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Documentary sheds light on World War II’s #MeToo generation

During the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Army forced more than 200,000 women into sex slavery. This week, POV is airing “The Apology,” a documentary following three of those "comfort women," who came forward with their stories after decades of living in silence, sparking a #MeToo movement for their generation. Tiffany Hsiung, who directed the film, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In this era of #MeToo, survivors of sexual assault have been coming forward with their personal stories, sometimes from decades ago. This week, POV premieres the documentary, "The Apology." It follows the journey of three former "comfort women" who seventy years ago, were forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Decades after living in silence, they too came forward, years ago, sparking a #MeToo movement of their generation. Tiffany Hsiung is the director of the POV documentary "The Apology." She joins us now.

    The idea of "comfort women," I mean that's a euphemism. These were sex slaves, let's just kind of be upfront about that. What happened to most of them? How many were there?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    Over 200,000 young women and girls were kidnapped and coerced into these military sexual slavery system. It was an institutionalized system that was really at the end of the day, protecting the soldiers from contracting venereal diseases. So doctors and nurses were brought in not to protect women but to actually protect the soldiers so they can actually continue to fight.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You have ability to look into the lives of three very different women who tell you very different stories. The Chinese character in your film, what happened to her?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    Grandma Chow had such a horrific story. Not only was she taken from her village only two miles away from her home but she got impregnated twice while she was taken. And during those pregnancies, she actually aborted the babies herself because she knew that she couldn't bring the children that she would give birth back to her village. And so that happened to her twice while she was at the "Comfort Station." And by the time she had returned back home, she was unable to conceive a child ever again.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you are able to document the kind of conversations that's happening with her family?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    While we're making the film, it was to my surprise that her adopted children, her daughter that she lives very close to, didn't know anything about this. And so really, the point of making "The Apology" was to understand the complexities of even telling these horrific stories to the people closest to, to the people that you love. And I think for today, we need to understand those complexities to understand what, why it takes so long and to have that courage to be able to share stories publicly even.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And there's a woman from the Philippines that you profile, she's carrying the guilt of all this, for not revealing this to her now dead husband?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    She waited till her husband passed away, for all her children to leave her nest, for her to even join a group of survivors, You know. She was always scared that this would break her family. Out of all the three grandmothers that we feilmed, she was one that was able to get married, was able to birth her children, to have this family. And so in many ways you can think that she had so much to lose if she were to come out while her husband was alive, while her children were still living with her. So that weight of you know shame and stigma on her shoulder carried over and over and over all these years till she was 80 years old then when she really revealed to me that she, you know, she wanted to one day, her wish was to one day tell her children.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Where does the film go from here, now that it's being screened on PBS? It's been running for a couple of years and screenings around the country. What do you do with it? What do you hope with it?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    I mean, I'm hoping that with the rise of the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp movement that we as a collective community and global community can see that we, we can't ignore past issues and past atrocities That if we just let this go if we if we don't address this that you know, it, it just shows you know, how women are viewed in society still today. And, and that's why if we can't recognize this, history will repeat itself. And the grandmothers fight today not just for the justice that they've been seeking for but also for the next generation. And so really, it's our collective responsibility to unite together to fight with them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I want to also ask, you, you've become an honorary granddaughter to many of these women and you also have kind of a personal journey while you're making this over a six-year period. You were a survivor of sexual assault when you were a child. Watching these women and what they've lived through, what did it teach you?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    These grandmothers taught me so much about what resilience looks like, what courage looks like, perseverance, sacrifice. To truly understand, you know, the weight of what shame looks like on an 80 year old woman. And to see them overcome that has brought me so much inspiration that I never thought would happen while making this film. You know, I always thought that it would just be me helping to share their stories. But really, they've helped me, they've helped me come to terms with a lot of the things that I had gone through.

    And my hope is that this film also helps many other people as well. Many other women and people that have a story that they want to share that they too are looking for that courage and inspiration to also share their story. So I hope that that also resonates with many people around the world as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There's a place where they have weekly demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy about this. There's actually a statue commemorating this. Let's take a look at a clip.

    PLAY CLIP

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you look across that sea of protesters that's not what you expect the young rabble rousers to be. These are actual grandmas that have survived this and they're coming on a weekly basis to keep pressing this issue?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    Every Wednesday, rain or shine since 1992 they've been demonstrating outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, Korea. And to see that footage again, I mean, it's, it was such a powerful day. But when we were talking to Grandma Gil, prior to the demonstration, I said, I asked her how she felt and she said, sadness. Sadness that back then when we filmed that it was a 1,000th like why hasn't it, why has it taken 1,000th demonstration and we're still going on and it's still happening today. We're still demonstrating.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What is the sort of current status of relations between Japan and all these different countries. In 2015, there was kind of a billion yen settlement that they thought would try to move things forward but just, this you know, very, just a few weeks ago, you've got the city of Osaka cutting ties with the city of San Francisco, their sister cities relationship, because of one of the statues on the West Coast.

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    Right now, you know, as more people are understanding the history and the issues with the grandmothers still, still fighting for an apology even after the 2015 agreement between the two governments, you know, more countries are supporting with the bronze statue erected into their own cities everywhere. However, because they're doing that, the Japanese government still doesn't want to acknowledge, in fact, wants to remove these statues and not take the ownership and responsibility of how they actually drove the helm behind this institutionalized sexual slavery system. And so that still goes on today. That's still happening today, unfortunately.

    But you know, with movements like the #MeToo campaign and like everything that's happening globally, I think, that more and more people are standing behind this movement and standing behind these statues and making sure that they aren't removed because it really is symbolizing, you know, how women are viewed in society today. You know it's very much a global issue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How much of a difference was the composition of the staff, at least, the gender of the staff in making this film and the final product that we have?

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    It's huge. "The Apology" was made with the National Film Board of Canada with an incredible production team or producer Anita Lee, our editor Mary, composer Leslie Barber. Majority of the staff are incredible pioneer female filmmakers themselves. And to have that female lens, to be able to capture the nuances in the aftermath of what these women have gone through and what their dynamics are with the family is so important for people to understand, to connect with the grandmothers stories, to connect with these issues and to not isolate this issue as an Asian issue, as a historical issue to, to truly connect with with them as people first.

    The documentary is called "The Apology." Tiffany Hsuing,. thanks so much for joining us.

  • TIFFANY HSIUNG:

    Thank you.

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