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Filmmakers Ash and Kamanaka discuss radiation, secrets and lives

Ian Thomas Ash and Hitomi Kamanaka are perhaps the two most widely viewed filmmakers who have produced documentaries about the effects of radioactivity in Fukushima since the March 11, 2011, disaster. Ash’s commitment to the subject arose after the multiple nuclear meltdown. Kamanaka, on the other hand, has been Japan’s designated nuclear documentarian for nearly two decades.

In a number of ways, they are each the other’s mirror image. Ash is a foreign filmmaker who produces films in Japanese. Kamanaka also made her first widely distributed film about radiation exposure by traveling abroad: She went to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and to Iraq, where she documented the effects of depleted uranium on Iraqi citizens after the first Gulf War. She has continued to travel since, making films in Sweden and, most recently, Belarus.

Kamanaka has considered herself an activist filmmaker from nearly the beginning, and her films are consciously critical of the nuclear energy industry. Ash’s films, however, are narrative in nature. His camera stays firmly planted in the lives of his individual subjects.

In this way, as well, the two filmmakers’ careers have converged: Kamanaka’s new film, “Little Voices from Fukushima,” eschews a commentary structure in favor of a larger cast of subjects and a similarly narrative style. The film’s subject matter — the effects of radiation on the thyroid glands of children following nuclear meltdowns — also brings Kamanaka into alignment with Ash, whose two post-Fukushima documentaries address this issue exclusively.

Neither filmmaker is unfamiliar with the polarized nature of public discussion about nuclear energy: Kamanaka has lost government-administered funding for her films as a result of their content, and during a period of particularly heated media debate surrounding Ash’s films, his distributor was dissolved by its parent company in an attempt to avoid involvement in any potential controversies.

We asked the two filmmakers — American and Japanese, storyteller and activist — to discuss their work and their films, and to consider the notion of “being a ‘foreign’ filmmaker.” Below is an edited version of their discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. (Dreux Richard)

Ian Thomas Ash: Let’s talk about that now: being a “foreign filmmaker” and how much that affects the work.

I have a few questions about language. I am also a foreign filmmaker. I make films in Japanese in Japan. And you make films in Japan, but you go abroad to make films and you do that in English. You said maybe people feel disarmed by the fact that you are foreign, that it’s a little bit easier for you.

Hitomi Kamanaka: They’re not protective. They become relaxed.

ITA: Your English is not perfect, nor is my Japanese perfect. So I think on some level people sense that they have to speak more straight. They can’t bull—-t, because it won’t work.

HK: In Japanese society, in our culture, we have a sophisticated, indirect way of communicating.

ITA: One of the things in my film “A2-B-C” is “Tadachi ni eikyō wa arimasen to omowaremasu.” It means—

HK: Nothing.

ITA: Yeah: “I believe that at this point in time there will probably be no health effects.” That doesn’t mean anything. You’re just playing with words.

HK: It’s bull—-t.

ITA: Exactly. It’s bull—-t. In 10 years, 20 years, we don’t know. So it’s using language as a weapon — to try to cover things up. But when you are speaking with a foreign person, you can’t do that so much.

HK: (miming confusion) “What? What?”

ITA: I often pretend I don’t understand. People ask me about being a foreign filmmaker, and to be honest, I am not always conscious of the fact that I am foreign. I don’t think all the time, “I’m foreign. I’m foreign.” And how do you feel? When you go abroad, do you always feel like a foreigner? I don’t. Until someone says to me, “Ah, you are a foreigner.”

HK: I think since I was small, I see everyone — American people, Iraqi people or people from any other country — as the same. It’s just a problem of language.

ITA: To prepare for this discussion, I watched “Hibakusha: At the End of the World.” You went to Iraq, and you have been to America. What was that like? Because when you go to Iraq, not only are you foreign, but you are a woman.

HK: I think images about Iraq have been exaggerated and distorted by the mass media, especially the United States mass media — that Iraqis are stubborn people, or narrow-minded. But when I met them, they were warm and kind and full of love for their families. And they were open-minded toward foreign people. Everyone was, from normal citizens to bureaucrats.

ITA: In the movie, there’s a farmer [in Washington state] named Tom, who is leading this group of downwinders who are—

HK: Plaintiffs. In a trial.

