Brakeless Filmmaker Explores the Dangers of Time-Obsession

Site of Amagasaki train crash with emergency services

Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake was born and raised in Japan, though she has lived in the UK for the last 12 years, in addition to a year-long stint in Paris. So she’s lived in multiple places where trains and public transportation are an integral part of daily life and culture. Her film Brakeless, which premieres this Monday, October 27, on Independent Lens on PBS [check local listings], looks at one very specific tragic accident in Japan — the 2005 Amagasaki railway crash — as a way to ignite a larger discussion on the value of (and obsession with) efficiency in our lives. The Guardian (UK) called the film “a beautifully made piece of television, combining forensic analysis with intensely moving personal testimonies.”

What was your own experience growing up in Japan taking trains? Do you have positive memories of the train system?

I spent a lot of time commuting in Japan. I remember being a high school student (it took me 2.5 hours to get to school) and commuting among salarymen, thinking, “these guys look SO exhausted.”

I have also spoken to many people who have had a similar moment when they were young, thinking, “oh I don’t want to become like those salarymen,” but a few years later, they find themselves having become them. The Japanese commuting scene is often an object of derision from Western tourists but for many Japanese, it provides moments of self-reflection, like “what am I doing with my life, commuting like this every day?”

I also remember people being quite aggressive when the train was delayed. Sometimes they just shout randomly, and quite often at the station attendants.

How is the train system different in Europe and do you find yourself impatient with it?

After I moved to Britain, for about a year or so, I was very often upset because nothing seemed punctual. You are lucky if your train ever arrives on time! But after a while, I realized that I was the only person at the train station huffing and puffing in anger when the train was delayed. Everyone around didn’t seem to mind that much. I learned to be patient and realized how much I took for granted while living in Japan. I also learned to deal with it when things don’t happen exactly as planned and to always allow for a margin of error in planning. It’s a bit scary to think that in Japan, I was living a life that cannot accommodate a one-minute delay. When this accident happened in 2005 and when I watched the news on BBC, I felt somehow that I knew something like this was going to happen in Japan sooner or later.

'Brakeless' Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake

‘Brakeless’ Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Brakeless?

Researching was quite difficult as I was a complete outsider. People in the region speak with quite a distinct accent and I knew that the moment I opened my mouth, they knew I was not local. At the beginning, I was quite weary and could also tell that they put on a “standard” Japanese accent when they spoke to me. Towards the end of filming, they started to have a heavier accent which made me happy (although that might mean having to subtitle some of them in Japanese).

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film, some of whom were survivors of the crash?

By listening to them and asking them to share their thoughts. In a way, it helped me that more than eight years had passed since the accident when I started my research. The victims were worried that the accident and their loved ones might be forgotten as time went by. So there was more space for an outsider like me.

They seemed to also appreciate that I came in as a “blank slate” not being aware of the “politics” around the accident – who has a bigger say, whose opinion is maybe more authentic, etc. If you are based in the area, you get fully engulfed in those politics.

I became quite close to some of the characters in Brakeless. One of them – the artist with the can – said to me about half a year after we met, “Kyoko, you have become quite boring these days. You started to sound like just another Japanese journalist. I don’t know any more why I am talking to you. When you first came to meet me, you were completely ignorant about the accident, but at least you had a lot of quite crazy ideas and strange questions that intrigued me. Now you might know more about the accident, but so do the local journalists. What’s the point of you coming all the way from London and doing this film?” This was a wake up call for me, and I realized that I was too desperate to be included in that community surrounding the accident. I started to show off my newly acquired knowledge, and I had stopped asking questions that came naturally.

What has been the reaction in Japan to the film, if people have seen it yet? Do you think things have indeed changed for the better there since the accident or is it still “a work in progress”?

The reaction has been very good. It meant a lot to me when our contributors – both those who appear in the film and those who don’t – appreciated the film, saying that I listened to their stories.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in terms of attitudes towards efficiency and punctuality. The faster and quicker things get, the busier we seem to get – rather than winning some free time from the technological advancement.

Two survivors of the Amagasaki  train crash

Two survivors of the Amagasaki train crash

What are your three favorite films?

My Architect, White Ribbon, The Hunt.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t wait until someone gives you a chance some day. Create your own chance. Be realistic and know your marketability.

What film project are you working on now or next?

I’m developing a film called Tokyo Girls which is about Japanese pop idols. I want to explore what it means to grow up as a girl in a society that infantilizes women and is obsessed with young female sexuality.


Learn more about Brakeless on Independent Lens.

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Update on the Twin Sisters from the California Mom

Twin sisters Alexandra and Mia, taken May 2014.

We have an exclusive update on the two twin girls featured in Twin Sisters (the film by Mona Friis Bertheussen premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, October 20, at 10 pm; check local listings), from someone who would know: the mother of one of the girls. Angela Hansen, who lives in Sacramento where she’s raising Mia, now aged 11, e-mailed us with some anecdotes about their lives more recently.  After you watch the film, come back here to read more about what Mia and her Norwegian-based twin sister Alexandra have been up to since the filming stopped. [Read more about the film and their story in The New York Times.]

