Needs of post-3/11 Tohoku stay in focus for filmmakers

The dramatic imagery that emerged from the disasters of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, documented so extensively by mainstream and social media, is hard to forget. However, there were and still are many stories to be told about the people who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives and, in many cases, find new homes and careers. Here are a few non-Japanese filmmakers who were inspired to document the concerns and hopes of survivors.

113 Project — Wesley Julian

JET alumnus Wesley Julian was visiting Miyagi Prefecture on March 11, 2011, when the tsunami hit the region and devastated many of the towns and cities that he and his friends lived in and visited. The tsunami also claimed his friend and fellow teacher Taylor Anderson, who was one of the few non-Japanese to die that day.

Julian, now 29 and living in Chicago, hasn’t forgotten about Tohoku and wants to make sure others don’t either. After leading a group to film the documentary “Tohoku Tomo” in 2013, Wesley decided to direct a series of short movies with a team of four filmmakers as part of his “113 Project” to hear from even more people in the tsunami-struck region. (“Tohoku Tomo” DVDs can be purchased here.)

As director and executive producer of the series, Julian was determined to give a voice to those who are helping rebuild Tohoku, whether it’s economically, emotionally or culturally. Julian’s series focuses on a variety of topics — Festivals, Young Adults, Local Business, Sake Industry, Seed of Hope in the Heart — letting many survivors share their experiences and dreams. (Interview by Tom Hanaway)

You started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this series. Did you feel a sense of pressure with a large amount of supporters?

I did not feel a sense of pressure from the large amount of Kickstarter backers, but instead was encouraged by their support. The crew and I are committed to these films, however, because we want to share the message of these people in Tohoku and be a means of spreading their voices. This is always what has gotten us through.

We really wanted to capture these stories and not waste this opportunity. If we can be true to their message, and are able to spread their stories around the world, we will consider it a success.

Your series is about searching for hope and progress since the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. What are some of the better examples of recovery in Tohoku?

I used to live in Miyagi, and we would drive by the shores. I have a lot of memories from there. I have been back to Tohoku two-to-three times every year . . . every time I come back to these towns, it’s moving. You see land being raised and new buildings.

Of course, we cannot forget about the emotional recovery of Tohoku as well. The physical recovery is easier to measure and compare, but it is harder to capture the best examples of emotional recovery.

Over the past five years, have you noticed any major developments or changes in attitudes — on either side of the Pacific.

There have been countless volunteers and efforts in the international community to connect with and support Tohoku. (But) you can’t generalize and say everyone is doing better. Some people are still living in temporary housing, some people are waiting to go home.

We wanted to focus on the positive sides and show how the area is recovering. We wanted to wanted to show the hopeful part Tohoku.

Did subjects easily open up to you, or were they apprehensive to talking about 3/11? Did you feel that being a non-Japanese person was a hindrance or gave you an edge?

We found that the warmth and hospitality of Tohoku people came through and we didn’t come across apprehension. By doing the “Tohoku Tomo” film, that really opened a lot of doors. People knew we were there for the right reasons.

I think my personal connection to the region and the success of our first project also allowed us to connect with more people. My only regret is that we couldn’t tell more stories. We were working 16-hours days. We really wanted to get as much out of this as possible. I wish we could’ve been there for a year.

What did you personally learn from this filmmaking experience?

Considering my background in filmmaking was nonexistent prior to “Tohoku Tomo,” I would say I learned a lot.

I also learned to respect the amount of effort, creative energy, and dedication required to complete a film project. People often overlook what goes into a film because it’s easy to consume the final product and move on.

One thing’s for sure: Next time we’ll get a bigger crew and try to afford a long production schedule.

“Then and Now”/“Women of Fukushima” — Paul Johannessen

Paul Johannessen’s documentary “Women of Fukushima,” made in October 2012, focuses on six women at the forefront of a local anti-nuclear protest and the state’s lackluster recovery efforts after the nuclear disaster. Silenced and neglected by their Japanese media, these women share their brutally honest perspective on cover-ups, misinformation and Japan’s stagnant political climate.

Complemented by haunting footage of abandoned towns around the nuclear plant, the women offer startlingly candid insights, in their own voices, about what has become of their lives, homes, and families in the aftermath of 3/11. The documentary has received various awards, including Best Mid-Length Documentary, at the Reel Earth Film Festival in New Zealand in 2013.

“Then and Now,” shot in 2011, is a series of interviews with a number of survivors and how they feel the recovery process is going 8 months after the disaster. This captures the ongoing difficulties being faced by the locals in their attempt to rebuild their lives and towns. Faced with immense adversity, each of the residents have different stories and experiences. The film won Best Documentary and the Grand Prix prize at the Super Short Film Festival in 2012. (Interview by Atticus Massari)

Johannessen is from Sydney, Australia and has spent time in both Bergen, Norway and Tokyo, Japan. He currently lives in Bergen Area Norway and  works as a freelance media producer.