ITA: There is a scene in the film where he is making a joke about the fact the government is saying, “It’s all right, it’s all right.” He says, “I’m just a farmer.” He says, “I’m not supposed to say anything. The government says it’s all right, so it must be all right.” You’re in the back of the car, laughing. It’s a really funny moment. He’s saying, “The government says the radiation stops at the barbed wire fence.”

HK: It’s a kind of black joke. He knows everything. But what he’s saying is the reality, how he sees the reality going on around the Hanford area. The farmers are pretending.

ITA: Then Dr. Shuntaro Hida, who is a hibakusha from Hiroshima, at that time he is 85. He talks about compensation only being for people within a 2 km radius. That is true for Fukushima as well, where they had zones. Initially it was 10 km and then it was 20 km, 30 km. If you live outside of 20 km, no compensation.

HK: Society has a different way of facing the truth, I think. Physics says it is impossible to stop radiation, and that anywhere you draw a line, there will be no difference between the two sides. But you must draw the line somewhere. In between, people are trapped.

ITA: In your film “Rokkasho Rhapsody,” there is a woman, Kikukawa-san. Her friend is growing organic foods. I want to read you her quote, because I think it’s important. She says, “There’s no proof that it is OK. But if you don’t like something, you shouldn’t do it. I can’t offer an explanation. It’s only the way I feel. The decision comes down to me, not some university professor.” She, as a farmer, just has this sense.

HK: When I had a press conference and screening for that film, maybe 30 journalists came. I was waiting outside the door [during the screening]. And they came out, and I expected somebody — anybody —to talk about the contents of the film. Everybody was silent. And then they just left. Nobody stopped to talk to me. Nobody.

ITA: I had the same experience with both of my films. I made “In the Grey Zone” in 2012, and it came out one year after the nuclear meltdown. Looking back, I think maybe it was too early. Then I did “A2-B-C,” and again I had a lot of trouble finding a distributor. I decided, “OK, I’m going to show it around the world and then bring it back to Japan,” which is what I did. Now “A2-B-C” is better-known and people say, “Can we see ‘In the Grey Zone?’ Can we see the other film?”

HK: In “A2-B-C” you begin with Yamashita-san. I wondered how you could do that shooting. That is very difficult, to access Yamashita-san. He was so protected.

ITA: Dr. Shunichi Yamashita was an adviser to the government who helped after the nuclear meltdown to create policy. He is from Nagasaki and his parents were hibakusha in Nagasaki. He had been doing research in Chernobyl.

HK: He is a very famous researcher of Chernobyl. Internationally.

ITA: So he came here to the [Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan] press club about 12 days after the nuclear meltdown and he gave a press conference. He gave the press conference in English, which I think is very important, because his English is not very good. I have to tell you that Dr. Yamashita’s English is not very good. This is important.

HK: Why did he not have a translator?

ITA: It’s part of his act. He gives this speech, and of course none of the Japanese journalists understand what he is saying. So all of the foreign journalists leave the room and they go write their articles. Only the Japanese reporters remain in the room. He was still at the table. All the Japanese reporters stayed and he gave an off-record press conference in Japanese. But it’s all off-record. I was there. He looks at me and I am the only white person in the room. He thinks I don’t speak Japanese, and I am sitting there recording the whole thing.

HK: That’s how you could do it.

ITA: This goes back to the thing about being a foreign filmmaker. I want to make a connection between Dr. Yamashita, and Dr. [Michael] Fox, who you interviewed, who works at the Hanford nuclear facility. And one of the things he says is—

HK: “Evidence. Scientific evidence.”

ITA: Exactly. “I’m a scientist. I sort things out based on data. Data should decide these issues. Not propaganda. Not fear.” It really reminded me of Dr. Yamashita. This way of thinking: that it is only about numbers, it’s only about data. When you talk about any of these issues — when you talk about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, Fukushima — if we only talk about numbers, we forget that each number represents a person. People say things like, “Only one person will become sick.” But to that one person, it’s 100 percent.

HK: That kind of sensitivity is always missing in those kind of scientists. But with Dr. Fox, I made a mistake. I had read the history of Hanford. A whistleblower had said they were doing bad things there. They are polluting the area and people. But [Hanford employees] had pride. They were working for a national purpose, protecting the United States from communism, or something. So they had pride, and then their pride had been broken. They became so protective, and that is why I pushed a kind of button when I—

ITA: I don’t think you made a mistake.

