ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


July 27, 2010


Documentary Power to Move People

college_kamanakasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Hitomi Kamanaka, Documentary Auteur

Do the Viewers Get the Message?

I began to broadcast my message in my current medium when I made a film called HIBAKUSHA―At the End of the World. Until that point, I made TV programs on Japan Broadcasting Corp., NHK, which is part of the so-called mass media. Programming broadcast on mass media reaches some six million people at once, and I used to have great optimism at the prospect of so many people watching my programs. In contrast, I am four-walling my current works across the country, meaning that they are watched by 100,000 to 200,000 people at most.

HIBAKUSHA was a trigger experience that encouraged me to change to a medium to focus on delivering my message to fewer people, but in a more direct manner. The film was actually inspired by my experiences producing a TV program for NHK. When I heard that children in Iraq were suffering from cancer and leukemia with no medicine, I decided to document it as part of a TV program.

When I arrived in Iraq in 1998, there was no thought of depicting radiation exposure in my mind, because I knew nothing about it. At the time, it had been seven years since the Gulf War, and the strict economic sanctions enforced by the United Nations blocked the anticancer drugs needed for treatment. I persuaded and interviewed the mothers of dying children by explaining that if they told their stories to a Japanese audience, the UN may ease the economic sanctions, allowing more drugs to be delivered. However, when it was prescreened after I returned to Japan, a producer told me that such an anti-American program could not be broadcast, as I referred depleted uranium ammunition, which was suspected as a causative factor in the increased cancer and leukemia rates. Although there is an increasing amount of evidence for this link, the US continues to deny it. Attempting to address that issue with the insufficient information at that time was considered to be too risky.

Recording the dying children was very difficult, however, and I was only able to make those recordings by convincing myself that it was the only way I could help. Because I did not want the program to remain on the shelf, I included the American perspective, and made a number of other compromises in order to get the program broadcast in 1999.

It was estimated that five to six million viewers watched the program. By including images that depicted depleted uranium ammunition emitting radiation, it was a ground-breaking program for the time. However, there was no response from the viewers. Therefore, I thought that only a small number of those six million got my message, and was somewhat disappointed by TV media.

Utilizing a Medium that Encourages Thought

Although I was thinking of creating a program to further explore the nature of radiation exposure, I started feeling the limits of mass media, and I decided to work on films instead. I then made HIBAKUSHA. At that time, I had to put a lot of thought into how I could break down propaganda, as image media are well suited to the creation of propaganda.

My current style of creating material is completely different from how it used to be. For example, because NHK uses a professional narrator for its programs, viewers do not know if it is NHK saying the words, or the person who made the program. As the subject is unknown to many viewers, they tend to believe that the program contents are backed up by some authority.

For this reason, I use a first-person narrative. This allows viewers to understand that the words belong to me, Ms. Kamanaka, when I speak about what I experienced, rather than an absolute authority. In addition, the both sides of "you" who watch and "I" who make can build a relationship on equal footing.

I also think that it is important not to make assertion, make determinations, or thrust a point of view at your audience. When NHK makes a TV program, they prepare answers for the end of each scene. Before viewers are allowed to draw their own conclusions, the prepared answers are presented. The final comments at the end of each program, which most viewers are able to generally understand, are designed to leave the viewer feeling that the subject is settled when the program ends. The feeling is subtle, but many people feel like they do not have to think about the issue anymore.

I want my projects to be in a medium that encourages viewers to think, rather than simply consume. There are no answers prepared for such media, and so there is no impact. When I was talking to viewers after screenings of HIBAKUSHA, I was often asked where the answer was. However, I believe that I cannot prepare a simple answer for the multiple issues related to radiation contamination happening worldwide. I would prefer to encourage discussion of the issues and potential solutions.

Although I had high-impact images from Iraq, I did not use them. Images that have too much impact can be dangerous, as they move the film into propaganda. A filmmaker might want the audience to react by telling them "Look at this. It's horrible." However, these emotional responses are very superficial. The important messages are related to why this is happening and how it is related to us. By eliminating strong emotional reactions as much as possible, I try to inform the viewers from the perspective of a person who cares about regular life. I feel that this is the extreme opposite of propaganda.

I Draw from the Front, Precisely Because There Are Conflicts

After making HIBAKUSHA, I wondered about where all the depleted uranium ammunition came from. I was stunned when I discovered that they were made from our waste, as the waste generated by nuclear power plants, the so-called "peaceful usage" of nuclear technology, was diverted to produce depleted uranium ammunition, and this began my research into the issues surrounding nuclear power plants.

In order to operate the 55 nuclear power plants presently in Japan, we produce enormous amounts of radioactive waste. Uranium extracted from mines is transported to uranium-enrichment factories and large amounts of depleted uranium are produced. This depleted uranium is sold at one dollar per ton to the weapons industry, which it is used to produce depleted uranium ammunition.

As the nuclear fission reaction in concentrated uranium declines within two or three years, Japan attempts to reprocess it. To extract the plutonium from used nuclear fuel, a reprocessing factory was built in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture. The problem is that radioactive materials are discharged in the course of reprocessing and there are plans to discharge gases into the air and liquids into the ocean. Under these plans, tons of radioactive materials would be discharged. In addition, the plutonium that can be extracted during reprocessing accounts for only 0.5% of the starting material, and the remaining 99.5% is waste. We are creating high-level radioactive waste that has nowhere to go and does not naturally exist on the earth.

