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“The Biggest Challenge was Working Amidst the Radiation”: Jake Price on The Invisible Season

The Invisible Season (Photo courtesy of POV)

Just days after the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, Brooklyn-based photojournalist and documentarian Jake Price made his way to the Tohoku region of northern Japan, the area hardest hit by the devastation. He stayed for months, and the result was Unknown Spring, an engaging interactive documentary that he spoke with me about when it was released in 2013. Unknown Spring focused on the catastrophe of the tsunami itself, but even before finishing it Price knew that he wanted to follow it up with another project on the less visible but longer lasting catastrophe of radiation from the hydrogen explosions at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. This second project, The Invisible Season, launched in English this spring and Japanese this summer, with further translations in the works. It’s an important addition to the canon of interactive docs on environmental and social issues, and I wrote about it in this summer’s print issue of Filmmaker magazine. What follows here is my entire conversation with Price, conducted via email as he traveled while working on a new project; it shows more about his creative and technical processes and how the people of northern Japan and the nature of their plight weighed upon him throughout the entire production, showing how ethical issues of ethnographic documentary that have existed since Robert Flaherty still inform nonfiction filmmaking as it pushes deeper into the digital age.

Filmmaker: Unknown Spring, your first project about the tsunami and Fukushima disaster, was completed three years ago, but even then you knew you would keep working on this story. Now that The Invisible Season is complete, what’s the relationship between the two projects, both technically and in terms of content?

Price: I have been inspired by Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County; many stories were told from this singular land. In that way, both The Invisible Season and Unknown Spring are distinct stories that chronicle the same land. At the same time, they are distinct projects with distinct story lines. By seeing both, however, I hope that viewers come away with an understanding the consequences specific to Fukushima and to Miyage Prefecture to the north.

The Invisible Season would not have existed without Unknown Spring. When I was producing Unknown Spring I lived in a kasetsu, which is government provided housing for the displaced in Natori, about 80 miles to the north of Fukushima. During that time the family that I was living with and I spoke about how sad it was that Fukushima’s people would never return home. Although the tsunami decimated the lives of the people on the northern coast, those people would be able to rebuild. Ironically for those who still had their homes in Fukushima, they would never rebuild because of the contamination. The Invisible Season arose from these conversations and I decided that I needed to do a long-term project on the radiation from the hydrogen explosions, a disaster that man created.

From a technical point of view, one important element is that we used all open source for both projects. Structurally the two projects differ in that Unknown Spring was more conceptual in nature as it lets the user define her or his path and is not character driven. The Invisible Season is all about the voices of people who experienced the meltdown and one chapter is handed over to the next.

Fukushima is about the size of Connecticut and not all of the prefecture was affected by the meltdown, the ultimate radius of which was about 50 miles. Therefore it is very hard for the people of Fukushima, many of whom live nowhere near the fallout, to be only associated with the disaster. There has been discussion that because it is so large Fukushima’s name should be changed. Many, however, do not want to change the name out of solidarity for the victims.

Overall, the tsunami extended 250 miles from north to south and extended 3 miles in destroying everything in its path. Although devastating, people not affected by radiation can rebuild their homes and towns.

For an interactive map please visit The Invisible Season’s map page.

Filmmaker: Where did your title come from? There seems to be a running theme about the unseen with Unknown Spring and now The Invisible Season; the project’s landing page even talks about “an invisible stain [embedded] into the essence of life.” Are you referring primarily to radiation or is there also something else you hope to help people see?

Price: In both cases the titles refer to the unfathomable and the season. The tsunami struck in March just as the plum blossoms were blooming and shortly after that the cherry blossoms. At that time everything felt totally foreign and unknown. The title was taken from a Bashō poem.

Time in Japan is marked very dramatically by the changing seasons and nature is an essential part of the culture in Fukushima. Because of people’s emotional attachment to nature, their being cut off from the rituals of the land is deeply painful for them. As the leaves change so do our thoughts, however now there is one constant that never changes: the threat of the invisible taint. Just as radiation embeds itself into all of life’s DNA, so too it embeds itself into people’s deepest thoughts and concerns. In the title I wanted to allude to the psychological concerns that people have in the region. I think I’ve summed it up best in my Director’s Notes where I wrote:

“The fear of the invisible has had long term consequences in Fukushima to this day. Fear of the invisible has invaded people’s dreams where they visualize what they cannot see contributing to PTSD and one’s psychological health overall. Friends told me they are suspicious of the wind — even if they are far away from the site they are afraid of the radiation.”

