by Brian Hioe
On August 9th in Tokyo, Japan, New Bloom’s Brian Hioe sat down with documentary filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash for a conversation.
Born in America, Ian Thomas Ash earned an MA in Film and Television Production at the University of Bristol, UK, in 2005. His first feature documentary, the ballad of vicki and jake (84 min/ UK/ 2006), received the Prix du Canton Vaud prize at the 2006 Visions du Reél International Documentary Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland.
At the 2012 Rhode Island International Film Festival, Ian’s film In the Grey Zone (89 min/ Japan/ 2012), about children living in Fukushima after the nuclear meltdown, won the “Audience Choice Award First Prize for Best Documentary”, and at the same festival Ian was presented with the “Filmmaker of the Future Award”.
Ian’s second film about children living in Fukushima, A2-B-C (71 min/ Japan/ 2013), received the “Nippon Visions Award” (best film by new-coming Japan-based director) at the 2013 Nippon Connection Film Festival (Germany), the “Best of Festival” award at the 2013 Guam International Film Festival, the award for “Best Documentary” at the 2013 STEPS Rights Film Festival (Ukraine), and a Special Recognition at the 2014 Uranium Film Festival (Brazil).
–1287, Ian’s latest documentary, will begin screening in the autumn of 2014. The Asian Premier will be at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival running from October 9 to 19 in Taipei. Ian has lived in Japan for 12 years and currently lives in Tokyo.
Brian Hioe: To begin with, please briefly describe the history which led you to film A2-B-C. Firstly, what was it that led you to become a documentary filmmaker and, secondly, what was it that led you to become a documentary filmmaker living in Japan?
Ian Thomas Ash: I was living in Japan for three years from 2000 to 2003 and I was teaching English at a junior high school. It was my first job. I had graduated with a degree in English literature, then moved to Japan and was in the JET program for three years. I was making short documentaries as a hobby before I went to graduate school in the UK. I moved to the UK for about a year and a half and went to graduate school. When I graduated I had an MA in film and television production and then I moved back to Japan.
So I was just moving back home to Japan. I wasn’t moving to Japan to become a documentary filmmaker, I was simply a filmmaker and I was moving back home to Japan. Meanwhile, I was making some other films. Usually I make films about some kind of issue. Like I did a film about homelessness and drug abuse, these kinds of things.
When 3/11 happened in 2011, I, like many other people, were frozen in thinking, “What’s happening?” My brother said, “You’re a filmmaker. Go out and film.” And so I filmed things in Tokyo. In Tokyo I went to Ishinomaki where the tsunami had come. Then eventually I went to Fukushima. It was a very organic process. It’s a long answer, but basically, I didn’t come to Japan to make films. I’m not an anti-nuclear filmmaker, for example, it’s just an organic process that leads me to film these things.
BH: In regards to Fukushima, we just kind of went over the process that led you up to the film. That is, living in Japan, it’s hard to get away from Fukushima as an issue. But why specifically children in Fukushima? You know, I saw the film Women of Fukushima in New York City awhile ago, organized by the Todos Somos Japon group, which focused on women. In regards to your own film, was it a conscious decision to focus on children? Or did it just sort of end up as the topic?
ITA: Well, a couple of years ago, I was giving a presentation at a university about my filmmaking career. They were showing clips of different films of mine. And the professor who had organized the event turns to me and said—we’re on a panel discussion—“What is it about you and children?” And I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “All your films are about kids.” I was like, “Huh.”
Actually, most of my films have been about mothers and sons. For example, like I mentioned, I did a film about homelessness and drug abuse, it was about the son of a person who is homeless. Or A2-B-C. A2-B-C is actually the second film in a series about Fukushima, the first film, In the Grey Zone, was about children as well. So I don’t know the answer to your question, but for some reason my eye goes to children. It’s children plus an issue or it’s an issue through the eyes of the children.
If you really were to push me to make an answer it’s probably because adults can choose what they feel about something, whether a circumstance, or to change something, but the children—although they have a voice—they are not listened to, and they have to depend on what the adults around them say. It isn’t about giving them a voice but giving them a platform for their voice to be heard. I also don’t see them as children, I see them as my brothers and sisters. I don’t see them as smaller but as my equals.
