For independent filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash, making documentaries is an organic process. “I’m not a journalist, and I don’t try to make judgments,” he says. “My reaction is to film what is going on around me and see where it leads.”
In Ash’s case, it has led to recognition and awards at film festivals around the world for “A2-B-C,” the second of a pair of documentaries about children living in towns a stone’s throw from the site of the nuclear reactor meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.
Ash, an American who has called Japan home for the past 10 years, was in Tokyo when the massive earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. He began by simply filming scenes around him, such as the panic buying and setsuden electricity-saving measures, little knowing this would become the prologue to a much bigger story.
Wanting to find out more, Ash lost no time in getting a ride up to Tohoku with some rescue workers, arriving 10 days after the meltdown. “Then I read a story in The Japan Times about a school re-opening just outside the 30 km zone around the nuclear plant. Kids who had been evacuated from within the 20 to 30 km zone were going to be bused there. I wondered how that was going to work.”
Upon returning to Tokyo, Ash contacted Colin O’Neill, a cameraman and producer in the U.K. who had worked with Ash on two previous films. At a time when many foreign nationals were fleeing the country, O’Neill flew over to Japan to lend his support. “We still had no idea of what was going to come of it, whether a short video or a feature film.”
Ash and O’Neill ended up in the town of Minamisoma, filming and living among people in the 20-30 km zone who were under government orders to remain inside as much as possible at the time. “These were people in the gray zone,” Ash explains. “They were not being compensated by the government to evacuate, and couldn’t afford to leave on their own. They were mostly farmers.”
It was this idea of living in a state of flux, a shadowy world when nothing was certain, that gave rise to the title of the resulting documentary, “In the Grey Zone.”
Having arrived with no connections whatsoever in the area, Ash and O’Neill made a beeline for the city office, which was operating a resource center for residents coming in to file claims for assistance, among other things. They obtained a list of businesses that had reopened and soon found themselves at a gas station, asking the owner if they could interview her. When it began to rain heavily, the woman invited the pair inside and introduced them to her son, a father of four. Upon hearing about their mission, he invited Ash and O’Neill to stay with his family and film them.
“This all happened on only our second day. It’s how I approach all my films. I don’t do a lot of research or make a lot of plans before I go somewhere,” Ash explains. “This first family ended up being in the film and, in turn, they introduced us to their friends, creating a strong basis for the project.”
When children are the subjects of a project like this, it may be tempting to focus on one particular boy or girl, inadvertently turning them into a poster child for the group. Ash says he was careful not to identify any of the children as belonging to a certain family in the film. “The children [in the film] are the representatives of all those in the same situation in Fukushima. I don’t want viewers to get attached to one particular child. I wanted to give them all a voice.”
The story is continued in “A2-B-C,” a sequel of sorts to “In the Grey Zone,” depicting children in Fukushima 18 months later.
This is not the first time that Ash has revisited the subjects of one of his films. He completed his first major documentary in 2006, “The Ballad of Vicki and Jake,” about the ups and downs of an atypical British family. After watching his film, audiences often asked for updates on the family, leading to a sequel (“Jake, Not Finished Yet,” 2010), also filmed and produced by O’Neill.
However, even Ash himself was surprised at how quickly “A2-B-C” gained momentum. “I guess I always knew I would make a follow-up film, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon.” “In the Grey Zone” had its world premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2012, with “A2-B-C” following in its footsteps, making its North American debut at the same festival last month.
When he began hearing about an apparent increase in throat nodules and cysts among children in Fukushima, he knew this was a story that had to be told. There is an added urgency this time, since “A2-B-C” depicts the grassroots efforts of mothers in Fukushima to give a voice to their children and their worries for their future. Fathers are largely absent from the film, but not because they didn’t share their wives’ concern, Ash points out. Most were simply too busy keeping their heads down and working to support their families.
The film’s title comes from the medical classifications for the size and number of throat nodules and cysts, but the film deals with more than just worries about the risk of thyroid cancer among families in the region. “The film covers other health and environmental issues, such as our inability to decontaminate the area. People have low white blood cell counts, and both children and adults are experiencing more nosebleeds and rashes. Not to mention the constant stress they live with.”
Since the second film has a layer of controversy that was largely absent from the first, Ash was fully aware that it might be harder to persuade people to appear on camera. “In the case of ‘In the Grey Zone,’ nobody ever questioned our right to be there. It was just such a chaotic time. Things were rather different when I filmed ‘A2-B-C.’ ”
To date, he has never resorted to using voice distortion or mosaics over faces for his interview subjects, although he won’t rule it out completely for future projects. “Overall — surprisingly — I haven’t had much trouble finding people willing to talk. And, sometimes, it is easier to apologize afterward than ask permission,” he adds with a wry smile.
In May the film had its world premiere at the Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt, the world’s largest festival of Japanese movies outside this country. “Even just being there was major. They show movies from across the spectrum — one of Beat Takeshi’s was there.”
It was a surreal moment for the filmmaker when he was presented with the Nippon Visions Award for the best film by a new Japan-based director, becoming the first-ever non-Japanese winner. “When they announced my name, I was in shock,” he admits. “I didn’t think that a topic like mine would be recognized.”
After the screening, audience members shared their reactions to what they had just seen, which Ash filmed and posted on his YouTube channel. Particularly poignant was the following message to the mothers of Fukushima, from a young woman from Chernobyl who was 2 at the time of the disastrous nuclear accident in 1986: “I want to say it’s not wrong to care about your own children. Don’t believe what people say when your feelings say it isn’t right. I think it’s OK to ask about the things being hidden and to be angry and worried about the safety and future of your own child.”
Invitations to show “A2-B-C” have been coming in thick and fast from film festivals around the world, including at the Raindance Film Festival in the U.K. (Sept. 25 to Oct. 6) and the United Nations Association Film Festival in the U.S. (Oct. 17-27). Ash is both humbled by the nod to his work and grateful for the opportunity to gain international attention for families in Fukushima.
Despite the buzz being created by “A2-B-C,” Ash is continuing to move in new directions, with his newest movie slated for release in early 2014. “Minus1287″ follows four years in the life of Kazuko, an elderly woman who is a personal friend of Ash’s.
When asked if he purposefully seeks out those marginalized in society — children, the elderly — for his documentaries, he shakes his head. “Not really, although I have realized I have an empathy with them. With kids, I don’t see them as my kids as such — I think of them more as my brothers and sisters in life.
“As citizens, we believe that the government has our best interests at heart. But that isn’t always the case. The turning point for me was Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Those who could leave did. It was the vulnerable ones who were left behind — the elderly, the poor, the sick. And now a similar situation is occurring in Fukushima.”
“A2-B-C” will be shown in Tokyo on Sept. 14 as part of the Pia Film Festival and next month at the Yamagata Documentary International Film Festival. Ash hopes that people will take the opportunity to view his film and think carefully about the implications.
“There is no resolution at the end of my film. This could happen to any of us. We need to become active participants in government policy and understand what is happening.”
Ian’s website: www.documentingian.com. Pia Film Festival: pff.jp/35th/lineup/howto01.html (in Japanese) and www.pff.jp/english/2013/09/35th-pia-film-festival-1.html (in English). “A2-B-C” will also be screened at 10 a.m. on Oct. 12 at the Yamagata Museum of Art as part of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Send your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org