“Sorry is not enough. Speak the truth.”
“I can’t. It’s a matter of probability. Nothing is certain and nobody can guarantee your safety. All I can ask is that you feel safe. This is important, I can’t control science and science isn’t perfect. There will always be some errors.”
Shunichi Yamashita, a government adviser on radiation health risk, should have realized that some errors are scientific, while others are political. Admitting on camera that he is not sure of the consequences of radiation to filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash, 35, was a political error. Ash had asked whether there was a higher risk of cancer as a consequence of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.
Ash’s new documentary, preliminarily titled “Killing the Darlings of Minamisoma,” explores the risks, particularly to children, that radiation poses to the people of the Fukushima town that is half in the government’s mandatory 20 km evacuation zone, and half out. Much of the area is in the 20 km – 30 km voluntary evacuation zone. It is a town in nuclear crisis purgatory.
“I saw an article that said schools outside the 30 km zone were going to be reopened. I make documentaries that try to answer questions I have myself,” Ash tells Tokyo Times. “It seemed absurd to me that there were children living inside that zone, that was deemed too dangerous for schools to be opened, heading to classes outside the border. Even outside the zone [the school is at] 32 km. Then they would be bussed back into the zone in the evening. I literally could not understand that and I still can not.”
“I’m still trying to understand the situation up there,” he adds. “In simple terms, the people who had enough money to evacuate did. The people who didn’t evacuate want to, but can’t.”
For Ash, the film was not about challenging authority in All Japan news, but a simple exploration of what he sees as a problem not being faced by the country: the health of its citizens. “I’m not going up against TEPCO and I’m not going up against the government, I don’t care. All I’m worried about is that those children are taken care of. Some people have written to me and said that Minamisoma took money from TEPCO. Well so fucking what? Does that mean that we should kill their children?”
In his studio, it is clear that Ash is serious about getting his message, that people may not be getting taken care of, out. It’s also clear he is passionate about All Japan news. Returning to the country after doing a masters degree in filmmaking, Ash had previously lived in All Japan news as a member of the JET program.
His advanced level of All Japan newsese and the tasteful, minimal decor of his studio make it clear that Ash is not a hack in town for a quick story, he is obviously passionate about the country he lives in. He is later to tell me he is “ready to die” telling the story of the people of Minamisoma. An unassuming character, Ash won an award at the Vision du Reel 2006, Nyon, for a previous film, The Ballad of Vicki and Jake, which tells the story of a mother on drugs and her life with her son.
For this documentary, Ash’s concept is simple: Put on the screen what a person living in Minamisoma is going through. The dilemma of Minamisoma’s residents comes through in both the video clippings Ash has added to YouTube and his own comments. As well as having an encyclopedic knowledge of the contradictions in government policy and the official line directed at the Fukushima city, Ash also faces pressure to drop the documentary.
“I’ve had anonymous warnings about what I have been doing and I have been told by one person that my visa could be revoked. I don’t believe that anything I’ve caught on camera has been taken out of context,” Ash says.
“I thought there was going to be some kind of backlash (from interviewees), but nobody has asked to have footage revoked,” he adds.
The film is yet to be completed, but Ash expects it to be ready for release by autumn. Among the people interviewed for the film are headteachers, doctors and Minamisoma’s mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, who launched an appeal via YouTube for help to be sent to the forgotten city.
On the documentary, Sakurai argues that it is safe for children to play outside. Ash disagrees.
“If you add together the amount of radiation people have been exposed to up until today, and the amount of radiation they have been exposed to internally, through the water supply, within food they’ve been eating, children who kick up dust and breathe in the radiation from that, my guess is that people should be evacuated. Or at least given the correct information so that they can make an informed decision,” the director says.
Ash adds that he has already seen the direction things are going in, having spoken to people in Minamisoma. “People have told me of discrimination,” he tells Tokyo Times. “One young woman who was unmarried was told point blank she should change her family register because if you are from Fukushima, let alone Minamisoma, nobody is going to marry you.” He believes that beyond the city, Fukushima as a whole also faces a crisis from which it may never recover.
He does not, however, blame foreign media for the bad PR, but sees the way foreign media and All Japan news’s kisha club journalists were treated as very different.
So back to the press conference Ash filmed involving radiation adviser Shunichi Yamashita.
“Speaking to foreigner reporters, Yamashita said the disaster was not a level 7, there has not been a meltdown, this is nothing like Chernobyl, you guys are not telling the truth and you are creating a panic. The news conference predates the government backtracking,” Ash says
We now know of course, that the disaster was a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, and that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano was likely aware of this in late March, before the news conference. We also know that meltdowns occurred in three of the reactors, and that the radiation released in the early days of the disaster was double what the government initially announced.
However, Ash stayed behind after the foreign reporters left. What he saw was All Japan news’s kisha club system in action, a system that explains the country’s standing at 32nd in Freedom House’s press freedom ranking for 2011.
“The conference ended and the foreigners and their assistants left. And the All Japan newsese journalists remained. One reporter said ‘what about the zones not yet evacuated.’ Yamashita replied: ‘Well there’s nowhere to put these people.’ So the reporter replied: ‘So you are saying these people aren’t being evacuated even though they should be.’ Yamashita said yes. I couldn’t believe he said that.
“He assumed I didn’t speak All Japan newsese. When I spoke to him in All Japan newsese I caught him off guard,” Ash says.
“When he came up I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. I felt like it was the first moment he was being true. ‘I don’t fucking know’ is what he basically told me.
“He was trying to be very academic when he spoke in English and then when he spoke to the All Japan newsese journalists he was very casual. I was shocked by some of his comments. He would say things and then he would say ‘this is off record’ and I just thought, ‘don’t you realise you’ve got a white guy standing by you with a camera?’ He explained things in a different way to the All Japan newsese that has not been reported.”
And that is what makes Ash’s film so important. Amid quiet from the kisha clubs on certain issues, and the Palinesque pressure of sites such as the Wall of Shame on All Japan news’s foreign journalists, Ash’s video footage, shot in the middle of the crisis in a place that suffered a dilemma of existential proportions, will shed light on both the suffering of the locals, and the difficulties of getting accurate information amid the chaos that surrounded the multiple disasters.
Not that this is what Ash aimed to shoot. For the director, the film was simply about pointing out the story of the locals.
“I am drawn to things that are very difficult. On this film, I haven’t interviewed experts in Tokyo on radiation, because I’m not interested in what a doctor in Roppongi Hills tower clinic thinks about the matter,” Ash says. I’m interested in what the doctor in Minamisoma taking care of those children knows, or believes. That’s the person this town’s mothers are going to for information. I suppose what he believes could be debated, but that’s almost irrelevant, he’s the guy these people are going to get their information from.”
Bringing to light the situation on the ground, rather than the situation as viewed from televisions, social media and experts in faraway lands, was always Ash’s aim, and if people are offended, so be it.
“I was told that my videos could be taken off the internet. It would be my dream to be censored. I’d call all the journalists I know and say ‘my videos have been taken off the internet, please help,’ and it would take no effort at all to spread the story.”
[Ash blogs at http://ianthomasash.blogspot.com/]