BH: So you would say it’s a thematic of your work.
ITA: Yes, but it’s not conscious.
An Anti-Nuclear Film? Objectivity and Provocation in Documentary
BH: In relation to social issues, you mentioned earlier you don’t see yourself as an anti-nuclear filmmaker. Is there a degree to which you see yourself as an activist? Or as a documentary filmmaker is your role just to document? Before we just talked about children, for instance, children in relation to an issue or a circumstance.
ITA: I mean, I am a filmmaker. I remember when we were making the film about the son of this woman who is homeless, the girlfriend of my cameraman got really upset and said, “Well, did you help him with his homework?”
But you know, we’re not social workers. We are documenting what is happening and that’s the work we are doing. And I actually think my work is stronger because I’m not a social worker or because I’m not an activist and I think that if I were to approach an issue like Fukushima as an activist, my guess is that I would come out with a film which only meant something to activists.
What needs to happen is, I believe, we need to document the truth about what’s happening as much as we can, and then people are able to make a decision for themselves. If I were to come out as being an “anti-nuclear activist filmmaker”, I believe that my films would no longer have a general appeal. And if only anti-nuclear activists are interested in my films, that would be preaching to the choir, and we need to be reaching to people who aren’t necessarily thinking about these issues already. So I think the struggle with the anti-nuclear movement is how to get people to give a shit about what’s happening because if you already care enough to show up at meetings and demonstrations, you’re halfway there.
The truth is that, as I say, I am not an activist, I am not an activist; of course, I’m slowly becoming an activist, that’s what happens. But I also think that I have to be very level, very objective. Otherwise I won’t be able to continue making the films that I make.
I’m making another film about Fukushima, a third film. In between, I’m putting out another film which is not about Fukushima at all. I think it’s important for people to know that. For people to know that I’m a filmmaker. One activist asked me, “Does that mean you’re no longer going to do anything about Fukushima, that you’re basically giving up on us?” And I was like, “Why does my making a film about something else mean I no longer care about what’s happening in Fukushima?” If anything, by my films remaining in the news, my films continuing to be shown at festivals around the world, even if it’s not a film about Fukushima, it still keeps the spotlight on my work. Which includes work on Fukushima. As it’s going to take awhile for me to finish the third film on Fukushima, in the meantime, I’ve made a new film.
BH: In some sense, we just talked about target audiences. That we can’t be preaching to the choir in making a film, and there’s a larger audience to consider. But in regards to Japan and outside Japan, do you think there’s a difference in your audience?
There’s the question of public reception, but I think you mentioned this before that the film was first released outside of Japan before it was released within it, namely, because of the unwillingness of distributors to release in Japan. So I’m wondering who are you aiming at with your work? But also if you could speak to the differences between the audience in Japan and outside.
ITA: I would never recommend you to make films the way I make films because I never think about target audiences. The films that I make are for me. I believe that if they mean something to me, they can mean something to someone else. I am trying to make a film to understand something myself and to try to come to some understanding. So I wasn’t really thinking about it. I knew that the work I was doing would probably be embraced by the anti-nuclear movement, but it certainly was not for them.
But again, I think that’s one of its strengths. I’m honored that people feel that the film is very true to them, that the film shows the message that they have been trying to say. That’s because I didn’t really have an agenda. I really felt like I needed to stay true to what I know, because if I try to make a film about a bigger issue, a broader issue, I can’t—I’m just one person. However, I knew I could make a film about families and what people that are living there are actually going through.
And so, I don’t think I thought that it was going to be as difficult as it was to get released in Japan, although I probably might have given you a different answer a year ago. Right now it all seems to have worked out. The other thing is that it may be if we had tried to release the film a year ago, it wouldn’t have worked. People weren’t ready for it. You’re not always ready to look at your own dirty laundry as a people, as human beings. We’ll look at other people’s shit, but we don’t want to look at our own. Maybe it’s just a natural response.
