Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My dad is white, too.

This year I was asked by Raindance catalog editor Orestes Kouzof to write an article about being a "foreign filmmaker" in Japan.  The article was published under the title Japan's Foreign Filmmakers: 'Weastern Cinema', and here is an excerpt:
Even my Japanese distributor and I have disagreed about the way ‘A2-B-C’ is advertised. In the press materials it is described as being “A film about Fukushima through the eyes of an American director,” which I object to because I find this reductive. As a filmmaker I hope the focus will be on the children I have documented and not on the fact that I happen to be gaikokujin. Can you imagine if the press release had described the film Brokeback Mountain (2005), by director Ang Lee, as “gay white cowboys through the eyes of a straight Taiwanese-born naturalized-American director?”

It is a huge honour to be back at Raindance for a second year in a row, after screening here last year with 'A2-B-C' (STORY), and this year I am joined by my dad*.  Yes, filmmakers have parents.  Even Christopher Nolan, as told by Raindance founder Elliot Grove (HERE).

* NOTE:  My dad is white, too.

On our first day at the festival, we hit the ground running, watching the documentary film "Songs for Alexis" (INFO), attending a conversation with world-renowned casting director Ros Hubbard (INFO) and I also sat for an interview.

'-1287' screens Wednesday and Friday of this week (INFO)!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pub-crawling with my dad

On the flight from Tokyo to London, I was flipping through the entertainment guide and saw a picture that looked vaguely familiar.  Taking a closer look, it was a picture of me (!), a screen-grab taken from one of the episodes of the NHK World program "Journeys in Japan" in which I had appeared several years ago.

After a couple of days in London getting ready for the upcoming World Premier of my documentary '-1287' (INFO), my dad joined me in the UK.  We traveled up to North Wales for the weekend, where we had a bit of a break before the festival screenings, which are always a busy time for me.

We visited a dear family friend while eating, drinking (and pub crawling!) our way through North Wales.  We even worked in a visit to a castle and a ride on the historic Ffestiniog Railway!

After re-charging in the beautiful country-side of North Wales, we are off to London for the festival!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Guest Blog: A Bit of Love Tucked in Your Lapel

The following guest blog has been adapted from a personal reflection written by Sarah Lushia, the producer of my new documentary, '-1287'.  Sarah's full reflection can be found HERE.

It was a bright spring day filled with the deep warmth and frantic birdsong that finally breaks through the frigid hold of winter for good. I was sitting, in a scratchy paper gown on the cool, sticky vinyl of the exam table, waiting impatiently for the doctor to come in. Though spring had warmed the world outside, the old wooden and brick structure of the house-turned-doctor’s office held the damp cold of winter, raising goose bumps on my skin. This cold and the fact that I was only 19, still new to my post-pubescent body, and to the uncomfortable intimacy of the “yearly exam” I was there for, made me long to pull on my jeans and wool sweater and flee toward the birdsong outside.

Within the hour, I found myself standing amid that birdsong, sun shining down on the hospital test orders I held in my hand, giving them a strange warmth. My doctor had found a small, hard lump under my right breast and was sending me off to face the possibility of cancer, armed only orders scrawled in his illegible hand for protection or understanding. I’d never felt so alone.

While, thankfully, that lump turned out to be a harmless cyst I tasted, for a few brief days, the intense, nauseating flavor of my mortality. And in response, I did what any geeky English major in this situation might have done--I raided the library looking for books that might give language to what I was feeling, might turn my emotions into soothing poetry. It was then that I stumbled upon Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. I sat on the floor next to the stacks and devoured the book without ever looking up.

While I was spared a breast cancer diagnosis of my own, I’ve returned to Lorde’s words and courage many times in my life. So it was no surprise to me that when I viewed the earliest version of the film, before Ian had even asked me to come aboard as producer, that I could hear Lorde’s words in my mind as I listened to Kazuko tell her own story. At one point Lorde says, “I realize that if I wait until I am no longer afraid to act, write, speak, be, I’ll be sending messages on a Ouija board, cryptic complaints from the other side. When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid” (13).

