Set three years after the calamitous meltdown, Fukushima: The Eternal Season creates an impassioned portrait of a resident as she strives to hold on to her identity and ancestral heritage while the specter of nuclear fallout looms over her. Creator Jake Price tells us about the freedoms (and challenges) of working on a small budget and building a lasting connection to a far away place devastated by disaster.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent filmmaker?
Jake Price: Working on this project was truly a unique one and I hope that I will have other experiences like this one throughout life. I really immersed myself in the community and at great length. In that way, I felt totally liberated and alive working with the small resources I had. Because I had next to no budget for this project there was a nimbleness to the way I worked and of those who joined me. While funds are always welcome, I think that, despite the challenges and big efforts made, this project was better for the fact that I had to be resourceful and rely on my instinct and capability. If I was lacking a skill, then I had to learn because there was such a small budget to hire people. I ended up doing most of the technical things in the field and in post. In the end I’m a more well-rounded filmmaker.
In particular, the one big thing that money cannot buy is time. In fact, if I had a large budget on this project it might have actually been a hindrance because I would have budgeted my time in a much more rigid way, missing important details and bonds with people.
On my first trips to Fukushima, I spent months on top of an isolated, irradiated mountain with one of my characters. We were able to get to know each other and, over time, a tremendous bond developed between us. Every morning I’d get up and see the sun rise over these wondrous mountains. During the day I’d walk up and down small paths getting to know every little corner of the mountain. I came to understand when certain birds would sing or summer insects start to play their music. If I was constantly worrying about producing images for investors I would have never had the wonderful gift of getting to know this region so intimately. Ultimately, because of all the time I spent meditating on the true nature of Fukushima, it’s a much more personal film.
As the production became more complex I was in the need of certain things: translation, people to help negotiate entry into the exclusion zone with officials and assistance with design and coding. For the most part, with the exception of coding, every person who was a part of the production joined on a volunteer basis (however I paid for expenses and, when funds permitted, little stipends as well). Everyone who worked on this project did so out of their heart and concern for the people of Fukushima.
Because I knew that people were devoting their precious time, it meant that I had to be very well thought out. Time became currency and if people thought that their time was being wasted, then that would have been the end of this project. Working in this very limited way made me think far in advance. To that end, we got amazing mileage out of the most scant of resources. A lot of people said that what I was trying to do was impossible, but they were thinking only in terms of money. If you have the heart and desire then you can find a way. If you lack those things money is meaningless. It won’t help you tell a meaningful story.
In Fukushima, people understood that we were coming out of our own concern. They understood that I was paying my own way they were appreciative of that dedication — especially after so many in the media just came and left, never really taking the time to listen or laugh with them. Because I did not just drop in and out, but returned at length for many years — in sometimes very dangerous places, due to high radiation — I was treated like family. Really, more than just coming away with a project I love and care deeply about, I am so very thankful for the friends I made and the places that I will always return to throughout my life. Fukushima is also my home and I want to see it healthy again.
Which filmmaker(s) inspired you to get behind the lens?
Jake Price: My earliest real film influences were of European Cinema which then led me to other filmmakers throughout the world. The most notable influences on this project are of 3 Japanese Masters: Kaneto Shindô, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Yasujir? Ozu.
Could you list three films that all independent film supporters should take the time to see?
Jake Price: Since I mentioned Japanese cinema as a big influence on this project I’ll stick with Japan for now, although my influences are global.
Both the hard working farmers and austere landscape play a key role in my project, themes that are also central to Kaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island. However as a film alone it’s a masterpiece — and it was almost not made. It almost collapsed because of budgeting reasons. It’s also a silent film where not a word is spoken. However through gesture and facial expressions a masterful story is told, in the end a very expressive film told with the utmost of nuance and minimalism.
The other two influences that were never far from my thoughts were Teshigahara’s brilliant Woman in the Dunes (perhaps the best cinematography I’ve ever seen on the screen) and Ozu’s Late Spring. It’s hard to answer with only three films, so if you will permit me I’d like to add one more: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror for the the emotional dream state it creates.
What do you hope the audience comes away with after seeing your interactive short?
Jake Price: I hope that audiences come away with truer sense of what Fukushima is like and a deeper appreciation of what’s precious in their own lives. Because of this industrial disaster we’ve lost something really precious on this planet, namely the preserved nature that Fukushima was so famous for. Its mountains are astounding, so very soulful.
Fukushima has been defined all too often only in terms of destruction. Therefore, it is easy to pass off and forget about. But by showing the beauty of the region and the warm hearts of the people who live within the destruction, I think we then realize what was truly lost. By also including what’s good about the region, I hope that people draw parallels to their own lives and the environments they live in.
Parts of Fukushima remind me of the verdant landscape of Vermont and the craggy mountains that are host to evergreens of Big Sur — and, in a farming aspect, Fukushima reminds me of the Hudson Valley because of all the family farms that are there. Vermont and the Hudson Valley are both important for their natural bounty. They are also home to nuclear power plants all too susceptible to the same fate of Fukushima. Fukushima is not just a place in Japan, but represents all of our backyards.
What surprised you about the residents who elect to return to Odaka Town regularly?
Jake Price: I wasn’t surprised that they wanted to return at all. Every character in my film has a deep intrinsic love to their home and if they were to be taken away from it, that would be a true death sentence. That said, every person in my film is aware of the risks they’re taking, but they know that they represent the last chance to keep Fukushima going. Fukushima is home to ornate temples and ancient Buddhist cave carvings that have been around for thousands of years. They can’t just turn their back on it. Most of the characters in my film are 60 and above. By the time the radiation catches up with them their gamble is that they will have passed on anyhow. In some areas the radiation levels are low. In Odaka Town in particular, the readings around Tomoko’s hotel are quite low — this conforms to my individual findings as well. The government has said that people can return in 2016.
Can you explain how necessary it is to think of the human cost of accidents like Fukushima and not only about the monetary damages that are incurred?
Jake Price: The great cost of this disaster is that radiation’s taint has spread over a precious swath of land that once had pure rivers, nature preserves where people would gather seasonal fruits and vegetables, and a coastline that sustained the lives of many fishermen. Living with the rhythm and respect of nature is something that the Japanese and particularly Fukushima people prize in life.
To be taken from their land means that an essential part of their being, too, has been taken away. Because of the almost symbiotic relationship that people have with the land, when the land is sick, people feel sick — it’s devastating for them to be apart from the land they love. And that’s why they’re trying to heal it. From an outside perspective maybe it’s crazy for a person to stay in a radioactive hot zone, but they care for the land as they would from someone they love dearly. They will never abandon it.
What was the most difficult aspect of filming Fukushima: The Eternal Spring?
Jake Price: Leaving Fukushima! I always get choked up about leaving because I love the people there and the culture, so I’m always thinking of new ways that I can return.
From a logistical point of view, however, the radiation was always a concern and when I am in the exclusion zone decisions have to be well thought out because it’s not uncommon to come across readings of 50-120 microsieverts per hour. By comparison, New York City and Tokyo register about 0.02-5 microsieverts per hour. I move though the exclusion zone methodically and not always in the best of moods, which I always feel bad about having my assistants near.
Shooting days are exhausting, but totally worth it. Still, handling the rig and the audio at the same time and working sometimes for 20 hours after driving many kilometers for a month on end is exhausting. At the end of those days I’d often hear breaking stories which, after so much work, I feel particularly vulnerable to when listening. Physical and mental exhaustion combine and so planning for a day or two and just sitting in a room and resting become necessary.