Thursday, March 31, 2011

A dilemma: my voice vs. the audience

Two weeks ago when I started making the short documentaries and video diaries following the earthquake and tsunami, I was less worried about who the audience was for my work and was simply doing what felt right.

With the great honor of having my videos forwarded, linked and promoted on other websites (and by extension to have the people viewing my work go beyond just my family and friends) I have begun to feel this strange need to try to be unbiased and to not present any personal views.

But, alas, I am a filmmaker and not a journalist.

Why, then, have I had such a struggle with how to edit the material for my newest short documentary, "Mission: Ishinomaki"? To put this struggle into context, I would like to share with you part of the e-mail I sent along with this latest video to a colleague.

I am aware that it may teeter on the edge of activism, but I assure you that I have tried to be as measured and as unbiased as possible. I am, however, not a journalist and so my feelings regarding the situation do, I believe, seep through.

I understand fully that if I am viewed as an activist then I will lose half my audience as they won't be able to trust me or my point-of-view.

I did not set out to and hope I did not make a promotional video for any specific charity. And to that point, I really struggled with the title card at the end. Should I put the charity information there? How should it be worded? In the end, I simply wrote "for more information" and didn't use the words "to make a donation" as I felt if people wanted to donate, they could come to that conclusion on their own.

Sorry for all of the explanation. I realize that if the video needs this much contextualization, that you may not be able to publish it, and I understand that. As you can see, I am still struggling with the issue of "audience".
Now that I have uploaded the video, I wonder even more: Did I make the right decision? What will the viewers think?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pay Me Not to Come!

My 2nd feature documentary, "Jake, not finished yet" will be shown for the first time in the UK tonight at Watershed cinema in Bristol. This is significant for our team, because the film is a UK/ Japanese production and it was shot almost entirely in North Wales.

I have, of course, decided to stay here in Japan to continue my work on filming the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. But everything happens for a reason, and I have decided to turn our first UK screening into an event I am calling:


All of the box office proceeds from tonight's screening will be donated to Play For Japan, a charity which is collecting money for the Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund. Our executive producer has also blagged free drinks for everyone after the screening, so he will be passing the hat to collect everyone's loose change as well.

The post-screening discussion will be about the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking and will be led by Dr. Charlotte Crofts from the University of the West of England. I will be joining the discussion via Skype from my edit studio in Tokyo. Oh, did I mention it will be 3 a.m. here?!

It probably goes without saying, but I have canceled my entire trip to Europe, so I will not be attending the screening in Berlin on April 3th nor the screenings in Munich from April 3-6.

I have had many people asking if they can do something to help out, so in addition to the charities above, here is a short list of other charities doing great work in the disaster-stricken Tohoku region.

Japanese Red Cross Society
Save the Children
The Millard Brothers (three brothers who are missionaries in Japan)

Even though Japan is no longer on the front pages of the newspapers around the world, thank you for keeping all of the people affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor in the front of your minds.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I have been editing the footage from my trip to Ishinomaki City for a few days now. As I was working on the first short documentary that I posted on Sunday, I realized how much emotion that I hadn't allowed in while I was actually filming.

Now as I am about to finish editing the second piece about my time there and even as I am planning my next trip, I am still feeling that in many ways I am seeing the devastation for the first time.

The devastation is not the wrecked buildings or the crushed cars. It is the kind that is in people's eyes.

It was when I was seeing the images on the screen that I realized I no longer had the protection of my camera between me and what I was seeing, and I began to feel even heavier inside than when I was actually there.

All the events that have happened over the last few weeks have caused me to think about life in such a different way. It goes beyond thinking about this specific tragedy and has really caused me to examine my whole life.

I am not interested in the gory and grotesque, the sensational or the exploitative. It is not about the earthquake, the tsunami, the radiation. It is about the people who have had nearly everything taken away. What remains is not merely their 'will to survive'. What survives is their 'will to live'.

In the films I am making, I am searching for something. By the end of it all, I don't know that I will have the answer, but I believe I will at least know the question.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back home in Tokyo

I have come back to Tokyo after a trip up north to the tsunami-devastated city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecure.

