Interview: Otto Bell on Life Finding a Way in “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima”

Otto Bell could always expect to be haunted by his time filming “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima,” taking a camera into the Japanese prefecture where radiation still lingers from the devastating nuclear disaster in 2011, leaving many of its residents displaced and weeds and wildlife springing up in their stead. However, he had no idea that the feeling he experienced on the ground would stay with him as he started to edit the film, looking not at the monitor in front of him, but rather the empty streets outside his home as a result of coronavirus precautions to experience a sense of deja vu.

“It’s funny, isn’t it? We’ve been in lockdown now for nine, ten months and I obviously didn’t know COVID was coming before when I was making the film, but when it did hit, all of the footage took on this newfound relevance,” says Bell. “I had this little piece of COVID cinema in a way of these people living these very changed lives, often facing a vacuum of leadership.”

Even without the echoes of a pandemic that has ensnared the entire world, Bell has created a short film that allows anyone to grasp the profound implications of what happened in Fukushima as the half-life of radioactivity has made it possible for some to step gingerly back out into the area to start the slow process of making it once again habitable for others. With a savvy use of camera techniques that capture a slightly otherworldly reality while conveying all the sensations of a place where nature has taken over, the filmmaker accompanies an intrepid hunter of the wild boars that roam freely in the absence of people, wandering streets where vacated homes and businesses appear frozen in time and flora has sprouted through the pavement. However, also rising through the cracks in “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima” is the voiceover of former residents and even a few that have started to make their way back, illuminating the generally imperceptible loss of what keeps a community and culture alive as the contrast between a tour of a once-thriving neighborhood is juxtaposed against the testimony of those who will never see it the same way again.

Having taken audiences to new heights before with “The Eagle Huntress,” Bell alters perception in an entirely different way in “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima,” creating a liminal space in time where subtle references to influences such as Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” can give a global audience just enough familiarity to understand the entirely unchartered territory they’re in. With the film a prime contender in this year’s Oscar race for Best Documentary short with its online premiere set for February through Vice, the director spoke about the photography project that initially led him to Japan to film, distilling images and language to their most potent and getting the most out of the cinematic tools available to him to lead audiences into such an immersive journey into the unknown.

How did this come about?

I saw some photographs by a couple of really talented photographers Toru Hanai and Yuki Iwanami, who are actually co-producers on the film. Yuki had done some really beautiful human portraits of people who lost their way of life with Fukushima and then Toru-san had done some really beautiful photos of the pigs taking over the towns and villages. I just thought what an incredible way to unlock the aftermath of this incredible story of Fukushima using this pig situation as a through line to branch off and meet all of these very interesting human stories of people who were still making these sacrifices every day.

It was actually the main hunter in the film, Goru-san, who I like to think of as a visual narrator [as he] moves us through the landscape, and in so doing, we’re able to branch off and meet some of the people who are still surviving in this changed landscape. [Toru and Yuki] had some preexisting relationships with licensed hunters who the government had empowered to help clean up the boar situation, and we attached ourselves to the groups of hunters because the government is trying to encourage people to return and resettle the homes and the communities they were forced to leave, but before they could do that, one of the parts of encouraging people to come back is cleaning up the wild boar situation that had overtaken the towns and villages and causing damage to people’s homes. Kids can’t walk to school because they might meet a boar on the street. Farmers are having their crops destroyed by them and so on.

We actually met Goru-san at the pig disposal facility after about a week of filming and right off the bat, he was an incredible character, taking his responsibility very seriously. He wasn’t gung ho about it at all. You could see the act of hunting weighed heavily on him, so when I met him and he talked to us a little bit about his daily routine and the extent to which he traveled into the really radiated forests, as well as the borders of the town and villages because what he was saying is the boars come into the towns and villages and then they retreat at night into the woods and he was going deep into the woods, so we were very lucky to bump into him. I’m sorry to say, Stephen, he’s passed away since filming of cancer. I’m not qualified to say whether it was because of the radiation, but I can’t imagine that it helped.

