Fukushima Mon Amour

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office

I watched a great documentary last night on the original Fukushima crisis.

In case you stumbled onto this post expecting insightful commentary on the recent fear-mongering about West Coast radiation levels in the media, or a rant about why nobody is doing anything about it, best you know now that this post is not concerned about these alleged developments. This blogger is not American, but happens to be going to grad school in America.  But if you’re thinking this lack of concern had an I-hate-you-America twinge to it, get ready to be disappointed. This blogger just happens to have read Dune— well, most of it– and mentally recites the Litany Against Fear  five times every day. ( And while we’re at it, here’s some counterarguments to all that deliberate fear mongering. )

(NOTE: This post is being written for a grad school assignment in documentary technique analysis. )

Also, before I get into the documentary, the title of this post comes from a book with actual insightful commentary on the original Fukushima disaster. (This blogger didn’t know that when he picked it, and was merely thinking of Hiroshima Mon Amour, an emotionally devastating movie– about love, not war–  which the writers of the essay collection had in mind anyway. )

Now for the actual documentary….

“I’d always thought nuclear power was safe…”

The worker who said this allowed his face to be shown on camera because he was just talking about his experience, and he was of low rank. But he was the only one directly related to the plant that did so. An engineer who was inside the whole time after the earthquake hit, dealing with the crisis, allowed himself to be filmed in complete darkness, in some abandoned building, where the only source of light was artificial, to actually allow filming to take place.  The filmmakers wanted to underscore the shadiness of the interview I guess. The filmmakers smudged the face despite the darkness, in case someone decided to raise the contrast and play around with the color channels to find out who he was.  A TEPCO employee who entered the plant after the radiation levels went down spoke to the documentary makers under the same conditions.

As one might expect, photographs are used of those who lost their lives during the crisis, but they’re not still shots. For example, as a farmer recounts looking for his missing daughters and wife, the camera does not focus on some image inside a frame, it quivers close to the faces, almost resonant with the father’s voice over, which is…calm. The father appears calm when recounting the search, implying he will find the people he has lost. You later learn that he lost his wife and one of his daughters, but via the narrator and not in his own words, for obvious reasons. The father, Norio Kimura,  breaks down only when recounting the possibility that he might never find his family again.  ( Maybe the calm instance and the ‘broken’ instance was recorded on the same day?)

Later on, the eyes, in spite of the gas masks are used to stress the humanity of the subjects venturing into the radiation zone.

IMAGERY AND SOUND

Waves, clouds  and smoke are constantly used for transitions.

Waves rolling normally onto shore as the normally do are used to punctuate passage of time,  to imply that nature/time moves on despite all the urban bustle happening, and to hint at the quiet (temporary return to  normalcy, aka temporary relief) before the storm.

Clouds lounging ever so slightly, towards an urban sprawl is used to indicate the slow spread of contamination of the radiation.

Sunrise and a gradually clearing sky ( as if by the sun’s light shafts) is used to imply hope.  The redness of sunset spreading across buildings is used to imply the onset of terror.

Whenever there is uncertainty, the documentary makers are partial to a shot of blurred, hazy street lights in the Tokyo urbanscape, interspersed with the lights of fast moving cars.

Near the end, fog smudged mountains and rivers are used to imply the spreading contamination.

At one point, when the military pilots flying over the contaminated zone to spray water can feel the radiation leaking into their masks( narrated through their voices) ….you hear the beeping sound of the ER int he background.

FOOTAGE

Real footage is used when the plane flies over the plant spraying water, the Prime Minister’s entourage finally going over to TEPCO headquarters after they refuse to address the issue via phone, the tsunami after the earthquake approaching the coastline, and the wave hitting the shore, which was fortuitously recorded by one of the power-plant workers.  Footage collected later, after the power plant became safe to venture into, is used to fill in the blanks in terms of the events. The board where the engineers counted down the developments with time stamps was intact at the time of the filming, allowing the reconstruction of events inside the plant.

Photographs are also widely used. The camera glazes over some still shots of the plant after it was devastated, and inside the plant when the engineers were trying to fix the problem. In the first case it helps us linger on the devastation, in the second, the chaos that might have ensued in a room full of people doing different things is frozen, allowing  the viewer the time to take it in.

The firefighters arriving on the scene to set up the hose and spray water is actual footage.  Which is justified, since “”These were the guys who wouldn’t be having children…” as the captain of the firefighters put it. Second hand footage just wouldn’t do in this case.

Overall, the documentary does the crisis justice. It does not play down the technical challenges involved in dealing with a crisis of this scale. But what really works is how much it manages to humanize the people involved. The civilian perspectives might be expected, but the firefighters and military perspectives are deeply human.  One thing that lingers however, is the absence of TEPCO, which, I guess, is not really surprising.

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