Filmmaker: On the same note, what is it that you really want people — both in Japan and the English-speaking world — to take away from this?

Price: As I write this we are also translating the site into French and hope to expand to other languages as well, so I don’t want to limit the message to only English and Japanese. A nuclear failure anywhere has huge consequences for the rest of the world and so we all, as humans on this planet, need to understand the consequences of this power source.

From very early on in this project I wrote that Fukushima represents all of our backyards, that it’s not some small place on an island in distant Japan. The disaster that struck there could easily happen anywhere there is a nuclear power plant, so I really wanted people to think about the consequences of what it means to have to rely on this source of energy. Indeed, when I was filming on my second trip Hurricane Sandy forced the Oyster Creek nuclear facility, 89 miles from where I live in Brooklyn, to shut down. And closer to home we have the Indian Point Nuclear power plant 37 miles from New York City and its 8.5 million people. (And that’s not counting the millions of others in New Jersey and Connecticut.)

Indian Point has been shut down numerous times the past year for everything from bird droppings on important wires to a transformer explosion, and yet Entergy, the company that owns it, says it’s safe — just as Tepco, the owner of the Fukushima plant, told people there it was safe. With so many possibilities for failure we need to urgently think about the way we power our modern existence. No one in the world should ever have to  to suffer the fate that the people of Fukushima did.

Adding to the parallels of Fukushima, so many nuclear power plants in the United States are situated along the coast. With sea levels rising and hurricanes becoming stronger and more frequent the possibility for an accident like Fukushima’s happening elsewhere is all the more likely.

Since the meltdown in 2011 renewable energy has had tremendous growth and if we are to avert similar disasters we need to continue on that path.

Filmmaker: You’ve talked before about your aversion to being labelled a parachute journalist and how you’ve spent long weeks and months living among your subjects in order to understand their stories. So, given that you’ve done this before and you put in the time on the ground, what was the process like making a longitudinal documentary far from home? I’m curious not just about the production process but in how your own personal relationship with Japan has evolved over the past five years.

Price: I return to Japan frequently and always visit the people I’ve gotten to know along what I call the tsunami coast. What fascinates me is to get to know the children who were born after the disaster. With the backdrop of total obliteration, new life is coming to the region and I often find myself thinking about what these kids will know about this disaster. (Again, I should note here that in reference to total obliteration I am referring to the the tsunami’s effects in the north, not the abandoned towns of Fukushima.) What stories will come from their being born? What kind of society will they build on the ruins of the last one?

I read a story recently about a penguin who would swim back to Brazil every year to visit a fisherman who saved him. I kind of feel like that penguin and need to return to Tohoku to be with the people I’ve gotten to know so well. Some of my friends still live in a kasetsu, which is where I stay. We cook, eat, laugh, share stories. It’s hard living in the kasetsu but important to understand that even if they are thin camped structures, there’s a lot of heart, strength, and warmth inside.

Regarding making a longitudinal documentary, given the slowly moving disaster that has engulfed Fukushima, I had no choice but to make a longitudinal documentary — in many ways The Invisible Season is a study in human and geologic time. The impact from the meltdown on people’s lives took about five years to be fully understood. We now know that the exclusion zone was not one large mass of radiation, but more of a patchwork of locations that were affected. Some towns have opened back up while others haven’t.

For example, when I met Tomoko Kobayashi, who is one of the featured characters, she was not allowed to live in her hometown of Odaka. She could only visit it during the day for limited hours. She did not know if she would ever be able to return home. However, because there was a possibility of it, she kept up her hope by planting flowers and starting to repair her small hotel that was in her family for generations. I thought her actions were a beautiful example of pragmatic hope, a faithful gamble. She knew that if she did nothing then there absolutely would be no future for her town. Only time could allow this story development to occur.