I wonder about that. For example, if you made a film about this in America, would you be able to release it that early? I don’t know. But I met a lot of resistance. And I think that people were willing to embrace it more in America or abroad because it wasn’t happening there. You have…the word in Japanese is youyu. A comfortable distance away from you, so you have the ability to take it all in, because you have that freedom of it being far away. Whereas I don’t think people here have that freedom to be able to really look at what is happening in their own country. Does that answer the question?
BH: I think so. But can you talk a little bit more about the distancing effect?
ITA: Well, for example, America or Germany, why were they able to evacuate the people that they evacuated as quickly as they did from Fukushima? Because it wasn’t happening in their own country. If this had been going down in Korea, Japan would be the first one to be releasing information. But they didn’t, because this was happening here. I think that by having a comfortable distance away from what’s happening, you’re able to be more honest. Because you don’t have to take the responsibility.
Anti-nuclear protest in Nagatacho, Tokyo on July 13, 2012, outside the Japanese Diet, during a summer which saw the march of tens of thousands against the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
BH: Do you think your role as a filmmaker would be bringing people closer? That is, would you hope to force people to look at something they don’t want to see?
ITA: Absolutely. If I come out and say, here’s my film, and at the end of my film, I put one card which says, “You see. And this is why we should get rid of nuclear power plants,” it would turn people off. So what do I do?
BH: Leave it open-ended.
ITA: Leave it open-ended. You look at that film and you decide, “Can you live with this? Is this okay?” And people come to that conclusion on their own. You can’t make somebody be anti-nuclear by saying, “You should be anti-nuclear.” It’s like trying to convert somebody to Christianity; if they don’t know the reason why, it won’t make any sense. If somebody is going to do that, then they need to come to that conclusion on their own. And so I think the most important thing any anti-nuclear activist could do is to provide the information for people to come conclusions on their own.
Human Nature and the Rise and Fall of Anti-Nuclear Movements
BH: Moving on, do you have any thoughts on the state of current anti-nuclear politics in Japan? It seems like in our discussion, there’s some sense in which you point to certain flaws, or problems, or kind of problems with approaches you see. For example, there’s the question of the decline of the anti-nuclear movement, the fact that in Japan, it was very large two years ago but in numbers at least it has dropped. And there’s also the question of how effective it has been.
ITA: I don’t really have much to compare it to, but from what I see, the anti-nuclear movement in Japan is full of elderly people. Which is great, because you need older people to guide and help with their experience. But they’re not really great at energizing and invigorating the movement. How do you get young people to be part of the movement? One of the things I’ve been so surprised at is when I go to Taiwan, it’s how young the movement is, how many students there are, and how much energy there is. You know, people are willing to speak out. So I wonder what that difference is.
Anti-nuclear protest in Taipei on April 27, 2014 in which 40,000 occupied Zhongxiao West Road stretching into nightfall. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
They themselves may be a minority, I don’t know. But from what I can see, it just feels like people in Japan are so reluctant to go out, be public, speak out and take part in those demonstrations.
It’s just human nature, I think. With the anti-nuclear movement, I think the government of Japan knew that, within reason, it could let them do what they were going to do. Sort of like telling a toddler that’s running around in circles to stop running around in circles. If you do so, they’ll do it more and more and more. What you do is you let the child run around until they get so tired they fall over and sleep. So I think that’s what the Japanese government has done.
Within reason, they have let the anti-nuclear movement to run its course and for people naturally give up, and get tired of it. It’s this kind of human nature. It’s completely lost momentum as a result. And who’s left? Only the most hardcore people are left. And the government says, “Look, it’s full of crazy people, or it’s full of hippies, or Communists,” or whatever it is people say. But the truth is, that if you were somebody going for the first time, you might be a little bit put off by the people that are left.
BH: It’s the question of pulling in ‘normal’ people. Pulling in people who normally don’t go to demonstrations to go to an anti-nuclear demo. It’s the question of how to keep people in the orbit of a movement, I think.