In this city of 160,000 people, more than 2,000 people died and almost 3,000 people are still missing after the events of March 11.

It is extremely difficult to describe my experiences there in words, so I hope you will allow my first short documentary about my time there to speak for me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On the road

The volunteer effort for the victims of the tsunami has not really begun in earnest. Of course, the first responders are there in full force, but great numbers of untrained people have not yet been taken up on their offers to help.

Before this can happen, the areas have to be secured, the need assessed, and a structure put in place by large organizations like the Japanese Red Cross. What they don't need is a bunch of unprepared amateurs going up on their own, getting hurt and further burdening the system.

I have met one small group of these first-responders. It is led by three brothers who have gotten permission to drive supplies up to the tsunami-hit regions on roads that are currently closed except to emergency vehicles. They are bringing much needed supplies that have been donated from the surrounding American army bases, local churches and schools.

They have given me permission to travel up North with them tomorrow and document their effort. This will be my first time out of Tokyo since the earthquake, and so it is the first time for me to see these devastated areas apart from the TV news.

I look forward to sharing with you their story when I am back in a couple of days.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A bedtime story

I am just getting ready for bed, and this e-mail just came through from a friend.

"Friday's quake was 'The Big One' in terms of magnitude - it was just in the wrong place to be Tokyo's big one.

Which just leaves us with the question of when all that stored energy adjacent to Tokyo will actually be released. This week, this month, next year or in another decade ? When will the ground under Tokyo finally just 'let go' - no longer able to hold back the inevitable eastward creep of China and Russia (geologically speaking).

Look forward to having a drink with you sometime in April. "

I love the juxtaposition of the instillation of mortal fear with the reassuring optimism of there possibly being an April in Tokyo's future.

Nothing like an e-mail like this to ensure another good night's sleep among these aftershocks, right.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Situation improving... for Tokyo

Amid aftershocks, continuing threats of power outrages and other minor inconveniences, things for us in Tokyo are improving. Even the nuclear power plant situation seems to be looking up.

I feel really tired today. My whole body aches. I mentioned it to a friend, and he said he has heard other people talking about that same feeling. I think we are all just tense all the time and our muscles ache as a result. Never knowing when the next aftershock will be, we are thinking about it all the time.

Will it be when I'm in the bath? Will it be when I am on the subway? Will it trigger the big one?

It kind of makes it hard to just relax. I used to enjoy having a leisurely time in the toilet, newspaper in hand. Now I am thinking, "It simply won't do to have the ceiling come crashing down with my pants around my ankles". So I just get my business done as quickly as possible.

But thinking about all the victims of the tsunami, it's hard to complain about anything. We are so fortunate.

Some of you have expressed wanting to do something for the victims of the tsunami, so I am also looking into ways that you can be a part of the effort to help.

I will leave you with another short video. After having seen my piece on panic buying in Tokyo some of you have written asking about our current food situation, so I went to the same grocery store in my neighborhood tonight to check it out.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A time for celebration?

It is Saturday, and so I was back to work again this morning.

Of the five weddings our company was responsible for today, three were cancelled and two went ahead.

My office called me late last night. They said that they wanted to do something to acknowledge the events of this last week during the weddings we were holding.

Three weddings had been cancelled, but two couples were choosing to go ahead. One can’t know all of the things that go into a decision like that, and I can’t imagine that it is an easy decision to come to.

I have been struggling all week knowing that I was going back to work on the weekend, knowing that I was going to have to try to help make this day the happiest day of the these peoples’ lives.

Is it callous to go ahead with a wedding at a time like this? Is this a time for celebration? Is it ok for us to not only be happy, but to display our happiness in such a public and extravagant way?

I have trouble watching the footage on TV of this disaster because I find a lot of it to be perverse and sensational. Yesterday afternoon, I was listening to a radio report from one of the tsunami-hit areas, and the reporter described the victims who were sheltered in a gymnasium.

Among them was a school teacher who had lost everything. His home was gone. His family was dead. Many of his students had died. The man asked the reporter where he had come from, and the reporter said that he had come from America.

