Sunday, August 05, 2007

An Interview with Steven Okazaki, Director

WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN premieres on HBO on Monday, August 6, 2007

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival I viewed, back-to-back, films about the making of "Dr. Atomic," the John Adams-Peter Sellars collaborative opera (which I was lucky enough to see during its San Francisco debut in 2005), and "White Light/Black Rain," Steven Okazaki’s heartbreaking and sobering series of interviews with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two films (rich, but difficult viewing) served as bookends on a horrific subject: the creator/destroyer Robert J. Oppenheimer’s engineering of the first atomic bomb, its testing at Alamagordo, and the ultimate detonation in 1945, on August 6 and 9, of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on unsuspecting Japanese citizens of, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a succinct opening, a ninety-second historical overview of events leading up to the dropping of the bombs, "White Light/Black Rain" makes a statement by asking a question: “What historical event occurred on August 6, 1945?” the filmmakers randomly ask young people walking on the streets of Hiroshima. “I don’t know,” each teenager responds. “Did something important happen?” asks one. “An earthquake?” asks another. Okazaki says that they had planned to ask thirty or more people this question, but stopped after the first ten, when the responses were the same. If this is what the younger generation knows about the most significant event in Japan’s history––if, indeed, not the world’s––it’s chilling to consider that seventy-five percent of Japan’s population was born after 1945.

Steven Okazaki, the recipient of three Academy Award nominations ("Days of Waiting," a documentary short, about Estelle Peck Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians interned with Japanese Americans during WW II, won both an Oscar and Peabody Award in 1991), was born and raised in Venice, California. As an American of Japanese lineage, he was in a unique position, perhaps, even, the perfect person, to make a film on this topic. Did he feel a primary sense of loyalty to either culture? I asked, when we met, first at Sundance, and later, in Berkeley, California (where he lives with his wife, writer Peggy Orenstein, and their daughter, Daisy Tomoko), at his offices in the Saul Zaentz Media Center.

“I’ve always felt a certain distance from both cultures,” Okazaki replied. “I’m an American, but my grandparents, parents and I were treated as lesser because of the way we look. My grandparents lost everything [during the war]. My parents were squashed and oppressed. And I have had to fight twice as hard for my opportunities. But I’m not Japanese. If I don’t open my mouth when I’m in Japan, then I fit in. But as soon as I do, then I’m a foreigner, an outsider. I understand the culture, but I’m not part of it and don’t want to be. I guess I always feel like an outsider, even among peers, in my community and at family gatherings. So, yes, I think I am a good choice to make this film, because, although I know both cultures extremely well, I am ‘the other’ to both.”

For 25 years, since the first time he visited Japan, Okazaki had wanted to make “a great film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki--an ambitious, comprehensive, powerful film.” But at the time, he felt he lacked “the skill to pull it off.” Later, he recalls, he “faced a wall of censorship from both Japan and the United States,” then, he couldn't find the funding. He put “The Big Film” on hold and made the documentary short "The Mushroom Club" in 2005, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film is “a little tribute, a bow and a thank you, to the people of Hiroshima,” explains Okazaki, “to pay off the debt I felt to them for sharing their stories with me.”

During post-production, Sara Bernstein at HBO Documentary Films ("White Light/Black Rain" airs on HBO beginning August 6 at 7:30 P.M.) called and asked him if he was interested in doing “a big, ambitious film” about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okazaki sees "The Mushroom Club" as a “kind of introduction” to "White Light/Black Rain." The first film “takes the viewer by the hand,” he says, “and slowly you see the city, meet the survivors and hear bits and pieces of the story. It is very consciously small and personal. I wanted to say, ‘Come with me, don't be afraid, just watch and listen.’ "White Light" is his “big film, it moves forward, very determined, doesn’t hold anything back, and tells the whole story. It says, ‘Pay attention, these people have something important, disturbing and amazing to say.’”

The film is vividly impressionistic and deeply moving. In addition to a series of captivating interviews with survivors (known as hibakusha––people exposed to the bomb and subsequent radiation) and three American soldiers, who carried out the bombing mission, White Light’s rich texture, both visually and aurally, combines painfully disturbing archival footage, survivors’ drawings of their memories of the horrific event, animation, and an intriguing soundtrack that includes several tracks by the Scottish band Mogwai. To come up with the look of the film, Okazaki says he took his “cues from the subjects. They are warm, intelligent, shy people with great dignity. The visuals and the music serve their stories, and never overwhelm them, but also hold our attention when we need a break from the intense drama of the stories.