I am sorry to hear that, and the entire radiation situation made me wonder – it seems like some interviews are done on the ground in Fukushima, but others from afar, which you then lay over scenes of the environment. Would you do interviews before exploring the environment, connecting people and places?

I did conduct sit-down formal talking head interviews with all the subjects that you hear from in the film. However, we made the choice in the edit room to not rely on talking head interviews and to keep the majority of the testimony out of vision because I liked the idea of immersing an audience in an environment for half an hour. I didn’t want to punctuate that immersion with talking head interviews. By keeping the interviewees out of vision, you get a quite unnerving sense of this ambience and I also didn’t want it to be an exposition-heavy essay on the aftermath of Fukushima. I wanted to immerse the audience in this changed environment and provoke them to ask more questions than are perhaps answered by the film. That’s why we tend to lean on these haiku-like statements. They’re always short. They tend to be profound and multifaceted statements, so you don’t have a lot of discussion of statistics. The opening is just three very simple graphics. The opening you see there’s an earthquake and then that was added with a tsunami and then the third screen is the lockdown and the evacuation with the radiation alarms going off and and nine years later, here we are.

It’s quite effective, and you really capture the otherworldly feeling of being there through the camerawork, which obviously employs drones as one device which doesn’t need to be manned by a person directly, but a lot of the film has a supernatural quality.

Yeah, we took along a lot of toys to this one. There was the drone upon which we mounted some special lenses which are made in England. I had this set of Clavius lenses made by Richard Gale, and they’re old Soviet lenses, which are famous for big bokeh and in-lens color shifts, and the effect it gives is almost like overexposed or expired film stock. You never know when you’re going to get one of these dynamic shifts in the color rendering of the image, [which] I liked because radiation is kind of an unseen enemy. It’s hard to visualize. There’s that line in “Chernobyl” where the actor talks about radiation being like a million bullets you can’t see, so it was always on my mind, how do I evoke this cloud of radiation you feel is hanging over this place? These lenses and the dynamic shifts in color rendering allow you to get a sense that something is not quite right in this world.

The other thing [these lenses] have, which is great, is a rear-aperture insert, so you’ll notice in certain shots there’s a square area of defocus, a square bokeh and that was another intentional choice because it’s a man-made shape. You know it gives you the sense that this world is out of kilter, that something is amiss and generally even if albeit it’s at a subconscious level, it adds to an eerie sense of foreboding that you do feel when you’re out there, especially in Zone One, which is the most radiated, off-limits area, very close to the melted-down reactor in Fukushima, so when you’re in there, you feel the weight of the place upon you. I was just trying to evoke a bit of that in our framing, in our lens choice and in some of the in-camera effects that these old Soviet lenses yield.

Then we had a nine-meter crane that folds away into a snowboard bag and you can put it up in 15 minutes and get really revealing crane shots. My DP Simon Niblett also had a remote controlled, gyro-stabilized buggy and these are used quite a lot in wildlife filming. It’s typically used for filming cheetahs, it can go about 45 kilometers per hour, so he brought it along and and that allowed us to get very close to some of these aggressive radiated boars. But what was great about the remote controlled car is it doesn’t have to go 45 miles per hour, 45 kilometers per hour. You can actually creep along with it as well, so I found it was very useful for filming tatami-level shots — Ozu was famous for filming from a much-lower angle whereby the center of gravity of your subject falls around the middle of the frame, and we did a lot of that on baby baby sticks. So you can get that Ozu Tatami level shot, but then you can also put movement into it and push in on subjects and it was very useful for my determination to pay homage to some of the greats of Japanese cinema.

You also are working with a largely Japanese crew. What was it like to work with them?

Yeah, I’m proud to say it’s a majority Japanese production, which I think is only right and proper. And there’s a story to that as well. Journalism in Japan has an extreme emphasis on access-driven reporting, so what you find is a lot of press clubs embedded in government departments. Traditionally, that was so they could be on the spot and they could break news as it happened, but it’s led to a little bit of an incestuousness, frankly, and journalists have had some trouble reporting on the on-the-ground events in Fukushima. There’s the famous case of the big Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun’s investigative department effectively gutted and closed down when they started releasing negative reports on the situation in Fukushima, so there was a dearth of real world reporting of the actual human experience on the ground in Fukushima as it stands today.