HK: But I made him angry about it.

ITA: I made Dr. Yamashita angry. You have to break through that sometimes. That’s why you’re a good filmmaker. I mean, if you don’t break through that, then we have no film.

HK: When I want to ask something, I ask.

ITA: I think of so many things. One is my own struggle when people refer to me as an activist filmmaker. I have not been able to embrace the word ‘activist’ yet. What I am doing, I hope that it can help people. But I feel like if I am only an activist filmmaker, then only other activists will watch the films.

HK: That’s the problem.

ITA: There are people in America who need to see “Hibakusha: At the End of the World,” but the people who need to see this film are not going to seek it out. The people who do seek it out already know there is a problem. I feel this is true for my films as well.

HK: I’ve been thinking about the same thing for a long time. If people think, “Oh, this is my story” or “He is like me,” it will make people interested in seeing this kind of film. The people who are in my new film are very, very ordinary people. They are not activists. The only thing in their mind is “We need to protect children.”

ITA: In your films, you often go to different places and you make connections. When you edit, you don’t give the audience any chance to adjust: We’re in Iraq and now we’re in Hanford, and in Hanford you’ve brought someone with you from Hiroshima. In your new film, is it only filmed in Fukushima or did you go to other places?

HK: The film [“Little Voices from Fukushima”] is about mothers who want to protect their children from radiation exposure, which has occurred in Fukushima. And the other place is Belarus. So I combined two places in one film. I expect a kind of chemical reaction.

ITA: Among the audience?

HK: Yes. After you watch the film. This is a 25-year delay — 1986 and 2011. Twenty-five years separate Fukushima and Belarus.

ITA: I remember now what I was going to ask you. In this world of documentary film in Japan, and especially films that deal with nuclear issues, you are quite well-known.

HK: Because nobody was making these films.

ITA: How does that affect your ability to make another film? When I went somewhere while I was making “A2-B-C,” for example, people didn’t know who I was. It was easy. Now if I go back to make another film: “Ah, you’re the guy that made ‘A2-B-C’. ” You made “Hibakusha,” you made “Rokkasho Rhapsody.”

HK: For “Rokkasho Rhapsody,” Madarame-san [Haruki Madarame] is in it.

ITA: He’s the geneticist, or the University of Tokyo professor.

HK: And also the head of the [now-defunct] Nuclear [Safety] Committee in Japan. So he doesn’t know me. He just thought I was a small woman bringing a small camera. He could speak freely. But now the [trade ministry]—

ITA: Know who you are.

HK: They hate me.

ITA: Because you got some cultural funding from the Japanese government to make your films.

HK: That’s why they were angry. Later, when my film got famous, then they thought, “This film got a grant from the government? Who gave it?” I guess they were angry with the ministry of culture. Since then, I can’t get this kind of grant. People develop an image about you. It’s difficult.

ITA: Interesting. We were just talking about professor Madarame. He says something like—

HK: “It’s money.”

ITA: Exactly. He says, “Regardless of whether the path we are on is the right one, this is the path that we have chosen. And it all comes down to money.”

HK: Documentary film production in Japan is not easy. Mass media is taking over whole fields and people believe what mass media says, even after March 11. So we are making a smaller type of media. But this media only can tell the things that mass media doesn’t talk about. That’s why I think it’s important.

Ian Thomas Ash is currently touring in Japan and abroad to support his latest film “-1287,” about a late friend’s terminal cancer. He is also in production for two feature documentary films: The first is about a rarely explored niche in Japan’s sex industry; the other is the third installment in his series about Fukushima. More information on his films can be found at www.documentingian.com.
Hitomi Kamanaka’s most recent documentary “Little Voices from Fukushima” is now showing in theaters (www.kamanaka.com/canon). A screening with English subtitles will be at 10:45 a.m. on 20 May at Uplink in Shibuya, Tokyo (www.uplink.co.jp).
Special thanks to Dreux Richard. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Starviking

    There’s no proof that it is OK. But if you don’t
    like something, you shouldn’t do it. I can’t offer an explanation. It’s only
    the way I feel. The decision comes down to me, not some university professor.” She, as a farmer, just has this sense.

