The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, nominated for the 2012 Oscar Documentary Short Films’ Award, is a documentary filmed in Japan after the devastating tsunami of March 11th 2011. It shares the journey of survivors in the areas hardest hit, who find the courage to revive and rebuild right as the cherry blossom season comes to that area, a symbol of hope and new beginnings in Japanese culture.
Lucy Walker is best known for directing four award-winning feature documentaries: Devil’s Playground, Blindsight , Waste Land and Countdown To Zero . In 2011, Lucy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary for directing Waste Land, which won over 30 other awards including the Audience Awards at Sundance and Berlin and the IDA’s Best Documentary Award. Recognition for Devil’s Playground, about Amish teenagers, included nominations for three Emmys and an Independent Spirit Award. Blindsight won many festivals, including Berlin, and was also long listed for the Academy Award®. Lucy grew up in London, England, and studied English at Oxford University, where she started out directing theatre before winning a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the MFA graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was also a DJ and directed Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues, for which she was twice nominated for an Emmy. Her latest film, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, will have its world premier at the Toronto Film Festival, and Lucy gives her first interview on the film here to CWB.
Rachel O’Meara: When and why did you decide to make the film?
Lucy Walker: I was originally supposed to go to Japan to promote the release of a previous movie of mine, Countdown To Zero. It’s about the growing threat of nuclear weapons, so given Japan’s history with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I felt I really wanted to go there and present the film in person. It was scheduled for March, and I realized that the trip was going to coincide with the cherry blossom season – something I’d always been obsessed with wanting to see. It’s such an icon of Japanese culture, such a visually beautiful subject, and something of a treasure trove in Japanese people’s hearts, that I decided I would make a short film about it whilst I was there. So when the earthquake struck on March 11th, I was actually in the middle of planning the trip, quite literally, because I was online with the distributor, Paramount, in Japan, finalizing my flight, when the earthquake happened! They were so diligent, that still wanted to finish the booking, and were asking for my Frequent Flyer number – I said, “Guys, we don’t need to deal with that right now! Please go home, or, something!”. Subsequently, because of the nuclear plant crisis that emerged, it was too sensitive a time to be getting the Japanese people to worry about all things nuclear, so the release of Countdown To Zero was postponed. I initially thought, well, I shouldn’t be doing the trip, but then I considered that this was a more important time than ever to make the film – when everyone’s thoughts were with the Japanese people. I thought seeking a cultural understanding of their precious and symbolic flower would be a way to express a solidarity with them.
With the state of emergency, and the after-shocks being so intense, I just put together a tiny crew – myself, my cinematographer, Aaron Phillips, whom I’ve worked with on almost all my projects since film school, and a 25 year old American guy, who’s lived in Japan for seven years, and could be our combined production manager / translator / local guide. We started by filming the spectacular cherry blossom in the south west, particularly Kyoto, which is the most famous area for it. But when I was there, I kept on thinking that the heart of the story was in the north east, which had been affected by the tsunami so very badly. I had thought we wouldn’t be able to get to that region, and although I’m a pretty gung ho sort of person, it hadn’t seemed safe enough to take the crew. Eventually, I figured out we might be able to do it, raised a bit more money, and the three of us set off by car.
I guess nothing truly prepared me for the shock of how totally devastating the tsunami had been there, and quite how it had destroyed entire towns, killing over 15,000 people, with 7,000 still missing. Even though I’d seen and read a lot about it, still photos just can’t capture the 360 degree impact of the destruction.
At first I was afraid that the people there wouldn’t want to talk to us. I’d heard that Japanese culture meant being very private, particularly where foreigners were concerned, but I found people really wanted to tell their story. They would come across the post-apocalyptic looking landscape especially to find us. Three Westerners, arriving in one of the most emptied out areas of the region, possibly intrigued them too, but mainly, they were concerned that people weren’t hearing their story. So the film is a bit of a fable of healing, if you like, about how these people find the courage to move forward, and to revive and rebuild in the face of such loss and devastation, just as the cherry blossom, the symbol of Spring and new beginnings, is opening. It’s an encouraging and incredibly beautiful image of that re-birth, and I didn’t need to prompt people to draw the comparison in my interviews – they would spontaneously talk about cherry blossom, constantly. When people spoke about hope and moving forward, they would point at the trees and say, they drowned in salt water and they didn’t die, that’s why I’m hanging in there! So I didn’t feel I was imposing a sort of silly theme on them for my film, it came naturally and organically.
RO: You’ve said before that you like to make films which take the viewer in to an inaccessible world, where people are in the most testing environments – that seems especially true for this movie, doesn’t it?
LW: It certainly does!
RO: Congratulations on the Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom having its world premier at Toronto.
LW: Thank you. Yes, we really raced to complete it. I didn’t want people to forget. I worked with Moby previously on the music for my film Waste Land, and for this one, there are very beautiful, very emotional remixes of tracks from his latest album, Destroyed, which I’m sure people will absolutely love. Likewise, the cinematography – I joke and call the movie an advertisement for Aaron Phillips, because his shots of the cherry blossom are stunningly pretty! Quite breathtaking. We’ve also mixed some haikus in with the film’s credits, which is a little unusual, but there are so many of these lovely Japanese poems written about cherry blossom that are appropriate to the film.
I hope it will then play on the festival circuit and have some theatrical release, then be broadcast on March 11th, the anniversary. That’s what I’m hoping.
RO: On the subject of distribution, all your documentary features have been theatrically released – what do you believe is key for documentaries to get in to cinemas?
LW: I make documentaries in the way I learned to make feature films. With a powerful narrative. They have to be compelling, which is very hard when you’re working with real life – real life isn’t as vibrant as fiction drama. And memorable characters, amazing faces. So if you break it down, all the things that make a really exciting feature film. Hopefully, without compromising the truth in any way, which is extremely important. It’s challenging to make something that really works on the big screen, that can really attract people to go to such lengths to see it. But I think when you pull it off, when you’ve been really skillful, there’s nothing more rewarding.
For more information about the film and to watch the trailer http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com/