American-born independent filmmaker who has lived in Japan since early adulthood, Ian Thomas Ash, like many filmmakers, went directly to the devastated lands of Tohoku (northern main island of Japan) to bear witness to the chaos, however controlled, that reigned in the souls, bodies and territories of the Fukushima region following the March 11, 2011 cataclysm. Meeting and discussion.
To begin our interview, I propose to go back to your first shootings in the devastated province of Fukushima, within the exclusion and recommendation zones of 20km and 30km. What were the shooting conditions at the time of the two documentaries « In the Grey Zone » and « A2-B‑C »?
At the time of my first shots in Minamisoma (one of the evacuated cities) in April 2011 for « In the Grey Zone », the train connections were broken, the highway had just reopened and it was very difficult to find a hotel room. Those that were not too badly damaged by the tsunami or the earthquake were filled with volunteers from NGOs and people working for architects and other engineers who had come to assess the situation. In addition to the difficulty of finding a place to live, there were also difficulties related to the reliability of food and water resources: at that moment, it was impossible to know to what degree these resources were contaminated by radioactivity and I could not foresee what I had to bring from Tokyo at all costs. There was panic and water supplies were also rationed. It was a period full of uncertainty and particularly precarious. The population was also anxious to obtain radioactivity detectors, which were soon unavailable in Japan. The only solution was to import them from Europe and the United States, which obviously represented significant costs.
When you arrived, how did the locals react to your investigation into survival in the area and the initial concerns about the health of the children?
In the early days, cameras were commonplace in the 20 and 30 km evacuation zones, so it was not uncommon for locals to meet outsiders — my cameraman is English — to witness the situation. The inhabitants saw this agitation in a positive light and felt the need to talk about what was happening to them. A family with four children quickly invited us to stay at their home to document the situation from the inside. People really wanted to be interviewed at the time, even though, beyond the material damage, any discussion of the nuclear risk remained theoretical and ultimately rather unreal. No one had any idea yet what might happen to the children… I had the opportunity to interview the mayor of the city of Minamisoma, the principal of the school, the principal of one of the schools that was reopening at the time, parents… With no opposition. The situation has changed a lot since then.
After the shooting, you told me that you had great difficulty in screening your films in Japan and more particularly in the Fukushima region, partly because of the reaction of the mothers interviewed in your films, for whom the possibility of a screening was not easy to handle.
Yes, but this was not yet the case for the first film « In the Grey Zone ». After making this film, I continued to go there to document the situation via my Youtube channel and, a year and a half after my first visit, the concerns about the state of the thyroid of the youngest met their first confirmations. It was definitely no longer a simple update but a new film. At that time, a year after the disaster, finding people who were willing to testify was complicated. The mothers I met for « A2-B‑C » were very rare. After the film was finished, some friends, colleagues and other people active in the film industry gave me very different reactions because there was still no tangible evidence, through their scientific eyes, to support the complaints of the children’s mothers. « This film is neither more nor less than a documentation of fear » a colleague once told me. It soon became obvious that it would be complicated to project « A2-B‑C » in Japan.
To give the film some visibility in the peninsula, I followed the strategy of reverse importing. This strategy works in two steps: first, to tour foreign festivals and then to make the film a must-see in the country. A year and a half of touring, twenty festivals and a few awards later, I finally found a Japanese distributor(1). So from May 2014, he had a Japanese life of approximately 6 months, despite the pressures. The film’s reputation was poor: many people talked about it without having seen it, announcing that these women were being dramatic. Social media was inflammatory about them. We made a major effort in terms of communication to protect the families in the film as much as possible. At the same time, we had to be attentive to the slightest reactions posted on social networks about the film and the mothers interviewed. I kept in touch with them regularly to make sure nothing went wrong. The film’s domestic release period was eventful and by February 2015, it became clear that the distributor was preparing to permanently discontinue the film.
When and how did you feel the wind change? Why did the distributor make this decision? Is the decision to cancel the screening of A2-B‑C » in the city of Fukushima shortly before the fourth anniversary of the disaster related to these events?
One of the central problems with this unilateral decision by the distributor is that it did not allow me to be in control of the fate of my film. Following the contract signed with him, he held the rights to screen the film. I was forced to sign another contract with a confidentiality clause in order to take over the life of the film. To answer the question more directly, the beginning of trouble started in January-February 2015 with rumors published on social networks and the site « two channel »(2) that one of the filmed mothers belonged to a formerly active and violent communist groupuscule. This meant that either I was a communist or I had received money from communists for the film. The fact that a person interviewed in the film was accused of belonging to a communist group discredited « A2B‑C » at a stroke. Once these rumors were known to the distributor, we had an emergency meeting to discuss them and to know how to position ourselves on this issue. To me, it didn’t matter. At worst, we could add a sign at the beginning of the film stating that we had learned long after the filming that one of the mothers interviewed was a member of a communist group and that we disclaimed any responsibility for this. Even that seemed like overkill to me. Especially since these rumors have never been confirmed… Finally, the distributor made the decision you know on this basis alone.
The cancellation of the beginning of the year in Fukushima is not directly related to this atmosphere. Still, the magnitude of the story ended up terrifying the other women on camera. They, too, felt endangered by the presence of a potential red whose involvement could splash their credibility. Above all, this amalgamation could easily put them out of the community if the film was screened in their region. The film had already been scheduled in Fukushima in the past, for a private screening accessible only by invitation. To the heavy suspicions was added the implementation of the so-called « Secrecy Law » on the Japanese territory which finally brought them to the borders of paranoia. Sorry, I’m talking about paranoia but I think their fears were perfectly justified. As the director of the film, I made the decision to listen to these fears and cancel the screening in Fukushima. We could not guarantee that the session would go well or that their daily lives would not be affected by the screening. I didn’t want to risk imposing such a situation on them. It was only two weeks later that the real trouble with the distributor started.
