Monday, November 17, 2014

Under the bus

In 2000, I graduated from Plattsburgh State University (PSU) in Upstate New York with a degree in English Literature and a minor in theatre.  Since moving to Japan shortly after graduation, I have been back twice, visiting once in 2006 when I was screening my first feature documentary "the ballad of vicki and jake" (WEBSITE) in Quebec's Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM, STORY), and then again in 2010 when I screened my film "Jake, not finished yet" (WEBSITE) in the same festival.  ^Plattsburgh is just over an hour from Montréal.

Four years since my last visit, screenings of my film 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) this week in Montréal provided me the opportunity to once again cross the river into Upstate New York to visit Plattsburgh State.  With the support of the university, including from the Alumni Association and the English Department, I visited six classes last week, including "Expository Writing" and "Introduction to film and Literature" with some of the very professors who taught me the most important element of filmmaking: how to tell a story.

It was an honour to share with students my experiences since graduating from Plattsburgh and also to have the opportunity to personally thank my professors for their inspiration and encouragement.
“There’s not very much that I can do but even in some small way I would like to be able to give back," Ash said.  (Full article from the Nov. 12 Press Republican HERE).

This week also saw the inaugural edition of the Lake Champlain International Film Festival (LCIFF, WEBSITE) in the city of Plattsburgh, where I was honoured to screen two of my feature documentaries in a section called "Transmissions from Japan" (INFO).  Taking place at the newly renovated Strand Theatre, the truly international festival was attended both by local filmmakers and those from as far away as English, Australia and Sri Lanka.

At the VIP Welcome event and Filmmaker Panel on Friday evening, the festival screened my short film 'Even the Birds Need to be Loved', which has only ever been publicly screened once before when the festival programmed it at a fundraising event earlier this year (STORY).

Perhaps the most intriguing entry is a three-hour, two-film presentation called "Transmissions From Japan," for which upstate New York native Ian Thomas Ash will present two documentaries about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. (Full article from Nov. 13 Seven Days HERE
On Saturday, my two documentaries about children living in Fukushima, 'A2-B-C' (2013, WEBSITE) and 'In the Grey Zone' (2012, WEBSITE) were screened in reverse-chronological order.  Screening 'A2-B-C' first, shows the audience the current situation, causing them to think, "How did this happen?  How did we get to this point?"  Some of those answers are contained within 'In the Grey Zone', and watching the films in reverse order provides one 'a-ha moment' after the next and is actually quite surreal (and frustrating).  These two films have only been shown together like this once, which I wrote about HERE.
“I feel my experience at the university really helped shape my career,” said Thomas, who is a SUNY Plattsburgh alum. “I’m really honored to be able to come back and try to offer current students a kind of look at the things that are possible after graduation. And, I’m also honored to be part of the festival and help support the inaugural edition of the festival.”  (Full article and VIDEO from November 17 Cardinal Points HERE)
The films were introduced by friend, former classmate, fellow filmmaker and one of the brain children behind the festival, Jason Torrance, and many friends and professors who taught me during my time in Plattsburgh were in attendance.  The Q&A, also moderated by Jason, took an interesting turn early on, when, in an accusatory tone, a man in the audience asked a very pointed question in which he highlighted what he saw as a lack of "reliable data and experts" in the film.  Sensing he had an agenda and wanting to contextualize his line of questioning for the audience, I offered him an opportunity to explain the point-of-view from which I felt he was framing his question. However, he insisted that he was merely speaking as a citizen who was concerned that the film portrayed a biased point of view that may confuse people who were "uneducated" in nuclear issues. 

Explaining that I have never suggested that I was telling the "full or complete story" and that I had simply documented a group of mothers and children in Fukushima, I asked him why he was not revealing the fact that he worked for the nuclear industry, to which there were more than a few gasps from the crowd.  Beginning to stutter, he said that he didn't think it was relevant, before trying to continue his argument for nuclear power and against what he saw as the irrational fear of the mothers in the film.  After a couple of barbed exchanges, I explained that this time was for everyone to ask questions, not only him, and to the delight of the audience, I offered him an opportunity to continue our debate over a beer.

