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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Filmmaker revisits the children of Fukushima’s ‘Grey Zone’



After documenting post-3/11 chaos, Ash returns to find families fearful,

angry over radioactive legacy


For independent filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash, making documentaries is an organic process. “I’m not a journalist, and I don’t try to make judgments,” he says. “My reaction is to film what is going on around me and see where it leads.”
In Ash’s case, it has led to recognition and awards at film festivals around the world for “A2-B-C,” the second of a pair of documentaries about children living in towns a stone’s throw from the site of the nuclear reactor meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.
Ash, an American who has called Japan home for the past 10 years, was in Tokyo when the massive earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. He began by simply filming scenes around him, such as the panic buying and setsudenelectricity-saving measures, little knowing this would become the prologue to a much bigger story.
Wanting to find out more, Ash lost no time in getting a ride up to Tohoku with some rescue workers, arriving 10 days after the meltdown. “Then I read a story in The Japan Times about a school re-opening just outside the 30 km zone around the nuclear plant. Kids who had been evacuated from within the 20 to 30 km zone were going to be bused there. I wondered how that was going to work.”
Upon returning to Tokyo, Ash contacted Colin O’Neill, a cameraman and producer in the U.K. who had worked with Ash on two previous films. At a time when many foreign nationals were fleeing the country, O’Neill flew over to Japan to lend his support. “We still had no idea of what was going to come of it, whether a short video or a feature film.”
Ash and O’Neill ended up in the town of Minamisoma, filming and living among people in the 20-30 km zone who were under government orders to remain inside as much as possible at the time. “These were people in the gray zone,” Ash explains. “They were not being compensated by the government to evacuate, and couldn’t afford to leave on their own. They were mostly farmers.”
It was this idea of living in a state of flux, a shadowy world when nothing was certain, that gave rise to the title of the resulting documentary, “In the Grey Zone.”
Having arrived with no connections whatsoever in the area, Ash and O’Neill made a beeline for the city office, which was operating a resource center for residents coming in to file claims for assistance, among other things. They obtained a list of businesses that had reopened and soon found themselves at a gas station, asking the owner if they could interview her. When it began to rain heavily, the woman invited the pair inside and introduced them to her son, a father of four. Upon hearing about their mission, he invited Ash and O’Neill to stay with his family and film them.
“This all happened on only our second day. It’s how I approach all my films. I don’t do a lot of research or make a lot of plans before I go somewhere,” Ash explains. “This first family ended up being in the film and, in turn, they introduced us to their friends, creating a strong basis for the project.”
When children are the subjects of a project like this, it may be tempting to focus on one particular boy or girl, inadvertently turning them into a poster child for the group. Ash says he was careful not to identify any of the children as belonging to a certain family in the film. “The children [in the film] are the representatives of all those in the same situation in Fukushima. I don’t want viewers to get attached to one particular child. I wanted to give them all a voice.”
The story is continued in “A2-B-C,” a sequel of sorts to “In the Grey Zone,” depicting children in Fukushima 18 months later.
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