This is just a suggestion, but don’t you think that this story of communist implications is just a convenient excuse to stop the broadcasting of a film embarrassing the bearers of the beatific discourse on the effects of radioactivity on the youngest in Fukushima?
Exactly! I mean, if you’re asking me if I think there was pressure or if the reason that was given was not the reason that led to the film being discontinued, I think that’s a possibility, yes. What remains certain, however, is that the reason given to me is the possibility of communist implications. I am not aware of any pressure being exerted, I think so but cannot prove or affirm it. I can only tell you that when the decision was made, the distributors did not give me the impression that they were responsible. I don’t think they made the decision they thought was right. The members of the selection committee of the distribution company are all relatively young, have children and were convinced that the film should be programmed. The defense of this film throughout Japan was the primary reason for the establishment of their team. This situation is sad for them as well as for me and I am deeply sorry that they had to make this decision. So yes, I think it is quite justified to think that the decision to stop the film was not related to any communist affiliation of any of the mothers interviewed. However, if you want to discredit someone in Japan, the best solution is to say that his ideas are communist or that he is of Korean origin. Or worse, that it combines these two defects.
Let’s go back to the law of secrecy for a moment. Briefly, can you tell us what it is and how long it has been in effect?
I believe that this law is directly influenced by the American Patriot Act. It gives the government free rein to arrest anyone for absolutely anything in order to control the population. Officially, the purpose of this law is to protect information that would be considered a state secret. No further details. It’s not just a question of what information you release; you only need to plan an investigation that is deemed embarrassing to violate this law. This law was vehemently opposed at the time, but it passed. It was widely questioned by the foreign media at the time of its conception. « What is considered secret is secret » was the central question asked during the press conference, asking for clarification as to what would now be considered a state secret. « What is considered secret is secret » was the answer. It can cover absolutely everything from the situation in Fukushima of course, to the tensions with foreign countries or the issue of the US military bases in Okinawa island… One of the central aspects of the implementation of this type of law is not so much the censorship but the fear it will create and therefore the self-censorship that anyone working on sensitive subjects that might disturb the government will impose on themselves. Assuming no arrests are made, the mere implementation of this law has a definite impact on press freedom.
I imagine this new law has a direct effect on your work?
I guess, but you know what: Fuck them! I am not accountable to anyone but my subjects. As a foreigner without a permanent residence permit, this is an uncomfortable situation. I don’t want to go into the details of my personal situation, I have problems every year that I didn’t have before to renew my visa. Perhaps it is a coincidence. I obviously have no proof of anything, but one thing is certain, before making « A2-B‑C », I had never experienced any visa renewal problems.
My question was also about the people you are trying to interview.
Absolutely. Talking about such topics has indeed become a real concern. Also, following the events related to « A2-B‑C » and the fact that I am the director, people are less inclined to talk to me about their personal situations. The law of secrecy is obviously an additional element that has a considerable effect on freedom of speech.
The European media recently reported that some of the refugees could return home. What exactly is the situation? How does this return happen?
The 20 and 30 km zones were established for financial reasons, one of the objectives being to limit the number of households affected by the evacuations. The radioactive hazard is not the only aspect to consider. This is a fact. When some of the evacuees are asked to return to their homes, the majority of the areas have not been decontaminated despite reassuring speeches — a total decontamination is impossible — and what the government is imposing is not so much a benevolent return to their land as a halt to the payment of financial compensation and a return of taxes. In other words, anyone who wishes to remain an « evacuee » will now do so at their own expense. It is impossible to separate these two issues. On the other hand, the government no longer levied taxes on the evacuated population. Taxes that he now wishes to collect again…
Is the population convinced by the idea of return in these circumstances?
The majority of the young people refuse to do so, but the vast majority of the elders are quite happy to finally return to their land. An additional concern is that the Fukushima region was already not densely populated and tended to be a land of emigration. If there is only an aging population left, who will take care of them when health problems increase? Who will take care of her? There are no more stores, hospitals, gas stations… Who would still be willing to open a store in this area? How will the population live? One of the concerns remains that the government has told the evacuees that eventually — and as quickly as possible — they will be able to return. A large proportion of them did not bother to consider their situation as anything other than a definite moment in their existence and therefore did not create any links with their new neighbors or with their new environment. The only desire anchored deep inside them was definitely that of return. If you are more honest in telling the public what is going on, they are able to see the situation and more easily adapt to it.
Finally, do you have access to information about the status of the Fukushima plant?
It’s hard to say. Who and what to believe? NHK (national television)? Probably not. Private television stations that operate on advertising revenues and sponsorships, including those from the nuclear industry? NGOs that have a political interest in rejecting nuclear power? The best thing is to listen to as much information as possible and to cross-check it, but my feeling is that they don’t know exactly what is going on, that they have no idea about the state of the nuclear fuel. Despite their speeches, they remain overwhelmed by the situation. There is nothing to prevent another earthquake or typhoon from hitting what is left of the plant. I don’t think the situation is stable enough to return evacuees to the area. But it is no longer in the daily news. Tokyo does not think about it anymore. Neither did the population of Fukushima. The only thing left for them is the absolute necessity of not rotting their lives anymore and to deal with it.
Interview by Nicolas Bras
Ian Thomas Ash has made two documentaries about the effect of radioactivity on children. He also maintains a blog that relays the latest developments in the situation — documentingian.com — and a Youtube channel that allows him to complete his testimonies.
- Personne ou équipe en charge de trouver des salles pour projeter un film.
- Site web japonais populaire qui permet de poster anonymement toute sorte de messages. Son fondateur, Hiroyuki nishimura, est aujourd’hui le directeur du célèbre forum 4chan.