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From Norway to California: Twin Sisters Filmmaker Captures Sibling Bond

Twin sisters Mia and Alexandra

Making its American television premiere on Independent Lens on PBS this Monday, October 20 [check local listings], Twin Sisters tells the story of the remarkable journey of identical twins, adopted by families from opposite ends of the world who discover their daughters are sisters. The film won the prestigious Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and it’s not hard to see why: it really is an audience-pleaser. We connected with Norwegian filmmaker Mona Friis Bertheussen to learn about her own journey from Fresvik, Norway to Sacramento, California, and back in making Twin Sisters see the light of day. Bertheussen started her career by working for both NRK (Norwegian Public Broadcasting) and TV2 Norway, the biggest commercial TV channel in Norway, and also worked as a news reporter for the national news, before branching off into independent filmmaking. She is based in Oslo, Norway.

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Bully: An Update on Alex

Alex Libby

Alex Libby

A common theme in the numerous comments we’ve received to-date on the film Bully, centers on one of the film’s most moving characters, Alex Libby, a sweet-natured Iowa teen who had been bullied for years. Since many viewers were worried about him and were understandably empathetic, we thought it might be good to give you an update on Alex.

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Kelby Speaks Out on Bullying

By Craig Phillips

Kelby, in the film Bully

Kelby, in the film Bully

Kelby Johnson was one of several students featured in Lee Hirsch’s powerful film Bully, which has its television premiere on Independent Lens tonight, Monday October 13 at 10pm [check local listings]. After coming out as a lesbian as a teenager, Kelby and Kelby’s family were treated as pariahs in their small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma. A one-time all-star athlete, Kelby faced an outpouring of hatred from some classmates as well as teachers, and was eventually forced to give up sports. As seen in the film, the gutsy teenager, bolstered by an adoring girlfriend and a few staunch friends, resolved to stay in Tuttle and change a few minds. Kelby, who has since come out as transgender and continues to be an outspoken advocate for anti-bullying campaigns, sees Bully as a tool to help end the forms of harassment that nearly drove him to suicide.

Kelby took the time out to speak with us over email about his amazing story (both in the film and after it), and the work he’s been doing since.

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Bully: Learn More and Do More about Bullying

Riding the school bus, where bullying is often an issue

Watching Lee Hirsch’s film Bully, which has its television premiere on Independent Lens this Monday October 13 at 10pm [check local listings], is meant to be both an emotional experience and an educational one. But Bully itself is only a start in working towards changing a culture of bullying inside and outside schools. The film’s Bully Project social action campaign is designed to continue the dialogue and further enlighten all of us — parents, educators, students — about what more we can do.

And now along with that, Independent Lens created a Resources page highlighting some of the best tools the Bully Project has to offer, as well as a few other useful places to go to learn more about bullying.

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Independent Lens Wins 3 News & Documentary Emmy Awards

14116_640x304_EMMY_WIN_FINALCover your ears, it’s horn tooting time here! Last night at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony, Independent Lens films won three Emmy Awards, for Editing; Investigative Journalism, Long-Form; and Best Documentary. Independent Lens had been nominated for 10 News & Doc Emmys overall. [Read more on RealScreen.]

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Independent Lens Announces New Fall Slate

Kelby and friends, Tuttle, Oklahoma, in Bully

From Bully

On the heels of receiving ten News and Documentary Emmy nominations, Independent Lens announced today that its new season will open with the critically-acclaimed documentary Bully. Directed by Sundance and Emmy Award-winner Lee Hirsch, the film brings human scale to this emotional issue, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how the most common form of violence experienced by young people in our nation has touched the lives of five kids and their families. Bully premieres on Monday, October 13, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.

This fall Independent Lens takes viewers around the globe to explore fascinating human stories, from a tale of twins growing up a world apart, to the role that Japanese cultural attitudes may have played in a devastating train crash, to what will happen in a remote Bhutanese village when television comes to town.
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From Playwright: Rest in peace, Robin Williams, you tiger.

We are as saddened as everyone about the sudden death of actor and comedian extraordinaire Robin Williams. He was one of a kind, and will truly be missed. We were reminded of his participation in last season’s Playwright: From Page to Stage, as a performer in the New York production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. We give you this video extra featuring Williams rehearsing for the part of, yes, a tiger and tiger’s ghost, a role that now takes on quite a bit of added poignancy.

More viewing and reading:

Watch some of Robin’s best stand-up comedy moments and more (via LAist).

Thoughts from Noel Murray of The Dissolve.

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Around the World in Many Ways with Global Voices

From Here Comes Uncle Joe: Uncle Joe smiles in front of truck.

From Here Comes Uncle Joe

By Misa Oyama, ITVS Staff

Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood has provoked a lot of interest in its intriguing premise and the background of its production: follow the growth of a character over twelve years, not with different actors, but with the same person as he ages in real time. This is the first time that a narrative film has had the patience to tackle the kind of project well-known in the documentary world. Most notably, Michael Apted’s Up series follows the same people over the course of a lifetime, beginning with a group of 7-year-old British schoolchildren in 1964 and revisiting them every seven years; the most recent installment explores their lives at the age of 56. Filming over a span of years gives audiences a true sense of the passing of time.

Like these films, three documentaries in this summer’s Global Voices series approach the subject of growth and aging, despite vastly different cultural contexts. Each one explores a significant period in a person’s life, from young adulthood to middle age to the final years. You can see a lifetime in My So-Called EnemyMy Perestroika [both available to watch online], and Here Comes Uncle Joe [airing on the WORLD Channel August 31st].

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