In the first scene of the film, when Ian asks Kazuko “What are you scared of?” I immediately found myself struck by Kazuko’s willingness to express her fear, bluntly saying “of course I’m scared to die,” and then by her willingness to speak through this fear in order to grapple with her death and share her story. Much like Lorde, Kazuko realized that she couldn’t wait to speak until her fear had subsided, or it would be too late. One of the things I find most compelling about Kazuko’s story is that it is in the space of sharing her story with Ian, and by extension, with all of us, she finds her own inner power in the face of death, and is able to focus less on her fear and more on her life. 

This image of Kazuko always reminds me of what Lorde said about hiding her body: “I refuse to hide my body simply because it might make a woman-phobic world more comfortable” (62).
From the very beginning of my journey as producer of this film, I was committed to keeping the focus on Kazuko’s strength and the ways in which the courageous sharing of her own story might help other women facing similar situations. Like Kazuko, many women facing such situations feel alone. Consequently, their choices of treatment options and end-of-life care can become framed by their sense of isolation. I saw immediately in Kazuko’s story the potential to give to other women access to the sense of hope and of community that Lorde’s text offered me so many years ago.

It was for this reason that it felt vital to me that we use this film as an opportunity to raise awareness about breast cancer and the need for strong support systems for the women facing this disease. Given that I was already deeply invested in using the film in this way, it seemed to me a sign when I found out that the world premier screening would occur on October 1st--the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This “coincidence” felt to me like both a gift and a blessing from Kazuko to use this film to help other women facing breast cancer.

One of the first things that I worked on was creating a list of resources about education/ awareness/ and support groups available to breast cancer patients and their families and caretakers. This list of resources can be found on the “Beyond” tab of the film website (HERE). It is my hope that these resources can serve to provide support and community, especially for those women who are facing breast cancer feeling alone.

I also wanted to do something during Breast Cancer Awareness Month specifically to honor Kazuko. On October 12th I will participate in the local Race for the Cure walk. All funds I raise will be donated to breast cancer research in Kazuko’s memory. You can read the tribute I wrote to Kazuko and/or make a secure donation in Kazuko’s memory to support my walk HERE.

While I am grateful for the timing of the October 1st world premier, I will be unable to attend the premier in person.  I thought a perfect way to be “present,” and also help raise breast cancer awareness at the premier, would be to make handmade breast cancer awareness ribbons that could be given out at the screenings. I made hundreds of them, folding a tiny bit of my spirit and love into each.

A single lapel pin, made with love
An "army" of lapel pins, marching against breast cancer
**Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals: Special Edition. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2006.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MUST SEE movie about BREASTS!!!

Now that I have your attention...

My new documentary, '-1287' (WEBSITE) is about a lot of things: friendship, marriage, life, breast cancer, death.  It has been a long journey; filming began more than six years ago, although my friendship with Kazuko, the film's subject, began much earlier.

This film began when my friend Kazuko told me she was dying.  Her doctor had given her a timeframe of just three or four years left to live. We talked often during her final years, and I eventually asked her if we could film our conversations.

For nearly four years, we discussed love, friendship, marriage, raising children, money... and of course, life and death. While at times she seemed to struggle with knowing that she was going to die, she also knew that she had no time to waste.

I was intrigued by the ways in which Kazuko’s thinking and the way she described those thoughts changed over time.  And I was deeply moved when she shared with me what the process of making the film itself had meant to her, particularly in the last months of her life.  Shortly before she died, Kazuko whispered to me, “I never thought you would come this far with me.”

When I was visiting Kazuko, the filming gave us something to do together, to focus our energies on. Often when we are visiting someone in the hospital it can be uncomfortable because we don’t know what to say.  Conversations might focus on the weather or other inconsequential topics, as many times it’s easier to avoid the things that most need to be discussed.  When Kazuko and I filmed our conversations during these visits, something bigger than either of us was being created.  In retrospect, I think this must have been palpable to everyone around Kazuko, because although I never once asked permission to film in the hospital, no one ever questioned what we were doing or asked us to stop.

Immediately following Kazuko's death, I worked almost exclusively on editing the film. I found that the process of piecing together her story somehow helped me to sort through my difficult feelings of sadness.  I’ve learned so much through my friendship with Kazuko and through the making of this film. My hope is that it will hold deep meaning for those who watch it and that they, too, will learn something from Kazuko and her story.
                                                                                                               ----- Director's Statement

The World Premier of '-1287' will be in London's Raindance Film Festival on October 1 (screening again on October 3, info HERE).  By complete coincidence, October 1 is also the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness.  As such, we felt it was appropriate to use the screenings as an opportunity to help raise awareness about breast cancer, and our efforts were led by the film's producer, Sarah Lushia.

