[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Sometimes while watching a documentary, I think about where the filmmaker is situated with regard to the subject matter. There are documentarians who let their presence be known on camera or in the filmmaking process. They’re almost like tour guides of the topic. And there are documentarians who are less visible — they shape what we’re seeing without trying to be seen. Those are just extreme ends of presentation, and both can work depending on how the filmmaker is able to serve the subject matter.
Two weeks ago I wrote that Davy Chou, the director of Golden Slumbers, let his own intellectual interests guide that film, and it wound up obscuring it’s subject matter (the lost cinema of Cambodia). Something similar occurs in No Man’s Zone, a movie full of silence and stillness, and even a little unnecessary antagonism of the audience.
Director Toshifumi Fujiwara prefaced No Man’s Zone by noting that it doesn’t offer any new information about the tragedy in Japan and should just be enjoyed as a film. I agree with him on the first point.
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No Man’s Zone (Mujin Chitai | 無人地帯)
Director: Toshifumi Fujiwara
If you were like me last year, you were probably glued to your television and the internet after the 3/11 quake. Any time I was at the computer, I had a window with an NHK live stream open so I could stay caught up. I was obsessed with learning any news about survivors and any stories about the immensity of the devastation. I would go on YouTube looking for new videos of the tsunami and its aftermath. And of course, I was seized by the Fukushima nuclear disaster for weeks. I still recall the shock of seeing reactor one blow up and that uncertain hour afterward, scrambling through channel after channel, news source after news source, just to figure out what that explosion meant and if all hope was lost.
This form of image obsession is one of Fujiwara’s hobby horses in No Man’s Znne, and it’s an idea that’s constantly returned to. It makes sense since image saturation after a tragedy is the norm. The same footage gets played on televisions; the same clips of a tragedy go viral. Sometimes the image can supplant the event — as if the Kent State shootings boiled down to just one black and white image of a prone body and a distressed woman; as if the assassination of JFK was only the Zapruder film.
And to that, apart from the explosions and the terrifying husks of the nuclear reactors, the Fukushima disaster is essentially an invisible disaster. You can’t really film the radiation as it saturates the water and the soil in the surrounding areas. You can only depict the effects of the radiation rather than show the radiation itself, and the effects of the radiation will be slow, playing out in life rather than on film. So all images of the radioactive disaster wind up being untrue in a way. That’s a legitimately fascinating idea about images and truth, but after a while it wears thin.
These ideas are conveyed through the narration of Arsinée Khanjian. Her voice is so smokily dire and French, with a tone that insists serious attention. Yet what she says isn’t always that profound. In one scene, Fujiwara wanders structures ruined by the tsunami and encounters men in white radiation suits. The narration refers to the men as ghosts and lost souls, a flourish so stilted and straining that I cringed in seat. A friend of mine from college used to say, “Never trust someone that confuses the words ‘conscious’ and ‘conscience,'” and I’m pretty sure that in a different scene of No Man’s Zone, the narration does just that.
I say pretty sure because at a certain point of the film I tuned out of the narration. Too much of it sounded like a bad sophomore essay on Derrida, and my mind can only take so much. It’s those odd moments in the narration that brought me to attention, like the “conscious”/”conscience” thing, or a dash of venom in which the narration suggests that we engage in schadenfreude if we saturate ourselves with images of tragedy. There are also moments where the narration fades out and in, muffling words or cutting short some of the meandering ideas. I’m not sure why this was done (was it a short disquisition on the nature of silence and non-silence?), but it seems like an unnecessary distraction.
Perhaps I would have reacted differently to No Man’s Zone if there was a greater sense of a thesis-in-progress. By that I mean the images and narration were creating an even larger idea about images and our response to tragedy. But Fujiwara’s images meander like the narration. We get shaky shots taken from car windows, and wobbly handheld shots of devastation, and jerky pans of seaside towns laid to waste. The opening shot of the film — beginning with a gnarled and blackened tree, lingering over splintered houses, ending at a snapped power line — is repeated in absolute silence later in the film. But to what end? These moments of pretentiousness and forced poetry aren’t all necessary, because the most interesting parts of No Man’s Zone are the ones that involve actual people.
There’s an interview with a elderly couple as they return to their house after the tsunami. The water has destroyed most of the homes nearby, but their home is left standing, though damaged. There’s a woman who’s lived in Iitate. The town is outside the exclusion zone but still near enough to Fukushima to experience high levels of radiation. She’s now forced to uproot and leave the area because of what the radiation has done to the land. The sudden appearance of a dog in the wreckage has the evocative flair of life to it. The audience asks questions about the people and the place rather than the narrator asking questions about abstractions tangentially related to the people and the place.
These interview subjects are the living records of the tsunami as well as the radioactive tragedy that’s still unfolding. It’s their words and their presence that have more meaning to me than the ideas about images and what they convey. Sometimes it’s just interview audio over images of the tsunami’s aftermath, but that’s better than hearing Khanjian. And yet, there’s even a meandering quality to these interviews. The exchanges between interviewees and Fujiwara unfold like awkward conversations, and every few seconds you hear Fujiwara do a hum of assent, as if constantly saying “Why yes, go on.” This all could have used additional shaping or forming.
Prior to No Man’s Zone was a short episode from We Are All Radioactive. It’s an episodic documentary series about various groups of people in Japan — surfers, fishermen, townspeople — dealing with life after the tsunami. A fisherman shared a story about how his family was saved from the tsunami by a funeral. There’s something potent and alive to that anecdote, and it’s free from any pseudo-intellectualism. It’s true, and it’s honest, and the thing about truth is that it can get obscured by imagery and language. In No Man’s Zone, there are lots of questions about truth, but I’m not sure that the film ever achieves it.