At one point or another, every filmmaker, producer or journalist has dreamed about freeing themselves from the financial restraints of media production. The team behind “We Are All Radioactive” — a documentary about a community of surfers and fishermen in the small tsunami-stricken town of Motoyoshi in Miyagi Prefecture — have tried a new way to achieve that dream. Lisa Katayama, a journalist and the producer and director of “We Are All Radioactive,” initially went to Motoyoshi with the idea of writing a feature article about the small community trying to get back on its feet, but she and her partners ended up taking a completely different approach in terms of storytelling and funding.
“Jason Wishnow, a filmmaker, and I were travelling in Asia at the time of the quake and we heard about the community in Motoyoshi from a friend. We went there together and brought a video camera and a sound recorder, so we were really armed to do anything,” Katayama tells The Japan Times during a recent interview.
“In Motoyoshi we found this great story with great characters. We thought about making a documentary, but that seemed like a huge undertaking. So we came up with a new idea,” she says.
This idea was to turn the project into an online character-driven episodic documentary. The team didn’t want investors to interfere with the creative process, so the project is driven by volunteer work and is completely funded by the audience through the online crowd- funding site Indiegogo.com.
And instead of a full-length documentary, “We Are All Radioactive” has been split up into a series of a short digestible video episodes just minutes long, inspired by TV dramas.
“We all love TV shows like ‘Lost’, and with this project we aspire to do that sort of storytelling,” Katayama says somewhat curiously, before explaining: “We want to build themes for the audience by letting them meet different characters in different episodes. In the next episode you meet more, and the story becomes more complex.”
The first few episodes have focused on the people of Motoyoshi and their struggle with the disaster and the rebuilding of their village. Katayama says that the rest of season one will focus more on the invisible threat of radiation and how it’s affecting people in Motoyoshi and beyond. In the next episode the documentary will zoom in on Tokyo, speaking with government officials and nuclear experts, who might not agree entirely with the views on radiation of the people in Motoyoshi. Season one will eventually be made up of six episodes.
“Our thinking is that all the videos can be put together for a long documentary in the end. Ideally, that would be the final result. But realistically speaking — the whole project is still very scrappy; we don’t have that much money,” says Katayama.
The producers of the show are paying for their own travel expenses, so the crowd funding only covers the postproduction. Each episode costs $3,500 and the project is funded as they go along — every time they have collected enough money, the next episode is released. So far three episodes have been funded, and “We Are All Radioactive” has been supported by almost 200 donors — about half of whom are personal acquaintances of the film crew and Katayama.
“A lot of crowd funding comes from people you know,” Katayama explains. “Crowd funding is sort of a new thing in Japan and not many people know about the concept. But more than half of our donors are from Japan, and I think that proves crowd funding can work here.”
“We Are All Radioactive” has reached a rather large audience online with almost 30,000 views, but the future of the project is not yet settled. One of the project’s editors, Yoko Inatsuki, recently spent time in Motoyoshi to gather ideas for a second season, but, says Katayama, “right now we are not even sure we will do a second season. Among other things it depends on the funding.”
In the end, what “We Are All Radioactive” would most like to be is, its producers say, a neutral third party in the discussion about nuclear energy and safety. Katayama tells the story of one radiation expert (who will appear in the next episode), an adviser to the prime minister, who felt he needed a place to speak, not only as an expert, but as a compassionate citizen as well.
“We would like to be a platform that connects people like him and the affected people in places like Motoyoshi, because the communication between the government and the people has been flawed from the start,” she says. “It will be tough to build, but maybe it starts with one community speaking to one government official. I think everybody just wants to understand one another.”