In addition to curating a "Beyond" on the film's website (HERE), Sarah also led a team of volunteers to make pink ribbons to give out at the screenings.   And on the The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA) Campaign, Sarah wrote about what meeting Kazuko through the film meant to her (HERE).  She even had a pin made for me to wear at the screenings (PHOTO below).

Certainly since my work documenting the situation for children living in contaminated areas of Fukushima, but really from my earliest films dealing with issues of drug abuse and homelessness, I have been seen by some as an activist filmmaker (which I also wrote about HERE)     I find myself repeatedly proclaiming "I am NOT an activist filmmaker".  And I'm not.  I'm just a really active filmmaker.

And as such, I will close this blog, just another in a long line of blogs I have written in the past year while at the airport waiting for a flight to a place where I am honoured to travel to and share one of my films.  More from London...

Thank you all so very much for your support and encouragement!

Much Peace,

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Unto you

The second screening of 'A2-B-C' (WEBSITE) in Kyushu this weekend was held in the town of Nakatsu.  When I met Ms. Shiraiwa, the screening organizer, she was being pulled in many directions, at least one of which was by her son, Jiro!

Following the screening, at which more than 130 people were in attendance, an older man stood up and introduced himself as a dentist.  He said he was representing a group of doctors who were potentially interested in arranging a showing of the film and that he had attended the screening with the intent of deciding whether they would move forward with their plans.  After having seen the film, he said he was no longer sure if showing the film was a good idea, and he expressed concern for the mothers who appear in it.  "I don't think they should have showed their faces," he said, adding, "for their own protection."  The Doctor then suggested that they could be accused of spreading false rumours, and having appeared in the film could result in them suffering prejudice or some other negative affect in the future.  He then advised me to consider deleting the trailer of the film from the internet.  Immediately.

Remaining calm, I began by admitting that it is true there is no irrefutable proof that the medical issues documented in my film are the direct result of exposure to radiation.  But how many years will it take until that proof is found?  I asked the Doctor if the experts understood all that had happened in Chernobyl.  He shook his head.  "No." I said, "Although it has been 28 years, there are still things that are not known."

Addressing the Doctor, I asked, "if I told you that a glass of water may or may not have poison in it but not to worry because after you drink it, we will test it, would you drink it?"  He shook his head.  

"We should be protecting children first, then trying to figure out what is happening!" I shouted, my blood pressure rising for the second time this weekend.  "Would it not be better to regret having done too much to protect children than to say in ten years 'I wish we had done more'?!"

After repeating to the audience the Doctor's suggestion that the mothers in the film should not have shown their faces, I looked him right in the eyes and said that it was exactly that way of thinking that was used to control victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Minamata sickness, and more recently Fukushima.  Victims are made to feel that for the sake of their other children, they should not speak out about one that is sick.  "You wouldn't want to make it difficult for your daughter to marry, would you?" is a disgusting phrase that has been repeatedly used to keep victims quiet.

After talking a deep breath, I continued that of course I agree that the people in the film should be protected as much as possible.  That is why the film has not been put onto the internet and a DVD has not, nor probably ever will be, available for sale.  The only way to see the film is in the theatre or at a private screening. 

"But why should the mothers be ashamed to talk about their fears?  Why should they cover their faces?!" I asked.  "You are suggesting that the victims self-censor by remaining quiet.  With your way of thinking, Doctor, we don't even need the recently passed Secrecy Law (STORY)!  If something terrible happens to them as a result of having spoken out, it will not be because of this film!  It will be because of people who think like you, Doctor," I hissed while pointing a finger at him.

Turning back to the audience, I shared with them about the article that was published in a gossip rag several months ago which, like the Doctor, accused my film of spreading false rumours and contributing to prejudice against people from Fukushima (STORY).  "As the saying goes 'there is no bad publicity'," I told them.  "And for a week after that story was published, nearly every screening of 'A2-B-C' in the cinema in Tokyo was sold out", I said laughing.

Once again turning to the doctor, I asked him for a favour.  "When your group of doctors decides that it is best not to screen this film, please publish a press release to that affect.  Please tell the world that your prestigious group of doctors has decided that this film should not be seen in order to protect the people who have been brave enough to speak out.  Please, I beg you," my tone dripping with sarcasm, adding, "shall I lend you a pen now?" to the audience's delight.

