Director Philip Martin spoke to me about his documentary Japan in a Day, co-directed with Japanese filmmaker Gaku Narita, that is a snapshot of a country one year to the day of the Tsunami. Japan in a Day was screened in LFF’s ‘Journey’ category.
As I sit down to interview Philip, he turns the focus onto me. “Have you seen any good films? Have you seen anything that you like?”
Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, which I loved just because of the way he manipulates his audience by dividing your feelings of sympathy and understanding. On one hand you are sympathetic towards the protagonist, whilst in the same moment understanding the violence of the other characters; from which your sympathy for the main character derives. I also enjoyed Wadjda, Amour, and I saw Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, which was terrific; except that critics were walking out.
PM: How bad.
PR: The difficulty that comes with watching a Resnais film is that you can’t judge him on the criteria of good or bad. You’ve got to judge his films on his creation of a unique experience. His films are a challenge, so in a sense the walkouts didn’t wholly surprise me. Even now, he’s a director who refuses to stop experimenting, of reflecting on the nature of art and to present his audience with challenging cinema.
PM: We like things easy sometimes don’t we? If things aren’t easy perhaps we think that’s a bad thing, and therefore the film’s not working. I think in a way sometimes things have to be challenging.
PR: We approach cinema with pre-conceived expectations, and sometimes a film will ask or demand us to adjust these pre-conceived expectations. There are many who unfortunately cannot make that adjustment. You can read a film’s synopsis, but there is more than one way to execute any one idea. So it’s always best to approach a film with an open mind and be willing to make the necessary adjustments throughout the experience.
PM: Often a filmmaker will have lived with something for a long time, and will be making deliberate choices, and so in a way if it’s not happening at the speed or in the way that you imagine it, you have to maybe ask yourself why not, and what is the intention?
PR: Your career began in television.
PM: Yeah, I’m a drama director, but I started in documentaries. This project, Japan in a Day is made up of thousands of user generated clips that we all watched and made into a film. I co-directed it with a Japanese director, a brilliant guy, Gaku Narita. We worked together sat in the cutting room in London with an editor, Kristina Hetherington, and we watched all of this stuff and we tried to shape it into a film. The idea of the story was that one year to the day after the Tsunami hit Japan, people were invited to take part in this filmmaking process where they make a film about their day. We look at twenty-four hours one year to the day after the Tsunami.
PR: You must have had a lot of footage to look through?
PM: We had lots and lots of footage.
PR: How did you approach that challenge?
PM: We had a lot of footage, and also you have footage that is not necessarily shot with the same intention. You’re a filmmaker, my co-director is a filmmaker, but also the audience is a filmmaker for people sending in stuff. So we just watched everything, and we tried to respond instinctively and emotionally, to say, “Well I liked this person, I like this story that they are telling. I like this bit of a day that they are making a film about.” We’d put that on one side and we just gradually went through all of the material, sort of refining it in terms of what we liked. When we would have a story that we liked, we’d try to reduce that down. So if it was three hours of material and we had an instinct that this person was interesting, we would then try and reduce that story to a three minute story or a five minute story. Gradually we just assembled a long version of the film which had lots of things we liked in it and then we just said, “Okay, we’ll what is this film that we are making, what’s the story that the material is telling us?” We then tried to shape it, and carried on refining it and refining it until we were basically thrown out of the cutting room.
PR: There must have been many moving videos, but do you think it is a case of looking beyond the tragedy to find the hope?
PM: Exactly that. I think you put that very well, and after one year a lot of people are still wrestling with what happened. I guess there would have been many documentaries in Japan unpicking exactly what happened, and in a way we are trying to do something else. Not necessarily looking exclusively at the Tsunami, but taking a snapshot of a country over a twenty-four hour period. So there are lots of things that aren’t to do with it, and there are lots of things that are reactions to it. People are going off and seeing or doing things like parachuting out of aeroplanes, doing life affirming things almost in spite of all of that. Then there were the on-going issues of when the Tsunami happened. It damaged the nuclear power plant which then caused a massive radiation leak, and so there are a lot of people who are living on a daily basis with that, and it’s a kind of weird, very disturbing phenomenon. You don’t know how dangerous or not exposure to radiation is, and so there is a big area of Japan where people are… There is a contamination zone which people are not allowed into. They have all been moved out of their houses and then there’s area around that, but you’re not allowed to have any farming produce or any sort of vegetables from it, and so there is a real atmosphere of fear, concern, anxiety as well as a lot of people dealing with the grief of this terrible event. Lots of questions are being asked about how we power our country if we do not want to have nuclear power. But also how do we live with nature, because so many of the areas that were destroyed by the Tsunami were fishing towns; the people whose livelihood comes from the sea, who were killed by the Tsunami. Twenty thousand people were killed and so it’s a terrible event and it’s caused a lot of soul searching in a whole lot of different areas. But also people have to live, people have to go forward; life has to go on and so there is this balance between trying to understand what has happened, trying to come to terms with what has happened, but then also trying to move forward, that is something we found a lot in the films. I hope that people will go and see it, and find it to be a life affirming film. There’s a lot of joy in it, there’s a lot of happiness in it, there’s a lot of humour in it as well. One of the exciting things about Japan in a Day is the way the tone can shift. There will be someone who is wrestling with an emotional issue to do with the Tsunami, and then there will be a child who doesn’t really understand any of that, and who will want to say something else. I hope there is a nice variety of tone in the film, and a variety of things that are explored.