In the lobby after the Q&A, I went over to him to see if he wanted to take me up on the offer to continue our discussion over a drink.  He looked up at me and appearing genuinely hurt asked, "Why did you throw me under the bus in front of all those people?"

"By offering you the chance to clarify for the audience where you were coming from, I was giving you the opportunity to use the crosswalk, but you still tried to hide the fact that you work for the nuclear industry," I replied.  I hadn't thrown him under the bus, he had jumped in front of it all by himself. 

At the closing ceremony on Sunday evening, I was honoured to receive "The Golden Honey Comb for Outstanding Work in Film" (full list of award winners HERE) which was presented to me by Jason Torrance.  And after a reference to me as an "internationally-acclaimed filmmaker" (in that slightly tongue-in-cheek tone that only a fellow filmmaker can achieve), I was just grateful that I wasn't receiving a "Lifetime Achievement Award" with the implication that the best work I could do had already been done.  For as Jake put it at the end of the film about his life, "I'm not finished yet."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Gate in the Wall

The last eighteen months have been very Full, and my life has changed in so many ways.  While I have been able to speak publicly about some of the challenges I have faced, others I felt were best kept private, partly in an effort not to create more problems for myself.  Perhaps someday I shall write a book...

It is with immense Gratitude that I now share with you my most recent Good News: with literally just days to spare, I have been given a new working visa!!!  And it is with this new visa that I am now officially able to begin my new position as a Research Fellow in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo.

They say that with every one that closes, another door opens.  For me, it was a Gate.

In front of "Aka-mon", the gate to the University of Tokyo's main campus
Last year, my application to renew my visa was turned down by the Japanese government.  Without working status, the company I was working for put me on unpaid leave.  Without a salary, I had to give up my apartment.  The little savings I had was soon gone.  But the initial shock quickly turned into something else: a sense of freedom.  Without an apartment or money, I couldn't buy anything, and so I stopped buying things that I never needed in the first place.  And the job that I was secretly wanting to leave in order to pursue a serious career in filmmaking (but never quite knew how to make the switch) was suddenly gone.

Through the support of the friends and family who knew what was going on, I was given the strength, resources and Peace to embrace this newly found freedom and to do something I never would have been able to do had so much not been taken away from me: embark on a World Tour with my film 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語).

I was eventually given a one year visa (which I wrote about in THIS article for a German magazine), but I chose not to go back to work and to forge ahead.  Through the continued encouragement and help of supporters, I remained on tour until the May screening in Brazil, after which I returned to Japan for the domestic tour of the film, which is currently ongoing.

That one year visa expired today.  The question of whether it would be renewed or not has been looming over me for the past 12 month, and it was just a few days ago that I learned that I would be granted another visa.

To some, the Tour might have looked easy and like great fun, but I can assure you it was neither.  Nor could I have accomplished it alone.  From July of last year until this month, I did not receive a salary and survived purely on the kindness of others for food, housing and expenses.  While there has never been anything left over, there has always been exactly enough, and I simply can not put into words how grateful I am.

As I write yet another blog from the airport in Tokyo, this time on my way to NY and Montreal for screenings of my films (INFO), words that I wrote almost exactly one year ago today from this same airport in Tokyo come back to me:

And as I write this, I realize something for the first time: the more I embrace the resistance, the more I am becoming it.

Do not give in to the resistance.  Become it.  
(FULL story HERE).

I am Grateful for all that I have received, and it is with Humility that I ask for your continued support.

In Peace,
Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Fukushima and Samurai

Monday being the national holiday of "Culture Day" in Japan, it was a three-day weekend.  And although not directly tied to the holiday, I did find myself traveling around with 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) as the domestic screenings of the film continue.