Concerned that perhaps I had said too much in my rebuttal to the Doctor's comments, after the event was over I asked Ms. Shiraiwa if I had gone too far.  She insisted I had not and said, "when the Doctor suggested that the victims should be quiet or hide their faces, I saw the fathers in the front row starting to clench their fists.  They evacuated here from Fukushima.  If you hadn't put him in his place, I'm afraid the crowd would have attacked him."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unto others

Although I have been to Kyushu before, having visited Nagasaki with my father in 2013, this weekend was my first time in Oita Prefecture, famous for its hotsprings and hospitality.  This was also the first time for my film 'A2-B-C' (WEBSITE) to be shown in Kyushu, where it is screening in the towns of Usa and Nakatsu.  Mr. Nara, the organizer of the screening in Usa, met me at the airport.  On the way to the parking lot, Mr. Nara apologized that there was not time for a proper meal before the screening.  But when we arrived at his car, I found that on the back seat he had set out a picnic for me, complete with freshly brewed coffee and local Asian pears!

At the hall, more than a dozen volunteers were guiding over 120 attendees to their seats, and it was wonderful to see both young families and senior citizens gathered together to watch the film.

During the post-screening Q&A, a young woman shared that a local high school was planning to send its students to Fukushima in an effort to both educate the students and to demonstrate that Fukushima is safe and on the way to recovery.  She wanted to know my thoughts.

There have been other examples of young people, such as foreign university students who are studying in Japan for a semester, being invited by local governments in Fukushima (or perhaps even the national government?) to visit Fukushima.  Images of them having fun and eating local produce are then edited together into something that at best looks like a video to promote tourism in Fukushima and at worst, propaganda to be used in justifying the forceful return of nuclear evacuees through the discontinuation of the financial compensation which enables them to remain evacuated.

Is it acceptable to use our children for what are, in effect, commercial interests?

I was reminded of something else I find troubling: when visiting Fukushima, I have seen groups of so-called “volunteers” traipsing around temporary housing blocks, photographing residents’ unmentionables drying on the line and peeking their heads into open doors and windows.  Framing themselves with the rabbit-hutch-like temporary housing units squarely in the background, the “selfie” photographs they take with their sparkling new iPhones almost certainly end up on Facebook punctuated by words about how "satisfied" they feel about having “done some good” but how "difficult" it was for them to personally witness such devastation... all the while completely missing the point that none of this is about them, but about the people whose lives have been ruined, the people with whom they never took the time to actually speak.

“Fukushima is NOT a zoo!” I shouted.  “And nuclear refugees are NOT animals.  They are people!”  Mr. Nara later told me it was this part of the Q&A that had left the biggest impression on him.

It does not matter how much we do for others, if it is not what they need or desire, it will all be, in the truest sense of the word, in vain.  As volunteers, we are not called to do for others.  What we are called to do is to be open to receiving the privilege of using use our gifts to help others.  A friend who is an Anglican nun once described this to me an an "exchange of grace".  In other words, the giver is receiving an opportunity to give.

When there is a lack of awareness that the giver is also receiving, or when it is forgotten in the midst of thoughts such as “I am so busy with the volunteer work I do for others”, a feeling of “why am I not being appreciated for all that I am doing?” may occur in the so-called volunteer.  It may even lead to resentment toward the “ungrateful victims”.  At the same time, within the people ostensibly being helped, feelings of double-victimization may arise; this is when after the initial devastation of a disaster, they are treated like children- or worse, like animals- who are made to feel that they must be satisfied with whatever scraps are tossed their way.

Each time I visit Fukushima, I am aware of the ever-thinning line between volunteering and dark tourism.

The victims of a disaster who have lost absolutely everything except their love of family and their will to live or self-righteous egoists (in the form of volunteers, missionaries or, indeed, even journalists and filmmakers) who have “come to help”... who are the ones that are truly in need of being saved?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stick 'em up! Your money or your... freedom

The private screenings of 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) continued over the weekend with a screening in Nagano Prefecture (event info in Japanese/日本語 HERE, full independent screening schedule in Japanese/日本語 HERE).