“With most documentaries, you take advantage of every drop of drama you find,” he analyzes, but the Hiroshima and Nagasaki stories are “so emotionally overwhelming––a child walking out of a bomb shelter to discover that everyone in her school is dead; a mother watching helplessly as her children burn to death; young children committing suicide––you have to be careful about devastating the audience and losing them.”

About the soundtrack, Okazaki explains, “one of the fun things for me on any film is thinking about the music. The moment the project starts, I listen to everything I can. I usually have a fat budget item called ‘Music Research’ and I buy hundreds of CDs, listen to them, and think about the film.” He says he “can’t start editing until I have a strong sense of where I want to go with the music.” On "White Light" he collected about thirty Mogwai songs and “whenever I got to a scene I’d pop them all on until I found the one that fit.” When he finds something that works, he says, “it almost never changes after that.” He made the decision to forego period music, because it made the film feel “campy and dated. Even though the stories are 60 years old, you want it to feel like it’s happening now.”

A genuine sense of intimacy with the film’s participants as they recount their stories is one of the remarkable aspects of "White Light." Was it difficult persuading the survivors to open up about such a painful part of their lives? On the contrary, Okazaki clarifies, “they were mostly incredibly eager to share their stories and tell the world what happened. Many said that their own spouses, children and friends were reluctant to ask them about their experience, so they appreciated the chance to really talk.”

By nature, a project such as "White Light" raises emotional, moral, political and philosophical issues and questions for a filmmaker. How did Okazaki handle them? “I try to not come to a project with a set moral or political stand,” he explains. “I could be wrong and miss something because I was looking for something else. I try to stay open minded, do the research, do the filming and edit the film. That’s my job: to make the film, tell the story, not to decide the rights and wrongs, who's good and bad. I hate films where you know the filmmaker’s political or moral point of view in the first two minutes. Why bother?”
Okazaki then references "Black Tar Heroin," his first documentary for HBO, for which he followed five heroin addicts for three years. “I realized that most of what I thought I knew was wrong, and the best thing to do was to just follow the subjects. I try to be a filmmaker first. Sometimes you can’t. When you’re filming a drug addict and they overdose, you put the camera down and try to save their lives. It’s not a choice. Later on, you might think, ‘Wow, that would have been a powerful scene,’ but you have to live with yourself.”

He admits that "White Light/Black Rain" was difficult, emotionally. “I would be sitting there, listening to someone talk about reaching out to touch their mother and watching the body crumble into ashes. Later, I would worry that I wasn’t reacting emotionally to what I was hearing, but would instead be thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a powerful scene.’ But when I started editing the interviews and going through the archival footage, I would break down and start weeping, unexpectedly, every couple of weeks, not necessarily reacting to a particular scene, but the whole experience.”

"White Light" clearly goes to great lengths to be “fair”; there is little directive from the film to “take sides,” to “blame” either Japan or the U.S. (and yet, it holds both responsible for the consequences of their acts). Still, scathing revelations are made about both countries. What, I wondered, is Okazaki’s opinion about the responsibility of documentarians toward the “truth” and maintaining objectivity in their work?

“Again, I hate documentaries that simply support the prejudices of the filmmaker in the guise of exploring a compelling subject,” he stresses. “The so-called ‘docu-gandas,’ made popular and profitable by Michael Moore, but in existence since the beginning of filmmaking, would be fine as entertainment, except the audience is generally too trusting and can’t necessarily discern how the material is being manipulated. When I watch a documentary, I am very conscious of what is artistic license and what is cheating, but only the filmmaker knows for sure. I’m disturbed by the trend, but I can only be responsible for myself.”

"White Light/Black Rain" ends with the staggering statement that there are now enough nuclear weapons in the world to equal 400,000 Hiroshimas. As one of the military men responsible for dropping the atom bombs puts it in the film: “The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. From now on, the world will live with the possibility of nuclear exchanges and nuclear war.”

But in person, Steven Okazaki ends on a more humanist note: “I just want people to stop arguing about the rights and wrongs of the atomic bombings, whose fault it is, who deserved it or didn’t, whether it was worse, or not as bad, as other holocausts, and just listen to the stories of the people who were there. People like you and me, our parents, our children, our friends.”

(A version of this interview first appeared in the July-August 2007 print version of "Documentary" Magazine.)



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