VIFF 2012: Things Left Behind director Linda Hoaglund bridges Hiroshima divides
Should a child feel guilty for the Second World War bombing of Japan? Of course that sounds preposterous to an adult, but director Linda Hoaglund felt that way when she was growing up.
Mind you, Hoaglund wasn't raised in typical American circumstances. In a phone interview from New York City, Hoaglund explained that her parents were missionaries in Japan and she attended Japanese public school from kindergarten to junior high.
"In the fourth grade, we learned about the atomic bomb," she said." So I was the one American kid among 40 Japanese kids and of course, they all looked at me, and I don't know what you do with the idea of imagining yourself a perpetrator when you're 10 years old."
That experience cast a lifelong shadow upon Hoaglund.
"I felt trapped by it," she said. "I felt my country had done something unforgiveable and here I was all by myself, a little kid and I had to take responsibility for it….I think the enormous gap between the American narrative of victory and triumph, despite the bombs, and the firebombing of 62 Japanese cities, versus the war narrative of victim….It's such a profound gap that I've kind of in a sense spent much of my adult life trying to bridge it….They were the same facts on both sides of the Pacific but the experience of the reality couldn't have been more different and I guess I felt uniquely qualified to present a nuanced case for bridging [it]."
Consequently, Hoaglund embarked upon a trilogy of documentaries about war-related issues between Japan and America.
She first produced and wrote the 2007 documentary Wings of Defeat, about kamikaze pilots who survived the war. She followed it up by directing the 2010 documentary ANPO: Art X War, about "the tremendous creative output in Japanese art inspired by the war and the post-war during U.S. military presence".
However, on her publicity tour for ANPO, one of the stops turned out to be the place she "dreaded the most" and the place where she "felt most culpable": Hiroshima.
Contrary to her fears, her visit proved to be cathartic.
"Because they've always held the war close to their hearts, they above all people in Japan embraced my film," she said. "And being embraced like that by the people of Hiroshima, it mended the gash in my heart."
Meanwhile, photographer Ishiuchi Miyako, who appeared in ANPO, had been working on a book of photographs of preserved clothing and objects from the Hiroshima bombing. Damaged dresses, kimonos, boots, and even a doll are all that remains of lives taken by the bomb.
Hoaglund said she had an "almost physical reaction" to seeing Ishiuchi's photos. In contrast to explicit black-and-white photos of the horrific aftermath, Ishiuchi's approach suits the Japanese sensibility of avoiding confrontation by addressing issues indirectly, using the power of suggestion to indicate absence and loss.
Hoaglund also pointed out how the photographs offer viewers a different approach to the cataclysmic event.
"I thought this is a way in for us to get at what must have happened to each individual," she said. "Especially I think for citizens of the United States, I think the very calamitous nature, the enormity prevents us from thinking about the individual people. It's too big. It's so big that there couldn’t have been individuals there with individual experiences. And I think that the clothes bring us down to earth."
Hoaglund knew that Ishiuchi felt strongly about the need to exhibit the photos in North America. When Hoaglund attended the Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 with ANPO, she was introduced to prominent figures in Vancouver's arts and culture community, including Museum of Anthropology director Anthony Shelton. Shelton "very quickly" agreed to host ひろしま hiroshima in October 2011.
Although she said she didn't originally intend on making the documentary Things Left Behind (which plays at VIFF on September 28, and October 1 and 12) about the exhibit, she became inspired by the "amazing" museum setting and felt that it was an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted.
Although Canada didn't bomb Japan, the documentary does reveal Canada's uranium production for the bombs, as well as references to the Japanese Canadian Internment.
Hoaglund included exhibit visitors talking about the photographs in the exhibit that they were most drawn to. The intentional lack of information provided for each photo resulted in a fascinating psychological dynamic. Responses ranged from a girl talking about the Spanish flag to a Chinese woman talking about how a comb reminded her of her mother.
"I think what I found out is that the human hunger for narrative or story is so profound that in the absence of any information, many people made up stories," she said. "We so hunger for some kind of story to make sense out of what we encounter that either they made up a story or they shared a secret."
In Things Left Behind, Hoaglund (who has worked as a translator and film subtitler) yet again spans divides by providing the stories of those who no longer can tell them.
"For me, 98 percent of the film I made just to get you to listen to the stories of the three people who passed away, so that you could hear them with fresh ears."
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.