There seems to be a push from the government to focus on good news stories. They want to hold the Olympics there, [with] the softball and the baseball in Fukushima, and one of the things I found going in is the Japanese part of the crew and the subjects were quite grateful to tell their stories because they felt somewhat forgotten by the media in Japan. This film certainly wouldn’t have happened with the Japanese crew members and even the key art is done by the Japanese street artist Lady Aiko. It’s pretty fun.

It also has an extraordinary score from Midori Takada.

Isn’t it? About five or six years ago, I tried to buy a really seminal album that she made in the early ‘80s called “Through the Looking Glass.” She’s really a pioneer of Japanese ambient music and I tried to buy the vinyl five or six years ago and it was like $1000. But the algorithm on YouTube had served up a rare copy of the album and a person at the record label had heard it and reissued it and sold several hundred thousand reissues, so I contacted [Takada]. Originally, I wanted to use “Through the Looking Glass” [as the score] because the whole album is 40 minutes long, so I thought, “Oh, that’ll match up perfectly.” But when I sent her a rough cut of the film, she said, “Okay, I’m going to write an original score specifically for the film,” which is amazing because she hasn’t released that much new music over the past few decades.

That was a really big honor and [another] vote of confidence that my take on the situation there was being embraced by Japanese people on the ground there, and she did a beautiful job. It’s deliberately jarring. Again, I wanted to use a dysphonic, ambient soundtrack to further enhance that feeling of uneasiness about this environment and about this changed landscape [to express] that there’s something off-kilter and warped about this environment that you’re entering into. She’s just done a beautiful job, and she scored it to picture [which] I think you can tell…you’ll see a pig’s tail wiggle and she’ll put a little musical flourish on it. It’s really bespoke and custom-made for the film and I’ve ever so grateful to her.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

It’s funny, isn’t it? We’ve been in lockdown now for nine, ten months and I obviously didn’t know COVID was coming before when I was making the film, but when it did hit, all of the footage took on this newfound relevance. I had this little piece of COVID cinema in a way of these people living these very changed lives, often facing a kind of vacuum of leadership. And I had my concerns once we finished the film because it is not a film that is with a necessarily happy ending. It is not brimming with hope. To my mind, it’s something of a warning shot from the east to the rest of us about what happens when we let that balance between men and nature fall apart.

I was thrilled that Vice picked it up because to my mind, they were one of the few outlets with the stomach for this kind of content and it’s a fitting home for what at times I think is a quite tough film to watch. So it’s been great to see it pick up some festival wins on what is left of last year’s festival circuit and I was thrilled to show it to the team in Japan and hear their positive feedback. As I said, it was a real honor to pay homage to Ozu with the pillow shots and the tatami shots. Seventy years ago, many of his pillow shots were characterized by their comment on western commercialization and increasing Americanization of post-war Japan, so I liked revisiting and literally matching shot for shot some of his pillow shots against the situation there now to see how today many of his comments had been degraded and laid low by the radioactive situation there.

It just so happened that many of these techniques that I admired in Japanese directors also advanced my own agenda of pointing out that the primacy of people in this landscape has been eroded. As people, we think our fingerprint on the world is immortal and will last forever and here you see, eight or nine short years later, nature has taken back the landscape. All of these techniques I think chip away and erode the primacy of people, [which is] another reason why I like the pillow shots because five seconds resting on an inanimate object or an unchanging landscape, that is an unusual and uncomfortable amount of time for a shot without a person in it. Nature has taken it back to a degree and [this film] was deliberately built to provoke the audience to ask more questions. A female director I really admire said you can make documentaries to tell people what to think or tell people what to think about. I really like the idea of this being more the latter.

“The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima” will be released by Vice in February.

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