The man then said, “Thank you for coming.”

This man had lost every possession. He had lost his family, his students. The tsunami had taken away almost everything. What remained was something the tsunami could not take away: his gratitude.

Hearing the man speak this one word, “thank you”, I sobbed.

I was asked to lead the people attending the weddings today in a time of reflection about the week’s events and somehow tie it to the fact that we were celebrating a wedding today. I thought of the man who had thanked the reporter for coming and felt inspired by him, and yet each time I tried to form my thoughts into words, all that came out was sobs.

I was supposed to be helping these people attending the weddings to work through their feelings about attending a celebration during a time like this, and what if I couldn’t do it without sobbing? I called my dad, because I knew that he would be able to help me.

In my message today, I asked what would be left if everything we had would be suddenly washed away.

Gratitude. Hope. Love.

I said we should be Grateful for this day to be together. That this young couple represents the Hope that Japan will recover and rebuild and become whole again. That the gift of Love that this couple shares should be celebrated.

And that it should be celebrated not in spite of but exactly because it is a time like this.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Despite radiation fears, we can still smile

Many people have asked me: How, at a time like this, can you stay in Japan?

We have two choices: to become paralyzed by a fear of what may be, or to go on living and finding pleasure in Life.

It isn’t “every person for themselves” here.

Despite the current uncertainty, watch as these three women share their smiles, their laughter, their wisdom.

They have not forgotten how to be happy.

But do not mistake this for stoicism, for putting on a brave face.

Their Joy for Life will not be taken away.

The reason I can stay: It is a time like this.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Radiation Levels in Tokyo Warrant Fear?

I suppose that it is human to panic in a situation that one doesn’t fully understand and can’t control.

Is it all hype, this talk about radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima being detected in Tokyo?

Can we trust what the government is telling us, that there is “no immediate threat”?

Why is the evacuation zone recommended by the American Embassy THREE TIMES that of the evacuation zone the Japanese government is recommending for its own citizens?

I attended a private press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan to find out. Speakers included one of the engineers who worked on the design of the safety systems at the very plant that is so dangerously out of control and an expert on the effects of radiation on the human body.

I was floored at what they had to say.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Luxury in a Time of Austerity

In addition to the countless aftershocks, we had a fairly big earthquake last night. What’s the difference? Well, the earthquake we had last night was on a different fault line so it wasn’t an aftershock of the earthquake we had last Friday. Great, just what we needed.

I do want to clarify something very important. Compared to the people in Sendai that have been so affected by the tsunami, we, in Tokyo, have absolutely nothing to complain about.

With the nuclear reactor misbehaving, though, things are getting slightly worrisome here.

I have been thinking about some of the LUXURIES I have learned to live without. We have been asked to conserve energy because of the short power supply, so I only use one small light at night. I haven’t had my heating on since this whole crisis began. I make do with whatever I find in the stores to eat. We can live perfectly comfortably even without these things; how wasteful we have been!

And like I said, compared with the people up north, we are so fortunate!

But when I went to the LUXURY goods district of Ginza in Tokyo today, I was shocked at some of the blatant ways some corporations are wasting energy at a time we have all been asked to conserve. I got on my soapbox and just had to name and shame the bad guys. Here is the result:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What is on the mind of Tokyo's expats?

Another sleepless night due to pretty bit aftershocks found me awake at five and watching the constant news coverage of the unfolding events at the nuclear power plant.

I am trying to do my part: I have had the heating off in the house day and night. I use no lights during the day and only use one at night. I am not buying excessive supplies. What else can I do?

All of my appointments and work for this week have been canceled. But rather than waste the day worrying in front of the TV, I decided to go out again and film. This time I went to Hiroo, an area with a large expatriate community. I had heard what some Japanese people in my neighbourhood were thinking yesterday:

Let’s stick together and share our supplies.

What is on the minds of Tokyo’s foreign guests? Have a look here:

Japan Earthquake Update March 14, 2011

In Tokyo, we have some minor inconveniences such as interrupted train service and frequent aftershocks, but it nothing like what the people in the north of the country are experiencing.