PR: I assume it’s a wonderful opportunity to show the complexity of perspectives and the differing emotional reactions, the effect of age and individual experiences on this perspective. How often does the opportunity to put that story on film come along?
PM: Exactly, exactly that. Very well put, and there is one story that captures that where there is a young girl who is having her first birthday on the day that they do the filming, and you spend the whole day with her, her dad and her mum; doing things that you do with a kid who’s having their first birthday. Then right at the end of that day the father puts up the camera in a room, and speaks into the camera and says that when she was born, an hour later the Tsunami hit, and he went out to try to rescue people. He failed in his mind to save the life of a child, a seven year-old girl, and I don’t think he did fail, but he thinks he did. So you have this juxtaposition between the guilt that he feels of surviving and not doing enough with the joy that he feels with the birth of his own child. It’s a complicated mixture, and in a way he needs the film to… In a way it’s a wonderful example of the technology, of what filming technology can do, that he sets up a camera in a little room and he makes a confession, that he feels really bad about what happened, and that he can’t come to terms with it. In some ways he’s wrestling with how to make sense of the birth of his daughter and the death of this other girl. In the end he says, “I just need to tell you that.” In some ways there is a confessional dimension to this kind of filmmaking, which is really an incredible privilege to be a part of.
PR: I can’t help but think of Hiroshima and I recall the story Akira Kurosawa told about his brother forcing him to confront the horror, to not look away. It seems to me that Japan has spent a lot of time confronting tragedy.
PM: I think so and in a way I think the whole experience at the end of the Second World War gives the nuclear dimension in Japan an extra potency, an extra power. It’s a very emotive issue, and I think there is… I always worry about making generalisations about how the British people would treat this, how the Americans would treat this, how the Japanese people would treat this situation? Because I co-directed it with a Japanese director, sometimes those stereotypes do come through, but most often they don’t, and actually everybody sees these things in the same way. I think the Japanese probably do have a kind of stoicism in some ways, and I think that we probably either here or in America are not threatened by nature in the way that they are. Tsunamis are a reality and they have been a reality for thousands of years, and so they have had to come to terms with it. I don’t think that we really have that situation here where we are daily having to wrestle with life and death from nature. I think we live a very insulated life.
PR: What future projects are you either considering or working on at the moment?
PM: I don’t know, I would really like to direct something of my own, having sort of been dealing with other people’s material, and saying, “Okay well none of the shots are there, how do I direct this, how do we edit this?” Or, “Gosh I wouldn’t have shot it like that, but it’s utterly brilliant.” I have a project with BBC Films that’s called, ‘Outcast’ which is based on a book by Sadie Jones, and I have a project in America called ‘The Forger.’ Hopefully one of those will be next.
PR: I’m a Wallander fan, and I’ve seen both the Swedish and the English versions, and you directed an episode of The BBC’s Wallander, so how did you approach the challenge of adapting a Swedish character and story for British television?
PM: Well I did the first one and so I sort of set it up in some ways, and because it was for BBC One, it had to be mainstream, it had to find an audience, and so you are trying if you like to introduce that slightly darker Swedish world to a broader world. We talked a lot about it. There was a lot of thinking and a lot of analysis, and then there was this pressure of taking English actors and putting them in Sweden, and in some ways having them speak in English. There are a lot of rules to do with grammar that you have to establish, to make sure that it feels natural and consistent. So there was a lot of that sort of stuff. Kenneth Branagh is an amazing actor, but he was really behind the whole process, and so we just wanted to I suppose try to bring you something, to take you to another world in a way. To take you to a world that has its own rules, its own logic, and feels very familiar, but is very different.