09 October 2013

A2-B-C (2013)

A subjective documentary like Ian Thomas Ash’s A2-B-C (2013), is difficult for me to watch with any sort of objectivity.  Having been a mother of two young children when I lived in Tokyo, and having many close friends with children in Japan, the familiar scenes of dusty Japanese playgrounds, friendly hoikuen (nursery schools), and concerned parents’ groups stuck a deep chord with me.   

Ash also makes it clear from his opening confrontation 12 days after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima with Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, the government advisor on radiation health, that he is firmly on the side of the families affected by the disaster. Although he does interview a wide range of people from workers hired to “decontaminate” houses to local politicians, the main focus of A2-B-C (still called by its earlier title A2 when it screened at Nippon Connection in June) is to give voice to the most at risk people whose views are not being taken seriously enough by the powers that be: the mothers and children affected by the fallout of the Fukushima disaster.

In particular, Ash turns his attentions to mothers and children living in Date City (pronounced with two syllables: “da-tay”), 60km northwest of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Because the city lies outside of the 30km exclusion zone, the families living in this area have no access to funding to move elsewhere in Japan.   Although this community is further away, these communities northwest of Daiichi lie in the path of the radioactive plume.  Most of the families living here feel helpless.  They can’t sell their homes to fund a move because no one will buy them.  Without government assistance it is impossible to give up their property and jobs and start with nothing somewhere else. 

Having resigned themselves to the fact that they are stuck where they are, the mothers that Ash follows are educating themselves on how radiation works and are challenging the system when they feel that they are being given inaccurate or misleading information.  Mothers are afraid to let their children play outside, to allow their children drink school milk because it is being sourced locally, or even allow their children to go to school because there is a major radiation hotspot just on the other side of the school fence.  Recently, there has even been talk of feeding the schoolchildren locally sourced rice regardless of the hazards. 

The community is living with the fear of cancer hanging over their heads.  Rumours abound of young women having abortions or having already given up the idea of getting married for fear that they have already been affected by radiation.  The children go to school and to the playground with “glass badges” that monitor the amount of radiation they are being exposed to on a daily basis.  The title of the film is taken from the thyroid examination results that the children have taken.  One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when a group of children discuss their A2 thyroid cysts and seem resigned to the fact that they will likely one day develop cancer.  The mothers don’t even trust the hospital thyroid test results because they are being prevented from paying private hospitals for independent results.

Ian Thomas Ash is the voice behind the camera for most of the 70-minute film, apart from a sweet scene where one of the young daughters turns the tables on him and photographs him and in a tension-filled scene when a school vice principle confronts him about filming on school property without permission.  One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how close Ash gets to the families whose stories he is telling.  You can really feel his genuine concern and compassion for these people who feel left adrift in a sea of misinformation. 

One of the more frustrating aspects of the film is this lack of clear information.  The average viewer does not understand what a safe radiation reading is, how radiation works, or what the thyroid test results really mean.  There is also a lack of context about how reasonable it is for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture to mistrust government information – after all, there is a long history of government officials from the local to national level in Japan putting industry ahead of the health and well-being of communities.  For many, the Fukushima disaster brings back memories of what happened in Minamata,NiigataYokkaichi, and elsewhere.  While I was frustrated by the lack of clear context in the film, at the same time that frustration mirrors that of the people living in the shadow of the nuclear plant.  Ash has made a film that puts us into the shoes of the people who are living daily with the fear of the unknown.  The fear of a future that may be filled with illness and suffering for themselves and their children.

It was a film that had to be made.  A2-B-C won the jury adjudicated Nippon Visions Award at Nippon Connection 2013 to much applause.  The award includes JVTA (Japan Visualmedia Translation Academy) funding for subtitling his next film.  Ash is working on a follow up film about Fukushima which will be his third film on the devastating effects of the nuclear meltdown.  His first film, In the Grey Zone (2012) was filmed closer to the Daiichi plant. 

To learn more about Ian Thomas Ash, check out his official website and Robin Caudell’s article on Ash winning the Nippon Visions Award.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

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