Peter Machen spoke to leading German filmmaker Doris Dörrie about her remarkable film Fukushima, Mon Amour which screened at the Durban International Film Festival as part of the German Focus last week.
One of Germany’s leading filmmakers, Doris Dörrie has made several films set in Japan. Her latest film takes place in the evacuated zone of Fukushima where an older geisha has returned to her home in the company of a young German woman who has travelled to the area with a foreign aid organisation. Shot on site, in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown and the 2011 tsunami that caused it, Fukushima, Mon Amour is remarkable for its fusion of fiction and reality and the way that it tenderly holds the one inside of the other.
I spoke to Dörrie’s about this beautifully judged film, beginning with her initial experience of visiting Fukushima after the meltdown. Dörrie, who has visited Japan many times and made several films in the country, felt a strong need to visit Fukushima in the wake of the devastating disaster. “I have so many friends there and I didn’t want to sit around and get all the information from the news. Everybody in Germany thought all of Japan was radioactively polluted and foreigners pretty much left Japan in those times and nobody wanted to go. So I figured, ‘well I should go’. So I did and I was very struck and overwhelmed by the enormity, the devastation, but also by how people tried to cope.”
“Back then refugees from Fukushima had just moved into these temporary housings and they were trying to come to grips with the fact that they had lost everything within 20 minutes. Which is a very basic human fear – to just lose everything in a moment.”
“And it reminded me so much of the experience my parent’s generation had in World War II. Both my parents lost their place to live and everything in Hanover because of the bombing. I didn’t really know whether I wanted to write about Fukushima or make a documentary about it but I knew that I wanted to talk about it. And then it took a long time to come up with the story. I went back so many times and tried to figure out whether it would be possible to shoot at all in that region because it was still ‘the zone’.”
On January 1, 2016, the Japanese government decided to open the zone again because, says Dörrie, they did not want to pay the subsidies for the refugees. “People were being asked to move back, but there was nothing to move back to. So that became the nucleus of the film’s story – this old lady goes back to her destroyed house. And there’s nothing there. Nothing whatsoever. “
And was she concerned about the impact on her own long-term health and that of her crew?
“We shot in the former zone for six weeks and I was there for three months. But by then, we had done so much research. I had taken dust samples and I had gotten them analysed by the German Institute for Radioactivity and they had assured me again and again that it would be alright to take a crew there and spend several weeks there. I really tried very hard to be on the safe side because I didn’t want to take on the responsibility for the entire team. I couldn’t do that.”
“So we made very, very sure that it was going to be okay. We all wore dosimeters that keep collecting the accumulated radioactivity that you’re exposed to. And we sent them in after we got back to Germany and we were just lucky that the readings turned out to be totally okay. That was, of course, a bit of luck also. It’s of course not safe to dig in the ground, to sit under a tree, to eat berries. All of that is not safe, of course not.”
Talking about screenings of the film in Japan, Dörrie says that audiences were extremely emotional. “Everybody has a connection to Fukushima somehow. And people are so grateful to us – which really puts me to shame – but they are, because nobody ever shot a feature film in that region. Nobody. And that’s very, very touching to be thanked for. It is bizarre but sometimes it works that way – that foreigners can come in and they talk about traumas. Because they’re not affected by the trauma, sometimes it’s easier to come in from the outside and talk about these things.”
But while cultural distance has its advantages, there are always dangers to telling other people’s stories. Which is why Dörrie says that she always insists on having her perspective in films that deal with other cultures. “Because I wouldn’t dare talk about Japan from a Japanese viewpoint. So that’s why I have the young German in the film, who goes to Japan, who doesn’t know anything about it, who is a fool, the traditional fool, who is very innocent on one hand but also quite ignorant. And I need to have that perspective because that’s, of course, my perspective. As much as I read up and I do research, I’m still ignorant about a lot of things. Because you can never get the inside perspective on a country. So I need to have that perspective from the outside in the story itself.”
The German Focus at the Durban International Film Festival was presented by the Goethe –Institut, German Films and the German Embassy.