I’m curious if you have any thoughts on what might reinvigorate the anti-nuclear movement, because you’ve seen a lot of different contexts for the anti-nuclear movement across the world. There’s Japan, of course, but you also mentioned Taiwan…
ITA: Well, unfortunately, something else is going to have to happen, I suppose. Let’s be honest: in the case of Taiwan, the anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan was reinvigorated by Fukushima.
BH: Yeah, it’s only a two-year development, more or less.
ITA: Again, it’s human nature. How long did it last after Chernobyl? How long did it last after Three Mile Island?
BH: It’s the question of maintaining long-term activity versus short-term activity.
ITA: To be honest with you, it’s not really fun. It’s not really interesting. If you just want to go and have dinner with your friends, if you want to go shopping, you know, it’s difficult, because where do you stop?There’s no end. If I think about where my energy is coming from, maybe I should really think about where my water is coming from, and maybe I should really think about where my clothes are coming from, and I should be thinking about sustainable sources of food. Where do I put the limit? Once you go down that road, life becomes really difficult, and not everyone wants to face that. Then you’ve got to face the fact that, shit, someday I’m going to die. Who wants to think of that? And that’s not really good for selling McDonald’s, right? Because really we’re all here for one thing, which is to buy shit. We’re shit-buying slaves, that’s about it, and that shit that we’re buying is made by slaves in other countries.
BH: Do you think there’s a way that as a foreigner living in Japan, people are interested in your perspective in that way? There are people that criticize your viewpoint as a foreigner. For example, I see some of the crazy things on your blog.
Similar to that, we ourselves, as a publication, was started by two Americans, including myself, but we’ve been attacked before for supposedly looking at people under a microscope or just not being able to understand social issues inherent to Taiwan as outsiders. For example, lack of sensibility regarding ethnic tensions, or things like that.
ITA: You know, I think people are much more conscious of the fact that I’m foreign than I am. I was asked by a film festival to write an article about being a foreign filmmaker in Japan and it’s not actually something that I’m conscious of at every moment. It’s just not. If people are going to attack you, they’re going to attack you for any reason. I’m too young to understand or I’m too old to understand, or I’m a man so I wouldn’t understand, or I’m white, so I wouldn’t understand.
Was I not born here? Yes, that’s true, I was not born here. But I lived here when Fukushima happened. And it affected me like it affected everyone else, living in Tokyo. The only, you call it, benefit I have is that I suppose if I had wanted to “go home”, I could have done that. But this is my home and that’s what people don’t understand. I’ve lived here for about twelve years and I was not about to leave just because something happened.
BH: Something that was very interesting to me in the film was the segment where you’re confronting the government official. You confront him in Japanese. You’re very much in the center of the scene. You’re very much holding the camera and talking to that school official or that government official and stuff like that. Not a lot of foreigners could have or would have done that.
ITA: That’s another stylistic thing. I always try to make films where I’m not going to be in them and yet I always am. It’s just how the way it happens. It’s true.
Whether it’s English, or it’s American, or whether it’s Japanese, how I make films is very much how I develop relationships with the people that I’m filming. I mean, you can tell in the film, I’m basically living with some of the families at one point. And so, that does enter into it. Now, for example, the fact that I happen to be western, does that impact how I make the film, sure. Would they have let a Japanese crew in, maybe not. I don’t know. We can’t really say.
On the matter of language, although of course, I do speak Japanese, there are some words I don’t understand. My Japanese is not one hundred percent fluent. So I think that on a subconscious level, what people, particularly Japanese people are surprised at is how directly the people are speaking. I think it’s because somewhere in their mind, at some point, they know they can’t bullshit me because I won’t get it, so they have to speak really clearly. There are other times where they’ll say that if they said something I don’t understand or don’t know what that is, if I just say “Yes,” then they’ll carry on, but I’ll say, “No.” Like, “No, explain it to me.” That’s how I’ll get more detailed explanations, because they have to explain something to me, where we don’t have this mutual understanding about something. Am I answering your question?
BH: I think you’re hitting on it. How would you respond to critics in some sense? If they’re always going to be those kinds of critics.
ITA: Well, you know what. I’m grateful for my critics because the more they bash me, the more press there is about the film.