I simply couldn’t stay inside today and just watch the news coverage, so I took my brother-in-law’s advice: I took my camera outside to see what was happening in my neighbourhood. The result is a ten-minute video about “panic buying” that you can see by pushing the link above.

Japan Earthquake Update March 13, 2011

It has been two days since the earthquake hit Japan. In some ways everything has changed; while in others, for those of us in Tokyo at least, seemingly nothing has.

On Friday, when the earthquake hit, I was at my friend Masumi’s boutique.
I was talking on my cell phone at the front of the store near the plate glass window, while Masumi, in her 70’s, was standing near-by. Unlike in some other earthquakes where there can be a sudden jolt and loud bang at first, this one rumbled slowly. It felt like a tide coming in and became stronger. At first, I had I thought it would be like one of the countless earthquakes I have experienced before.

“Ian, this is it.
Hang up the phone and take care.” Tada said.

“You, too”.
I looked at Masumi who was frozen and couldn’t move. The shaking became more violent and I looked outside at the swaying telephone poles. We had two choices: go back further into the shop and take cover or try to run outside to the parking lot across the street before the glass potentially started to shower down around us.

The concrete building, more than 40 years old, was shaking so violently that I wasn’t sure it would stay standing. I grabbed Masumi and half-carried her outside. Other people had already started gathering in the parking lot. Masumi, petrified as the ground moved us as if we were in a boat on choppy water, had tucked herself under my arm and had her face buried in my chest. I looked up to see what could fall on us.

The rolling lasted for so long, much longer than I had ever experienced in this earthquake-prone country.
Was it two minutes? It was so violent and at its peak, Masumi and I looked up and saw her three-story building swaying. What was she thinking at that moment? Her nephew was on the top floor. Her brother… was he on the second floor or had he gone out? In my mind I could see the building crumbling, I could see the street opening up and swallowing the cars and people.

But it didn’t.
The earthquake ended and the building was still standing. The twenty people or so that had gathered in the parking lot looked around at each other and silently bowed to one another. There had been no panic, no screaming. And we all still thought that what we had experienced had been centered in Tokyo.

I tried to call Tada back. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Everyone around me was on their cell phones and nobody could get a line though.

We went back into the shop (from which we fled again how many times during subsequent aftershocks?) to find the lights and electricity on. There appeared to be relatively little damage on the first floor. We went into disaster mode. Are there are any gas leaks? Are there any burst pipes? First floor: OK. Second floor: cracks up the walls, falling plaster. Third floor: a complete mess.

The third floor is where Masumi’s family lives.
The water had been flung out of the toilets and was everywhere. The refrigerator doors had swung open and the contents strewn on the floor. The plates and glasses had fallen from the cabinets and were shattered. Each room held a new, horrible scene. Masumi’s mother’s collection of dolls had been in large glass cases which had been thrown to the floor and smashed. Framed photos, previously on the walls, were now all on the floor and broken. Things had been toppled to such a degree it was hard to tell: was that a treasured memory of Masumi’s or a pile of garbage about to be taken out.

We found her nephew to be ok, but barefoot among the broken glass. We all put on shoes, something that even in this emergency felt wrong to do in a Japanese house with its delicate tatami flooring. We trampled over their prized belongings in our “outside shoes” to check for gas leaks. As it should have, the emergency shut-off valve had been triggered. Nobody hurt, no fire hazard.

Although we couldn’t get phone lines out, we quickly discovered that texts were getting through. Tada was ok. So was his mother. Between running back out to the parking lot during the large aftershocks, and enduring the countless smaller ones inside, we began to clean up the glass and debris.

Starting with the entrance ways and hallways to ensure a safe escape if needed, we worked our way through the front bedrooms and kitchen. The living room, with its glass cases of curios smashed into the tatami flooring was the last room. While we worked we turned on the TV to see if any news reports had started to come in.

