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Soda takes a pop at taboos

by Mizuho Aoki

Kazuhiro Soda made his name with his first documentary film “Campaign,” which follows the director’s former classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi as he campaigns for a city-council seat in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007, broadcast on TV in around 200 countries and last month, in May, won the prestigious Peabody Award, which is often referred to as the Pulitzer Prize for radio and broadcasting.

His second feature documentary, “Seishin” (“Mental”), breaks a taboo and opens — as the director puts it — “an invisible curtain” between the so-called “healthy” and “the ill.”

The day after he finished filming “Campaign,” Soda stepped inside Chorale Okayama, an outpatient mental clinic in Okayama Prefecture, to see the world inside the curtain.

“I went to the clinic as an outsider, met many people, heard many stories and left the place. Then I reconstructed my experience into this film the way audiences can relive the time I had there, as if they visited the clinic themselves” says Soda in an interview with The Japan Times.

The Japan-born N.Y.-based director didn’t do any research on the subject beforehand. “That’s my policy. I tried to observe the reality as it is, with an open mind,” he explains. “I went there with my camera ready to roll, asking each person I met for permission to film them.”

The process, however, was not easy. The director notes, “eight or nine people out of 10 said no. But luckily, one or two said yes.”

All the people who agreed to be in the film expose themselves with surprising candor. They talk frankly about their personal histories and the reason why they are at the clinic; and some of the stories are shocking.

Soda, who just turned 39, reveals, “There were some scenes that I couldn’t make up my mind easily about whether I should use them or not.” Among them is a scene where a woman reveals her heart-wrenching past and how she ended up killing her baby.

After long and deep consideration, Soda included the scene. The story could not be excluded from the film if the woman was to be portrayed accurately.

However, when the woman found out that the scene was in the film at a special screening held for the patients and the clinic’s staff, she got distracted and said that she can no longer walk down the streets. “Though I expected she may react the way she did, I was stunned. But then one of the patients raised her hand and said, ‘I’ve known you for a long time, but I never knew your real pain, and I’m glad that I learned it now. I also raised kids myself so I know how difficult it can be.’ Then many spoke up” recalls the filmmaker, continuing, “The woman finally said she’s glad that she’s in the film, saying, ‘For the past 15 years, I thought if I tell the story, everyone will be my enemy. Just to know that there are some people who understand me is enough for me.’ “

Still, Soda is anxious as to whether she can remain like that after the film is released in Japan.

“She is vulnerable; a little thing can hurt her” worries Soda, adding, “I’m aware that there could be some kind of attack from society. If something happens I’ll have to overcome the problem together with her.”

After he completed the film, Soda finally had time to sit with the clinic’s hero, Dr. Yamamoto.

“I wanted to ask him so many things during the shooting, but I restrained myself from doing that. I knew, if I asked, the film would be about Dr. Yamamoto — the great doctor and his patients who beg him for help — and I didn’t want to depict such a cliched picture” explains Soda.

“Dr. Yamamoto told me that the root of mental illness is that the sufferers are lonely and that to be fully cured they need to connect to another person. No matter how advanced the medicine is, in order to recover fully, they need to know that they are not isolated” says Soda. “I believe that one of the reasons why Dr. Yamamoto uses such an old-fashioned Japanese house as his clinic is to make it a most relaxing environment with tatami mats etc. — a place for them to meet others, become friends and make a community.”