BH: No publicity is bad publicity.
ITA: Exactly. I wrote that in my blog as well. If people want to say that, if you can look at my film, and you look at the story of these mothers and these children and the only thing you can pick apart is the fact that I happen to be white, you know, you’ve got a big problem. I mean, these kids are being exposed to radiation and it’s not my fault. The only thing that I wish people understand is that I’m making these films because I love Japan. I’m not criticizing them because I hate them. I am criticizing what’s happening because I love the country and I love these people. That’s where I’m coming from.
BH: It’s funny because, I think it’s something endemic to the fact that these kind of people who are journalists or documentarians of a country who are not from that country. This happens a lot in Taiwan, to us, and to the other foreigner journalists or activists that are present in Taiwan.
ITA: This is just my personal thing, but my policy is that I don’t make films with translators. I’m going to have a relationship with the people that I’m filming. So I don’t go through a translator. And that makes a huge difference. That I’m speaking their language.
The Future: ”I Hope That There is Hope”
BH: How do you see your film as influencing the current state of anti-nuclear politics in Japan? We talked about how it has been used. But how do you see it as affecting the current, might we call it, impasse? It is, I think, getting a lot of attention. It is making the festival circuit. And it’s good that it’s getting international attention. But how do you see it affecting the present?
ITA: I don’t have a lot of hope, honestly. Some people watch my film and they say to me, they sense all this hope, and I think to myself, “Where are you getting that from?” I don’t have a lot of hope. I hope that there’s hope.
I also don’t have delusions of grandeur. I don’t see this film being a turning point. I really don’t. If it is, it’s because it’s the story of the mothers. I don’t know that it’s going to make a difference. I will say that relative to other films, which are more topical. Because my film, it’s about Fukushima, but in other ways, it’s really just about a group of people that becomes disenfranchised when something happens, whether that’s Hurricane Katrina or Fukushima or any other thing like the chemical spill in India.
BH: So then, what is next for you as a filmmaker? You have another film coming out next month, and you mentioned your third documentary on Fukushima. Can you speak about it a little more?
ITA: Sure. So my new film that’s coming out next month is –1287 and the world premier is going to be in London. It’s going to be in Taiwan, too.
The Asian premier is going to be in the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival. It’s about a friend of mine who had breast cancer and I filmed starting from 1287 days before she died. It’s about her journey. I hope that it can be a chance for people to think not only about their lives, but also about their deaths. Through considering how they die when they die, that they die, it is actually a call for us to live and to decide what’s really important in life. I’ve been working on that for several years in the background while I was making A2-B-C.
BH: I saw the announcement was from April.
ITA: I actually was going to put it out last year, when it was finished, but A2-B-C just suddenly happened. So now -1287 is going out this year, it’ll be on the festival circuit for about a year.
Meanwhile, I’m working on a third film about Fukushima, which I don’t know exactly when is going to be done, but I would guess is not going to be done for another year or so. I’m going up to Fukushima once a month to work on that.
And I’m working on another film here in Tokyo, which I’m putting out next year. So probably the third film about Fukushima will be the year after next. 2016. Basically, it’s a little bit unusual, but I’m putting out a feature documentary once a year. It’s insane, actually.
BH: The last question I have is, are there any closing comments you have for readers? What would you have to say to readers within Japan and surrounding Asian countries and also western readers?
ITA: I think as filmmakers, we, our job is to document what’s happening and show that to people. For example, in my own filmmaking, personal policy is that I don’t use narration or music, generally speaking. This is because I want the audience to watch the film and to hear from the people that are in the film and then to make a decision themselves what they think.
When I go to the cinema, I don’t want to be told what to think. I don’t want to be patronized. So I try not patronize people with my films either. I hope that people will engage with the world around them, whether that’s through going to demonstrations, or reading articles in magazines, or watching films.
What we’re lacking in the world is a balance between really considering what’s important in life and then this whole commercial game that we’re playing about buying things and getting money and accumulating stuff. And so I hope that, slowly, through the use of these films and articles and things, that we can begin to engage more deeply with the world around us and how we live our lives as a whole.