It was a three-day weekend as yesterday was Respect for the Aged Day (INFO), and as such traffic was quite heavy as people headed out of the concrete jungle that is Tokyo to enjoy some time in the country-side.  At 8:40 am on Sunday morning as I was headed to the station to catch a bus to the trainstation-less town of Iijima in Nagano Prefecture, Mr. Obata, the screening organizer called and asked if I could possibly take the 9am bus rather than the one I planned to take at 10am; checking the road reports, Mr. Obata had discovered there was a 50km traffic jam heading out of Tokyo and the normally 3-hour ride was now expected to take over six(!). 

With less than 20 minutes to get to the station before the 9am bus left, there was no way I was going to make it, and even if I did, there was still no guarantee that I would arrive in time for the planned post-screening discussion in the afternoon.  Understandably sounding stressed, Mr. Obata said, "Please just head for the station, and I'll think of something."

To make a rather long (and now funny, but rather stressful at the time) story short, Mr. Obata figured out how to get me to the screening using two trains and a volunteer driving an hour and a half to the train station nearest to Iijima.  Thanks to Mr. Obata's quick thinking, I made it to the screening venue safely and even had a few minutes to spare!

The post-screening talk and Q&A was led by Mr. Obata.  Group member Ms. Morinaga Atsuko, an evacuee from Fukushima, also took part and shared her first-hand experiences.  Over 200 people were in attendance, but the audience was split between two different halls.  The main hall was reserved for young people above a certain age and adults.  The film was then simultaneously projected into a smaller room at the same venue.  This room was for families with little children and babies, and day care was also provided by volunteers.  The organizers of the event wanted to ensure that young families who desired to see the film could do so without feeling that their children might disturb the screening.  I thought this was a wonderful idea, and one that I hope more groups will embrace.

There were so many interesting questions, but one that really stands out had been in response to something I had said when answering another question.  When asked what it is that people in Fukushima need the most, I had responded "Information they can trust". 

A man then stood up and asked, "How do we know what information we can trust?"  Great question! As I have said many times before (like in THIS blog entry), I replied "Everything comes down to money."

I then gave the example that newspapers sell ads to survive, and they are therefore beholden to the companies that buy those ads (companies like TEPCO, for example).  The same is true for television.  Even NHK, the public broadcaster, which is ostensibly operating using the people's tax money for the people, is, in reality, receiving that money from the government.  Do they really have complete autonomy to conduct fair and unbiased reporting?

I continued: when you are looking for information that you can trust, you must first look at where the money that is supporting the research and dissemination of that information is coming from.  This is true for everything, including my documentaries.  That is why I fund my own films and do not work for a large news organization.  This may result in a financial struggle for me, but it also means that I have compete independence to make the films in the way that I feel is right.  Absolutely no one is controlling the content or editing of my work, and I would see accepting large amounts of funding as tantamount to selling one's freedom. 

In the car on the way back to the bus stop after the screening, Mr. Obata shared with me that after the nuclear meltdown, he had evacuated his wife and children out of the path of the radioactive fallout.  They had just built a brand new house, but the health of their three small children was all he could think about (photo with Mr. and Mrs. Obata and two of their children BELOW).  Working in forestry, Mr. Obata was fortunate to find a job in Nagano Prefecture, home of the "Japanese Alps", and joined his family a few month later.

The bus ride back to Tokyo would have been a relatively quick 3-hours, arriving in Shinjuku at 11:00PM, had it not been for the so-called "U-turn".  This is the term that is used to describe the large numbers of people returning to the capital after having left town for a long holiday weekend.  Stuck in a 40km traffic jam for nearly three hours, the bus finally arrived in Tokyo at 2am (!).  In an unfamiliar part of town, with no trains running and not enough money for a cab ride home or a descent hotel, it was the first time in a while where I wasn't sure what I was going to do.  

Life is like a documentary; you never know what is going to happen.  And indeed, it does all come down to money.  But given the choice, I choose freedom.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

It's official

After months of having to keep it a secret, the press embargo was lifted today as the official announcement was made: the World Premier of my documentary '-1287' will be in London's Raindance Film Festival, the largest festival of independent film in Europe!

Information about the screenings on October 1 at 1:10pm and October 3 at 9pm, along with the festival write-up of the film, can be found on the official Raindance film page for '-1287' (HERE).
This marks the second time for one of my films to screen in Raindance, after having the honour of holding the UK premier of 'A2-B-C' in last year's edition (STORY).

Thank you all so very much for your continued support!