This situation is a result of our society, which uses energy. I decided that we had to look at this, and made the film Rokkashomura Rhapsody. It was a really difficult movie for me. First, it raises the proposition of living without electricity, as there is a huge conflict between my personal use of electricity and my knowledge of the repercussions of that use. I hoped to accurately depict this conflict.

One method I used was to interview people who had opposing views on the reprocessing factory, and then tried to bring both sides into the film. By presenting both opinions, I attempted to allow the viewers to form their own judgments. This is how I avoid thrusting an agenda onto the viewer, because if I simply state my opinions, for example, by saying "This is horrible" or "I disagree with this", the important points will not be presented clearly enough.

After I finished making the film in 2006, the reprocessing factory entered the final testing stage before its full-scale operation. During the test with actual nuclear fuel, radioactivity levels 5,500 times higher than those found in nature remained in the area for 97 days. This is the result of Japanese energy policy, and such information is suppressed, and ideas such as "Nuclear power plants generate clean energy without emitting carbon dioxide, contributing to the prevention of global warming" are promoted.

Gathering Hope Through "Buzz"

My current project is entitled The Sound of Honeybee Wings and the Revolving Motion of the Earth. When honeybees consume nectar from flowers, the flowers bear fruit instead of being destroyed. In the same way, I believe that we may be standing at a crossroads, beyond which we stop building our civilization upon the destruction of nature. I try to focus on honeybees as a symbol of sustainable existence.

The film is set on an island, Iwaishima, which is shaped like a heart and lies in the western edge of the Seto Inland Sea. Near the densely populated communities, a 28-year-old plan to build two nuclear power plants is now facing a crucial moment.

This ocean area is considered to be the last best example of biodiversity in the Seto Inland Sea, and includes the breeding grounds of the world's smallest Finless Porpoise. People on the island have lived there for 1,000 years using pole and line fishing, a sustainable method of catching sea bream.

The average age of the residents is about 70 years. They have resisted the construction of the nuclear power plants, even resorting to physically interfering with the project, but the plan is now moving forward rapidly. Even the prefectural governor would not grant the residents a hearing, and an official presented them with document reading "Denial of interview."

I wanted to change this situation and to find examples of such changes, and so I visited to Sweden. Japanese people trust their government and tend to believe that others will make good decisions for us. In contrast, Sweden is a country that has actively been trying to make its society sustainable for the past 20 years.

For example, in an effort to stop using one-time use energy sources, they are working towards eliminating both nuclear power plants and dependence on oil. Most public buses run on biogas, which is generated from human excrement or garbage. These changes happened because one person said "Let's become a sustainable society." This person was Carl-Henrik Robert, and he represents the Natural Step, the biggest environmental organization in Sweden. His words started a national discussion, and various initiatives were born.

I chose energy as a theme of my films because it is behind many of the challenges we currently face, such as environment destruction, exploitation of nature, war, unsustainable growth of civilization, and skewed distribution of wealth. I would like to trigger a discussion rather than to give the answers with images for such issues.

I am also making video letters to report on the progress of my current project; the letters are called "Bun-bun Tsushin (in English, Buzz Communication)", using the word "bun-bun (in English, buzz)" from the sound of honeybees' wings. The video letters are being shown at small screenings for between 10 and 100 people, and I aim to let the viewers use the videos as a tool for communication between people, through conversations about what sustainability is, or the best sources of energy for our society. I would also like people to use these videos as an opportunity to practice and improve their communication skills, by discussing various opinions and listening to one another, which is something that Japanese are not good at. The word "bun-bun" can be translated in English as "buzz", meaning word-of-mouth. I spread awareness of my work via word-of-mouth instead of mass media.

For a protest action at the sea of Iwaishima, which took place on September 10, 2009, people came from all over Japan, including young sea kayakers, and the community has received hundreds of cloths with support messages. The lonely battle that the elderly residents of the island have waged for 27 years is now being changed, and there is new hope, which is something I would like to depict. However, as I do not make fiction, I cannot depict things that are not happening. Thus, I am hoping to accelerate such movements by sending out "Bun-bun Tsushin."

After seeing my film, if you feel like doing something, I believe that it is because you recognize that there are many people who feel the same way as you. You also feel that you want to do something with these people, and I believe this is how people can be encouraged to act.


Hitomi Kamanaka (Documentary Auteur)
After graduating from Waseda University, Hitomi Kamanaka entered the documentary production field. Following her directorial debut with Suecha Ojisan in 1990, she worked for the National Film Board of Canada. She then started activities at an NPO, Paper Tiger Television, in New York as a media activist in 1993. Since coming back to Japan, she has directed a number of TV programs and films as a freelance auteur. In 2003, she directed the documentary film HIBAKUSHA-At the End of the World, which received awards at both home and abroad and has been screened at over 400 locations in Japan. Rokkashomura Rhapsody, made in 2006, was screened at 600 locations in Japan and overseas. She has also written books, including The Power of Documentary, The Threat of Internal Exposure to Radiation. Her new film, The Sound of Honeybee Wings and the Revolving Motion of the Earth was completed in April 2010, and screenings began in June 2010.
( Available only in Japanese.)