On Friday night, I flew down to Kyushu where two screenings of 'A2-B-C' were sponsored by the NPO "Mommy's Tummy".  Saturday's screening in the city of Fukuoka began with a 30-minute presentation by Dr. Kobayashi, a psychiatrist who works mainly with patients living in temporary housing. (福岡市上映 INFO 日本語).

I have met Dr. Kobayashi several times before during my trips to Fukushima and have even had the honour of interviewing him.  His presentation gave a great background to many of the issues that are presented in the film, and following the screening, Dr. Kobayashi and I answered questions from the audience.  The Q&A was conducted by Mommy's Tummy's founder Kazumi Watanabe (PHOTO below), and it was a wonderful experience to take part in the Q&A with a doctor who has so much experience working (and living) in Fukushima.  So many people commented afterwards on how it was a great balance to have a medical professional and a filmmaker answering the questions and offering different viewpoints.

Following the event, several young families who have evacuated to Kyushu joined us for tea and shared with us their personal experiences following the nuclear accident.

By coincidence, the 38th conference Clinical Research on Death and Dying was taking place over the weekend in the nearby city of Beppu (第38回日本死の臨床研究会年次大会 INFO).  The Konta's, both doctors in Fukushima (whom I wrote about HERE) and their daughters, one of whom is in medical school, were in town for the conference.  Aware of my new film, '-1287' (WEBSITE), they invited me to the Sunday morning session.  There were a variety of speakers-- priests, monks, medical doctors-- and it was an amazing and educational experience for which I am so grateful.

In the afternoon, 'A2-B-C' screened before a full audience in the city of Oita (大分市上映 INFO 日本語).  The event again began with a presentation by Dr. Kobayashi.  In addition to Dr. Kobayashi and I answering questions following the screening, the Konta's, who were in attendance, shared with the audience their experiences as two medical doctors who are currently treating patients in Fukushima.  It was a very special and rare experience.

Also in attendance at the screening was Jiro, whom I first met HERE, and a REAL Samurai (who is very cool and even has a blog HERE).  

Following the event, some of the Mommy's Tummy staff and volunteers gathered with founder Watanabe Kazumi, Dr. Kobayashi and the Konta family for a group photo.

At 7 am the next morning, I took part in the post-screening discussion following a screening of 'A2-B-C' in LA.  The screening (INFO) was full and it was wonderful both to hear the audience's comments and questions and also to see the other panelists, several of whom I know quite well.

Then after a quick breakfast, I headed back to the airport...

More information about upcoming screenings, including ones in North America, Iran and Jordon, can be found on the Screenings pages of 'A2-B-C' (HERE) and '-1287' (HERE).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Life, Love and Loss

The domestic screenings of 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) continue, and I will be flying down to Kyushu on Friday of this week for screenings in Fukuoka and Oita over the three-day holiday weekend (福岡市上映 INFO 日本語、大分市上映 INFO 日本語).

Last week on Friday, there were two screenings in Chigasaki, an hour outside of Tokyo (茅ヶ崎上映 INFO 日本語).  Following both screenings, there was a post-screening discussion, and it is always a great experience for me to hear the reactions and questions from the different audiences around Japan.

After being introduced and asked to come out onto the stage, I asked the audience to please address me as "Ian", and not "Director Ian";  I am simply a filmmaker and feel uncomfortable with the honorific "Director", especially as it is used in Japanese.  Then explaining that I didn't want to be looking down on the audience during the discussion, preferring instead to be close and on the same level, I joined them in the "house", where we had a wonderful "at home" discussion about the film and the current situation for the families living in Fukushima.

Late Saturday night, I received some devastating news: a very dear friend had died quite suddenly after a brief illness. He had been a big part of my family when I was younger, and he was not only a close friend of mine, but he had also been close to my mom.  He died on what would have been my mom's 74th birthday.  He himself had just become a father last year.

I was reminded about what really matters in life: health, family, love.