We could not believe what we were seeing! Towns had been washed away by a tsunami. Fires. Devastation. I looked from the broken dolls on the floor to the images on the TV. We realized the earthquake hadn’t been centered in Tokyo after all. We were unhurt and cleaning up broken dolls. In the north, entire towns had been washed away. It was getting to be night. We had electricity and heat and water. In the north, they had nothing.

This is not to say that Tokyo had been unaffected: the trains had all stopped and people could not get to their families, to their children’s schools. There were some deaths and injuries, but it was nothing like what we were seeing on TV.

Then a manager from the wedding/ events company that I work for on the weekends called (I later learned that calls from some landlines were going through with a greater success rate than from cell phones as the mobile network was simply overloaded). After checking that I was ok, they informed me that I was to report to work in the morning as usual(!) as we had dozens of weddings scheduled- seven of which I was personally responsible for. I let them know that I was an hour away from home by train and reminded them that the trains weren’t moving. They said that they would call me back.

As it grew later, more and more train lines announced that they would not resume service that day. Some people joined streams of orderly, polite commuters who calmly made the journey home. On TV it showed thousands and thousands of people who had decided to walk home- some for three, four or more hours across this sprawling metropolis. Others had decided or were required to stay put in their offices.

I decided to stay the night where I was. Without gas, we had no way to shower or cook, but compared with the people near the epicenter we could not complain. We went to the supermarket to buy something to eat. It was so orderly! There was no panic! People were buying simply what they needed for that day. There was no hoarding, no pushing, nothing even impolite.

Exhausted and finally allowing ourselves to relax enough to feel the stress, we picked at our food in the warmth of the TV even as we watched images of the displaced in shelters who had no food. No water. No heat.

Close to midnight my office called again. They had required the full time employees who had been working that day to stay in the office to work through the night and organize the 300 part-time employees who were obligated to be at work in the morning. They apparently had tried to send a car to get me, but it had had to turn around after sitting for hours in the massive traffic jam of nervous people who were either trying to get out of Tokyo or get back in. As I hung up the phone, I was still having trouble believing that I needed to report to work in just a few short hours. Were they not seeing the same news that we were? Were people actually going to carry through with their plans to hold a wedding in the midst of all that was going on in their country, not to mention to risk congregating in buildings that may or may not be still structurally sound after enduring such a powerful earthquake? With all the train lines now stopped and the airports closed, with all the dead, with all the unknowns, I couldn’t even believe that the issue was being discussed.

In Japanese, there is a saying: company first, family second. It is simply a reality here. Does it sound cold and heartless? I have thought a lot about that over the last couple of days.

When I got to work the next day I learned that when the earthquake had hit, hundreds of customers were attending a banquet at the facility. After everyone was evacuated to the parking lot, the building was inspected to make sure it was safe for everyone to go back in. As it would take a long time for the inspection of such a massive complex to be completed, the employees were sent back in to get chairs for each and everyone guest standing in the parking lot. Within minutes, they were distributing bottles of water and had passed out table clothes for people to wrap up in to keep warm. The owner of the complex simply would not have his guests uncomfortable in addition to the inconvenience. With the trains stopped and without a way to get home, 200 guests were stuck without a place to go. The owner invited them to spend the night. They were fed dinner and breakfast the next morning. Mats were rolled out in the largest dinning room to try to make a place for them to lay down. Among the guests: a few babies, some elderly persons and a pregnant woman. The employees remained there working all night to take care of the customers. Who would have done that if the employees had all gone home to their own families?

Back at Masumi’s, we all decided to try to get some sleep. Large aftershocks were happening at the rate of two an hour and were so unsettling. With the images of the devastation we had seen on TV still in my head, I decided to sleep with the light on. I hadn’t allowed myself the luxury of changing into the pajamas that were Masumi’s father’s that she had laid out for me. I wanted to remain in my jeans and sweater- even if they were soiled- in case we had to run out again to the parking lot suddenly.

It was almost one in the morning, and I laid down and turned off the news. As I tried to rest my mind, I couldn’t believe my ears! Was that the sound of Karaoke coming from the bar across the street?! Could people actually be in the mood to go out for a night of drinking and singing at a time like this? The party went on until the morning. Needless to say, between aftershocks and endless bad renditions of old favourites like “My way”, I slept little and wondered much about what the world was coming to.