Where were you when the 3/11 disaster occurred, and did you have any previous connection to the Tohoku region?

I was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck, and had no prior connection to Tohoku. It was many months later in November 2011 when we first went to Ishinomaki to film. The focus in the media had already started to disappear from the area and the deliveries of aid were no longer as they had been. My friend and collaborator Jeffrey had been visiting Ishinomaki with supplies, and since winter was approaching, we wanted to see if a film could help bring back some attention to the plight of the survivors.

The survivors that you interview appear to be extremely resilient. What impressed you the most about them?

Their resilience is definitely what impressed us most, but also just their renewed energy for life. You could feel that everyone was very aware and in the moment, grateful to be alive and determined to make the most out of things. That feeling in Tokyo where everyone is minding their own business and being careful not to speak out of turn was completely gone with these survivors. It was a Japan that I hadn’t seen before and it was very refreshing.

In the film, it looks as if the government just abandoned these people. Have you considered a follow-up?

We have actually filmed in Ishinomaki every year since the event, so we have interviews and documentation of the same people and the same places from 2012, 2013, 2014. Whether there will ever be a follow-up film completely finished is hard to say.

Unfortunately, the rebuilding hasn’t been as successful as hoped. The roads have been rebuilt and the rubble cleared, but the spirit and heart of the town? Perhaps more time is needed to see them properly back on their feet, but Japan Inc. seems to have made their money out the rebuilding whilst the locals just have to eke out whatever existence they can.

One of the problems is that many of these areas were already shrinking and losing economic activity before the event, as people moved away, which has made the rebuilding more difficult.

What was the criteria for choosing the six women to interview for “Women of Fukushima”?

We felt that it was unique to see such strong-minded women standing up for their beliefs in Japan where the glass ceiling is, let us say, made of bulletproof glass.

They were already spread out throughout the Fukushima region, which also gave us a good insight into the different challenges people were facing at that time. A forgotten farmer whose customers had abandoned them; an evacuee who had lost her home; a resident of a town with some high radiation levels that had never been evacuated — there were many experiences represented by these women that made us choose them. But they were already part of their own network, Fukushima no onnatachi (Women of Fukushima), which was how we came into contact with them.

These women took a daring stand against the government. Do you think this helped inspire others to rally around their cause?

I’m sure it helped some people feel more willing to stand up as they didn’t feel so alone in doing so. In general it was the older generation that surprised me most by protesting so strongly back in 2012. There really was a feeling of momentum that people were no longer willing to be misled by their politicians and some powerful gatherings around the Diet at that time.

The women were definitely one of many actors in this movement, and they took a very active role on a micro level to raise awareness about the extent of the fallout from Fukushima No. 1. Getting younger people motivated and engaged was their biggest challenge. The apathy of Japanese youth is not unknown. If it is still this way today, I can’t really comment on since I returned to Europe some years ago.

Do you have any updates on the women interviewed for the documentary?

My co-director, Jeffrey Jousan, made a follow-up film with some of the women in Fukushima if you would like to watch it. He wanted to help lighten the mood.

Two from Zero – this is a rough cut of a follow up film from two years after Then and Now.

Documenting the children of Fukushima — Ian Thomas Ash

The voices of children are rarely heard in the aftermath of disasters. For the children living in the shadows of 3/11 and the invisible threat of radiation, speaking with their own voice above the din of concerned adults and parents has proved to be a difficult task.

Bringing these voices to public attention has motivated American documentary filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash to spend the past five years listening to and recording the stories of the children of Fukushima and their families, culminating in two feature-length bilingual documentaries: “In the Grey Zone” (2012) and “A2-B-C” (2013).

Ash’s films have been screened at festivals around the world and received multiple prizes. He is currently in the final stages of production of his third film in the series, slated for release this year. (Interview by Nick Horton)

You’ve done several documentaries about 3/11 since 2011. How has your attitude towards the recovery of Tohoku and Fukushima in particular changed in the past five years?

I can tell you that in my experience of working in Fukushima, although there are some signs of recovery, I also think that recovering from a nuclear disaster is something that takes decades, if not generations, and there is still a very long way to go.

You have recently finished filming the third film in the your series about families and children living in Fukushima. What motivated you to focus on this subject matter in particular?

Prior to Fukushima, all of my films have been about children: children and their families, and most often children and their mothers. The reason that I was drawn to these stories is because children are the most vulnerable and I think that as adults we have the ability to make educated guesses about what we think is best for children, but most often children are only able to follow what adults tell them to do.

Sometimes people say that I wanted to give children a voice because they don’t have a voice. But I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s that children have a voice, but it’s just not being heard. I wanted to hear what it was that children were saying. I think that so often when we’re interviewing children, we aren’t really listening to them.