Losing this friend is particularly difficult for me and in ways that I haven't even begun to comprehend.  I am also having a hard time with thoughts like "if only I had said..." and "why didn't I contact him sooner", but this only makes me feel selfish, on top of being sad, for putting some of the focus on myself.  And to be really, truly, painfully honest, I must admit that it's not only hard losing a friend to whom I had been so close, but also one who was the same age as me; it is making me think about my own life... and death... but this just makes me feel more selfish for making it somehow even more about me.

With just a few hours to pull myself together, Sunday morning I was off to the airport again, this time to Wakayama for more screenings of 'A2-B-C' (和歌山上映 INFO 日本語).

I was met at the airport by Mr. Saigou, and Karly and Yuki Wada (below), and their kindness helped me to focus on the task I was there to do: to share with the audiences about what is happening with the families and children in Fukushima.

Karly and Yuki conducted both post-screening discussions in what was the first time for one of my Q&A'S to be led by a young couple.  Their questions about how I had met the mothers who appear in 'A2-B-C' and about my personal experience making the film created a wonderful atmosphere for when the discussion was opened up to audience questions (which I answered after stepping off the stage).

The staff and volunteers of the event were so warm, and it was an honour to be with these caring people, talking about things that are so important to us, such as the future of the children in Fukushima.

I was again reminded about what really matters in life: health, family, love.

I spent most of the day yesterday in bed.  Thinking.  Remembering.  Feeling.

Today, I got up and did the only thing I could: I continued the work to which I am called.

For D. (1974-2014)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Popcorn with chopsticks?

'A2-B-C' (WEBSITE) screened twice tonight in Chigasaki (outside Tokyo).  With an hour each way on the train, I decided to use the time to update and re-organize the media associated with my work, something I have been meaning to do for months.

First, I rearranged the playlists on my YouTube Channel (HERE), so that Trailers (PLAYLIST), Q&A's, Extras & Interviews (PLAYLIST) and News & Press Conferences (PLAYLIST) can be easily found.
Next, I tackled the Media Page of the website (HERE), updating it for the first time in nearly a year (!).  The Media Page is a collection of news stories and VIDEO clips from news reports about my films published by media outlets from around the world.  It now also contains articles that I have been commissioned to write, including the recently published Japan’s Foreign Filmmakers: ‘Weastern’ Cinema?, written for the UK's Raindance Film Festival catalogue (HERE).
Even my Japanese distributor and I have disagreed about the way ‘A2-B-C’ is advertised.  In the press materials it is described as being “A film about Fukushima through the eyes of an American director,” which I object to because I find it reductive.  As a filmmaker I hope the focus will be on the children I have documented and not on the fact that I happen to be gaikokujin. Can you imagine if the press release had described the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), by director Ang Lee, as “gay white cowboys through the eyes of a straight Taiwanese-born naturalized-American director?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Waxing Poetic

Back home in Tokyo, I am reflecting on the wonderful experiences I had attending the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) this past week.  Being about much more than *just* film, the festival's success is rooted in its careful curation of spectacular films, its tremendous effort to invite the filmmakers from all corners of the globe, and the emphasis it puts on the post-screening discussions with the audience.  All that and the festival staff and volunteers are amazing.

"Did you see anything good?" I am often asked after returning from a film festival.  Yes, I see many good films, but I find it hard to write about them; not only am I not a film critic, but watching sometimes as many as 5 feature films in a day plus attending industry gatherings, it's difficult to find the time to write about the films while they are still fresh in my mind.

From the past week, however, there are a couple of films that I would like to mention here.  "First Cousin Once Removed" (2013) WEBSITE, the newest film by iconic documentary film director Alan Berliner, about his cousin who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, is absolutely brilliant and was screened before a sold-out crowd in the 400+ seat Shin Kong Cinema (photo BELOW).  This film IS documentary.  End of story.

I was also captivated by the film "Amsterdam Stories" (INFO), about the 16 cities in the US named Amsterdam or New Amsterdam.  At a whopping 360 minutes, the festival only screened "Part 1: EAST" (95 minutes), but even on its own, it was intriguing!  I very much look forward to seeing the other parts of the film someday.