I heard Masumi in the kitchen at five. She hadn’t been able to sleep either. I asked her what she thought about people singing Karaoke at a time like this.

She said, “The trains are stopped and the people can’t get home. If the bars and restaurants close, these people will be out in the cold. Even if the owners can do nothing else, they must stay open.” I again realized things aren’t always as they appear.

My office called again and asked me to try to take a taxi into town. I hugged Masumi and thanked her for her hospitality. She handed me a few hundred dollars in cash just in case I got into trouble along the way as the ATMs weren’t working. I went outside to try to find a taxi.

It was eerie. Even at 5:30 in the morning, there were lots of people out. Many haggard-looking men in suits and dress shoes had been walking all night and were still not home. I found my way to the main street and eventually hailed a cab.

During the hour drive, I was thinking about what I would find when I got to my apartment. Would it still be there? Could there have been a gas leak? I opened the door to my apartment and a piece of shattered pottery fell out into the hall. I just left my shoes on and went in.

I swept up the shards and broken pieces of things that I had cherished so much at one time and yet now, as mere things, meant nothing when compared to what really matters. With no gas for a hot shower, I boiled some water in the electric pot and found an unbroken bowl that I used to take a sponge bath. The news images of the devastation flashing in the background, I put on a suit. And then I walked to work.

Out of the seven weddings I was in charge of that day, four had been cancelled. Of the 25 weddings in total that were scheduled for that day at the events complex, 12 went ahead as scheduled. It was an unbelievable day, filled with big aftershocks, tears for family members who were still unaccounted for and many people still in shock about what had happened. One of my co-workers spent our lunch break sitting on my lap crying. A dancer at Disney Land, she was at work when the earthquake hit and saw people stuck in rides. Believing they were going to die at the time, she was grateful there were no deaths at the theme park, but was traumatized by the peoples’ screaming.

I still haven’t worked through all of my feelings about what is happening either.

After work, my friend Martin came over for dinner. He had found some eggs at the grocery store near his house. In my neighborhood I hadn’t been able to find any milk, bread, rice, water or eggs. I did manage to get some oranges and a few other things and, of course, I had things in the house as well. It was nice to just have someone over, and we watched the news as we ate. We wondered how people would react if the earthquake had happened in America. Everyone here is just so calm and orderly! We watched footage of a volunteer passing out food at a shelter. There was only enough rice for each person to have one riceball. Although they were on a big, open tray, each person took just one riceball and sat back down quietly.

The first time I even heard the Japanese word for “looting” was during the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and I have since forgotten it.

Martin and I had both gotten in touch with our families who were very much relieved after having seen the news. We were both feeling a little… is the word homesick?... and we were playing a round of SkipBo to try to distract ourselves for just a little while from what was happening. The doorbell rang, and we opened the door to find a delivery man from Japan Post with a package for me from my sister, Amanda. In the midst of all that is happening and at 8:00 on a Saturday night, a care package from home made its way to me! Inside, homemade pumpkin bread and chocolate chip cookies… heaven! And a small prayer shawl Amanda had knitted for me. How could she have known the significance of that package and its perfectly timed arrival when she had sent it a week ago. One of the Mysteries of life.

Another sleepless night and then I went to work again today. More weddings and events, more strange and thought-provoking happenings, more news of devastation up north.

I have spent my free time both yesterday and today gathering supplies. I found some peanuts at one store. Although there is no bottled water anywhere, I did find a case of sports drinks. And I found a box of little candles that are meant for use on a Buddhist altar. I have just come back form the supermarket where the possibility of what could still come became so real- there is almost nothing on the shelves. Even still, on the way home I passed restaurants filled to capacity with people eating and drinking. This gap is so strange.

Because of the problems with the nuclear power plants, they are calling for rolling blackouts beginning tomorrow, so it could be a while before I can write again.
I appreciate your thoughts and prayers so much, but rest assured that here in Tokyo, I am ok. Please keep the people in the most affected areas in your thoughts and prayers.