What issue has influenced you the most through your filmmaking in the past five years covering Fukushima?

Documenting stories in Fukushima has renewed for me the importance of involving the people who are being documented in the telling of their own stories. As a documentary filmmaker, it sometimes brings up ethical dilemmas about how much involvement, or how much authorship one gives to the people who are being documented. And particularly when you’re filming over a long period of time like I am – it’s already been five years – it’s important to remember that people’s views change, and the way that they view their situation changes.

So, when a film is put out and the film documents a certain point in time, inside the film that point in time is frozen. So, although once the film is finished people continue to evolve, within the story of that film they don’t. It’s a challenge I think to offer the appropriate framework for people to be able to view the films in retrospect.

You live in Japan and you interview and film in Japanese. Have you noticed any key differences in how the subject matter of 3/11 and Fukushima are dealt with inside and outside Japan?

In the films that I have seen, which have been primarily produced abroad, the difference simply is that most often the films have been made through a translator, and I think that the interviews, as a result, are less intimate. I personally don’t respond well to films made by people who parachute in after a disaster of some kind and then leave again. I’ve interviewed people who have been interviewed by those kinds of filmmakers, and they’ve really had difficult experiences come with that.

When a film is produced over a short period of time through a translator by a foreign production company, I do think that those films are different to those made by people who live in Japan, who are often Japanese, and who certainly are conducting interviews in Japanese.

“Made in Tohoku” — The Inoue Brothers

Five years ago, eight time zones away in Europe, Satoru and Kiyoshi Inoue woke to images of an unrecognizable Japan. As video footage of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku on March 11, 2011, was relayed around the world, the Danish born and raised brothers were spurred into action to help in any way they could.

Although more familiar with western Japan (their father is from Osaka and their mother is from Nagasaki), the pair — who work in the fashion industry and operate a socially responsible design and art studio — decided to travel back to Japan in May 2011, despite warnings from the Japanese and Danish governments.

Drawing on their belief in the humanitarian and socially progressive potential of fashion and design, the pair decided to film a viral video, “Made in Tohoku,” to showcase the traditional arts and crafts of the region, and started collaborating with local artisans to support their economic recovery after 3/11. (Interview by Nick Horton)

In your film “Made in Tohoku” you showcased the traditional products and artisans of the Tohoku region. Why did you choose these stories as your way of responding to the disaster?

When we arrived in Japan two months after the earthquake and tsunami we had no idea what we were going to do. We had just jumped on the plane with a strong determination to do something no matter what.

Since we work mostly in the fashion industry, we started calling and meeting with our friends and partners in our network to ask for guidance and ideas of how we could be involved in creating work and help the people of Tohoku.

During our stay we were introduced to a small factory in Funahiki, Fukushima Prefecture. We had heard that a wide array of small-scale and larger-scale factories and workshops were destroyed and affected, and most orders were instantly canceled or pulled, due to capacity risks.

We were so sad and disappointed to hear that several famous Japanese brands and retailers chose to cancel their orders instead of supporting the area in these hard times.

Learning of the region’s textile heritage, we created a first collection of simple T-shirts two months after the devastation, engaging factories that were still operational, nevertheless, without much work. Since the initial collection we have kept working and endeavoring to increase the production to support the Tohoku region. The concept is very simple, — “empowerment through business.”

In addition to filming your video, you teamed up with local artisans to create a “Made in Tohoku” special collection of clothing. Why was it so important to support traditional arts and crafts in Tohoku after the 3/11 disaster?

After our first initial collection we started researching how we could expand our activities in the region. We started travelling around Tohoku trying to meet as many people as possible. As a result, in a very natural way, we started encountering artisans and craftsmen of Tohoku.

Through these encounters, we quickly discovered that many of the traditional arts and crafts in Tohoku were dying out. Not because of the earthquake and tsunami, but because of the decreasing interest among the youth to learn and inherit these traditional crafts.

We had to acknowledge that we are way too small to save this culture and tradition alone. Therefore we decided to make a viral video to document it and, in our own limited way, try to make the people remember them at least. We hope that maybe it can inspire other larger companies to take action in helping the region and their traditions.

What do you think is so distinctive about the artisans of Tohoku and the arts and crafts they produce?

The people of Tohoku has always been well known in Japan for their sincerity, hard working mentality and discipline. Tohoku had a broad cross-section of industries and the production abilities it holds within each industry. From electronics to handicrafts, the region has always been active and highly productive, supplying Japan and the international market with materials and products relevant to modern day life. The livelihood of many people in the region depends on these industries. However, when the tsunami hit their coast, many established factories and companies were wiped out in an instant.

Reflecting on 3/11 five years on, what do you think is the priority for Tohoku’s continued recovery?

We believe that the future of Japan will be shaped by how much the ordinary people can take action and create positive change.