses from our bodies in a hot spring. This was followed by a “mud bath”, where, still naked, we swam around in a large pit filled with a mixture of mud and hot water that was bubbling up directly from the inner depths of the earth. Awesome.

On Sunday, there were two screenings of ‘A2-B-C’ held in a beautiful theatre purpose-built for Kabuki plays. Lining the sides of the theatre were traditional box seats, while the main seating area was a “pit” in which each guest sat on thin cushions called "zabuton".

The Q&A sessions lasted for over an hour each, and together there were over 150 people in attendance at the two screenings. Topics we talked about included my thoughts about Japan’s investment in the 2020 Olympics while there are still so many people in Fukushima living in temporary housing (I think it is shocking), if I drink water/ eat local food when I am filming in Fukushima (I do), and whether I am making a new film in Fukushima (I am). I also addressed the fact that I prefer not to be referred to as a "director".

Traveling with my films over the past year and half, it would have been easy to become caught up in what I can only describe as the artificial and fleeting moment of being a “film director”. But “director” is a word that I feel should be used for truly great makers of fiction films, such as Director Kurosawa.  The word “director” (especially as it is used in Japanese), while a gesture of respect, creates a gap, something like a class divide, between the person who uses it and the person about whom it is being used. If I thought of myself as a “director”, or worse, if I were to act like a director, then I feel I could no longer make films as it would change the relationship I had with the person I was documenting resulting in a film that would be lacking in both depth and compassion.

'A2-B-C' has been merely a vehicle for helping to share the voices and stories of these families in Fukushima, but it is the mothers themselves who are the ones that are worthy of respect, having spoken out despite the very real fear of retaliation and alienation.

So, please, just call me "Ian".

When a screening is are over, I reminded the audience in Beppu, both the film and I leave to go home. But what remains is the desire within the people who have shared in this story to help those who have been affected by this great disaster. I have documented a problem, but it is after the film is over and the lights go up that the real work begins.

I was extremely happy to see many students in the audience, both from local high schools and Asia Pacific University (APU) located in Beppu. Several APU students and faculty approached me after the screening and expressed their interest in holding a screening at their university, and it is my sincere hope that this will take place.

It was also wonderful to see many familiar faces from my previous visits to Kyushu, and I was once again reminded of how grateful I am for this continued support. Thank you all so very much! Until we meet again…