Returning to the work of Alan Berliner for just a moment, TIDF featured nine of the filmmaker's works this year (INFO), and it was a wonderful opportunity to see his masterpieces on a big screen, each followed by an in-depth Q&A.  "Nobody's Business" (1996) WEBSITE, "Intimate Stranger" (1991) WEBSITE, "The Family Album" (1986) WEBSITE, "City Edition" (1980) WEBSITE and others, are an absolute must-see for anyone interested in documentary film.

The week culminated in a standing-room-only masterclass (INFO) given by the director himself on Saturday.  Absolutely inspiring.

I am now home, but there will be no rest for the wicked.  I am catching up on work at my *new desk* this week (more on that later), and then the domestic screenings of 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) continue.  Two screenings outside Tokyo in Chigasaki on Friday (茅ヶ崎上映 INFO 日本語), then flying down to Wakayama for screenings on the weekend (和歌山上映 INFO 日本語).  Then next weekend I will be flying to Kyushu for screenings in Fukuoka and Oita over the three-day holiday weekend (福岡市上映 INFO 日本語、大分市上映 INFO 日本語).  The full schedule in Japanese of domestic theatrical screenings, including the upcoming roadshow in Mie Prefecture can be found here: 三重県含め劇場公開 INFO and more about private screenings here: 自主上映 INFO.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Three's Company

The third screening of '-1287' (TIDF film page HERE) took place today in the Doc Cafe section of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (INFO).  In this strand, several films were shown for free to the public in cafe spaces around the historic Huashan complex, once home to a wine factory (INFO).  The intimate settings made for wonderful screening spaces, and the Q&A that followed '-1287', led by TIDF staff member Rina, lasted longer than the 70 minute film!

As we have done following all of the screenings of '-1287' to date, we handed out gift bags to each person in attendance.  Today's bags contained Breast Cancer Awareness ribbons handmade by '-1287' producer Sarah Lushia and team (photos and story HERE), and chocolate that Sarah had sent, the purchase of which helped support breast cancer research.  At the two other screenings here in Taiwan (and THIS one in the UK), we have also handed out bilingual fortune cookies inspired by THIS scene in the film.

I am so grateful to all of the TIDF staff, volunteers and audiences members who helped make the screenings in Taipei such a wonderful experience.  I would especially like to thank Program Director Wood Lin and my interpreter for the first two screenings, Joyce (photos with Wood and Joyce HERE), festival volunteer Shannon (below, left) who made sure I was in the right place at the right time everyday, and Rina (below, right) who beautifully guided and interpreted the discussion after today's screening.

After the screening today, Taiwan-based friends Panos and Mei, who live an hour and a half outside of Taipei, drove into town with their two sons, and we had a wonderful visit together (the last time I saw them was in Taipei in February when I was here for THIS screening).  Ten years ago we were all living in the same flat in the University of Bristol's accommodation for international students, where Panos and Mei met and then eventually married!

Night life

Taipei comes alive at night, and there is no better place to witness this than one of the city's famous Night Markets.  The carnival-like atmosphere, with food stalls and games, may feel familiar to people from Japan, but there are two main differences; while in Japan these stalls would usually be set only annually to coincide with a festival, in Taiwan, these markets operate every night(!).  Throughout the year(!).  The other main difference is that there appears to be no alcohol for sale, so the atmosphere remains family-friendly no matter how late into the night it gets.

Festival volunteer Shannon, who was assigned to show me around Taipei and to make sure I got to all of my screenings and appointments on time, offered to take me to the Night Market so that I could have a night off from the cinema.  Willie and Bonnie, two of Shannon's friends, joined us, and we ate our way through the market!  Grilled mushrooms, shaved ice, and the infamous "stinky tofu" (INFO) recently voted one of the top 10 foods hated most by foreigners, and which I happen to LOVE.

And these little pop-cycles caught my eye; they reminded me of the ones my sister and I used to make with fruit juice in our Tupperware Popsicle making kit (like THIS one)!