    In science, there rarely is ‘proof’ that something is OK, or not OK, or anything inbetween – that’s because ‘proof’ means 100% certainty, and in the real world that rarely occurs.

    He gave the press conference in English, which I think is very important, because his English is not very good. I have to tell you that Dr. Yamashita’s English is not very good. This is important. …It’s part of his act. He gives this speech, and of course none of the Japanese journalists understand what he is saying. So all of the foreign journalists leave the room and they go write their articles. Only the Japanese reporters remain in the room.

    Or maybe Dr. Yamshita’s trying to be polite? Or is vain? Or is something other than a conspiracy theorist. Also consider that the Japanese journalists will be from a wide range of newspapers – like the Asahi, or Maininchi – not known to toe the line.

    Exactly. “I’m a scientist. I sort things out based on data. Data should decide these issues. Not propaganda. Not fear.” It really reminded me of Dr. Yamashita. This way of thinking: that it is only about numbers, it’s only about data. When you talk about any of these issues — when you talk about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, Fukushima — if we only talk about numbers, we forget that each number represents a person. People
    say things like, “Only one person will become sick.” But to that one person, it’s 100 percent.

    What brain-dead propaganist rubbish! Of course scientists care about people – but statistics and data matter. They enable us to tell facts from fiction – and allow us to focus on the real issues, not made-up ones. That’s why public health professionals are experts in statistics. Are they bad too?

  • Sam Gilman

    These two are essentially exploitation film-makers, invested in spreading fear regardless of what the truth is. It is testament to how Ash, Kamanaka and the Japan Times are so far entrenched in their promotion of radiophobia, that this interview gets published without any of them realising what they’re saying. I’m not just talking about things like Kamanaka’s crank claim that “Physics says it is impossible to stop radiation” (err…no, it doesn’t say that), but their attitude to truth and evidence:

    ITA:I want to make a connection between Dr. Yamashita, and Dr. [Michael] Fox, who you interviewed, who works at the Hanford nuclear facility. And one of the things he says is—
    HK: “Evidence. Scientific evidence.”
    ITA: Exactly. “I’m a scientist. I sort things out based on data. Data should decide these issues. Not propaganda. Not fear.” It really reminded me of Dr. Yamashita. This way of thinking: that it is only about numbers, it’s only about data. When you talk about any of these issues — when you talk about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, Fukushima — if we only talk about numbers, we forget that each number represents a person. People say things like, “Only one person will become sick.” But to that one person, it’s 100 percent.
    HK: That kind of sensitivity is always missing in those kind of scientists.

    What’s wrong with the evidence? Answer: it doesn’t sell films like fear does. The evidence that ITA and HK dismiss is dismissed because it threatens their careers. After all, as Ash says:

    ITA: I made Dr. Yamashita angry. You have to break through that sometimes. That’s why you’re a good filmmaker. I mean, if you don’t break through that, then we have no film.

    Let’s think about this: are we really to think that a thyroid cancer researcher like Dr Shunichi Yamashita – whose mother was a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor), and who worked for years in Chernobyl trying to help children with thyroid cancer from the accident (as he has pointed out in the past, they were the same age as his own children were) – is to be dismissed as some insensitive number cruncher, while Ian Thomas Ash, essentially some random expat with a handycam, is to be taken seriously? Does Ian Thomas Ash think that he’s so much more of an expert in witnessing suffering than Dr Yamashita? Is Dr Yamashita to be condemned for trying to explain to millions of frightened Japanese that they should not be frightened, and that fear – as we found out even at Chernobyl – can do more damage than the radiation itself? (and it’s not just Yamashita saying that Fukushima radiation will result in few if any shortened lives, it’s the international scientific community!) Is all that “evidence”, all that “data”, all those “numbers” – is Yamashita some kind of scoundrel for trying to communicate what he knows from his years of study and service to people in distress?

    But yeah, let’s wind him up and make him angry, because that really proves something about…well, what exactly? Hell, it doesn’t matter if what Yamashita says is true, or if the fear that these people feed off is based on an illusory threat or not, Ian Thomas Ash has his career to think of. He needs to sell his films. The entertainment industry is tough like that.