On the other end of the spectrum there are towns where there is absolutely no hope of a recovery at all. I needed time to convert these complexities. The upcoming film that will accompany the website opens and closes with the same abandoned school along the coast. The school is a symbol of the slow decay that has engulfed people’s lives. In the school sand slowly infiltrates the building, and one can imagine that in time the individual grains of sand will form dunes that will ultimately fill the entire structure. Each grain of sand represents the disappearance of a world that was once alive and thriving and is now covered up, a result our bad human decisions. Other parts of the school also progress in their decomposition: the hole in the school’s gymnasium sinks and widens over time, weeds encroach and erase the human presence.

I’m reminded of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

“‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Fukushima power plant is the modern day colossal wreck. Unlike the statue, however, the power plant will poison our world for generations to come. Ultimately this project is for those who will inhabit the earth after us. They need to know about the mistakes made in Fukushima and the efforts made by people like Tomoko to try and make her the home that she loves habitable again.

Filmmaker: Why did you choose to focus so much on the residents of the area? Stories like hers are incredibly compelling, which maybe answers the question, but there are political and scientific stories to be told as well, about government decisions and controversies, the process of decontamination, rebuilding and infrastructure, etc. But although those are all contextual agents in your story this really comes across as a people’s history of the recovery.

Price: Given the intimate bonds I’ve formed in the region the only choice for me was to give voice to the people who have and are still suffering from this disaster. Apart from losing the people they loved and things they held close to, one of the effects of their internal refugee status is that they lost their identities. The world only knew of these people as refugees and the place where they came from as a nuclear wasteland, as if that’s all it ever was and all it ever would be. They were in the world’s consciousness for a brief time and then forgotten about when the media moved onto the next calamity. But living there I know it’s a place that has a great pride for its history and natural beauty.

Rather than The Invisible Season being a story about what people have lost, I directed a story about what people are trying to hold onto. If people can comprehend the beautiful landscape lost to people in Fukushima perhaps they will look at their own world and take better care of it before another tragic and avoidable mistake happens. Fukushima came into the world consciousness only after the disaster, so to viewers that’s all it ever was. But it wasn’t always like that — in fact, Fukushima was a mountain and ocean paradise not so different from where I’m writing now in southern France (or closer to my home in New York, the verdant and fertile Hudson Valley).

To complement the more poetic narrative that forms the core of the project I thought it was essential that context be put into the project to show the events that surround people’s lives.  To that end, The Invisible Season has 4 distinct components that employ different technology: to accompany the character stories the project features  a map page that contains 2.5 gb of granular data, a comprehensive timeline designed by the Knight Foundation that provides viewers access to technical data and political coverage, and lastly a parallax page for project notes.

Filmmaker: On a more technical level, were there any new challenges you had to overcome? That could be during production, obviously, but also in the coding and arrangement of the final piece, especially with all these different types of pages; what was that process like? What about funding and working with POV?

Price: The biggest challenge was working amidst the radiation. I always traveled with a geiger counter and there were some moments within the exclusion zone when it went off the charts. It was a traumatizing experience and really gave me an understanding of what it’s like to live amidst a threat that cannot be perceived by our own senses. Once you come across an event like this you’re always worrying about the next one. Every time I entered into the exclusion zone I did so with trepidation. The way it affected me psychologically was that I felt a tremendous heaviness over me and I worked extremely quickly in the places I visited. I also did not want to stay long because I was amongst the ruins of people’s lives. Out of respect for the people who lost everything, I thought that I had to work as efficiently as possible so as not to have my presence disturb the silence.

From a technological point of view, we really moved through the process pretty easily. Getting the 4 parts to come together was a little tricky, but all in all it worked well with some fine tuning by Art Director Visakh Menon.

In terms of actually designing the site, being invited to participate at POV’s hackathon was a tremendous help to us. Participating in it gave us the time to really focus how we would tell this story from a technological standpoint. Out of that came funding from POV to actually build the site. Because the foundation formed with POV was so good, the coding went quickly and according to the wire frames we had on hand.

The lessons I learnt on this project were human ones. I became a better listener in Fukushima. I don’t speak Japanese well, however I learnt that there are many other ways in which human beings can communicate and understand each other. I have become better a listener to the cadence in a person’s voice and also a more patient observer of a person’s body language giving me an understanding of a person’s deeper nature. What I took from my time in Japan has let me find the deeper humanity of people in my own country and around the world.

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