My response to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident on the northeastern coastline of Tohoku, Japan was immediate and natural. I am a mother, a grandmother, and a Canadian of Japanese ancestry who deeply loves Japan.
At first, I went to Tohoku not as a filmmaker but as a volunteer to help with fundraising and do work with young people.
The more time I spent along the devastated coast provinces of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima provinces, I met more survivors and my role in Tohoku gradually changed.
Many victims asked, sometimes even begged me to help them tell their stories in a film. I kept saying no up until I walked down an deserted main street of a contaminated Fukushima town for the first time.
The town was located inside the 20 km ‘no-go’ zone affected by the nuclear power plant explosion.
There were no sounds of people walking and talking, no children playing and laughing, no dogs barking, no cars filling the streets, no trains coming to the station. The emptiness was filled only with whispers from the wind and a few birds.
This eerie silence brought me to tears and the filmmaker inside me rose to the surface.
It was at this moment when I first turned my small SLR camera, beginning more than two years of filming with the Tohoku people for this documentary, A New Moon Over Tohoku.
In the 2.5 years in Tohoku, I interviewed over 80 people up and down the coastline from Iwate ken to Fukushima ken, doing much of the camera work alone. There were lots of challenges to face, but so many people helped along the way.
Maybe the fact that I was a foreigner, a third generation Japanese Canadian, a woman traveling alone, an artist and someone who didn’t completely understand their language helped to create a safe distance yet intimate closeness between us.
The fact that I didn’t stay for just a week or a month, but several years listening and learning, visiting and recording them help create strong friendships and bonds that allowed deeper feelings to be expressed together.
Maybe all of the above also helped me to understand some things that were left unspoken in words, but expressed in their tone of voice, their body language, their song, their food and their dance.
After our interviews, many people expressed how important it was to finally be able to speak so freely about their pains, losses, joys, fears, anger, and love. Something that is usually frowned upon in their culture.
The process of telling their story became a part of their healing.
Their voices help us recognize what it is that makes us all human. Birth, death, joy, loss, love, pain, sickness, health….all the qualities we share as people. Only when one is faced with complete loss so suddenly, it is easier to see what is vital and what is not, for one’s well-being.
Award winning Canadian cinematographer, Kirk Tougas, came to join me for one month from Canada as my cameraman. He later wrote:
“Working with Ohama in Japan I couldn’t help but marvel at the depths with which she connected with people who have experienced the harshest tragedy. Reserved, quietspoken Japanese were willing to share with her their innermost thoughts and feelings, words that they might not even voice to their closest friends, and never in public...
The samurai we filmed is real, not a movie star, and the centuries old tradition of discipline and horsemanship continues. The dancers we filmed are young, yet the dances link back through the centuries, and these young women dance for a generation claiming a right to a future. The childhood song sung by many film participants resonated in the Japanese soul, a lament seeking to regain the marvel of home.....” (Kirk Tougas, cinematographer)
A New Moon over Tohoku