Fukushima, Mon Amour is shot through with the shadow of Hiroshima

Beyond obvious allusion to Alain Resnais film, German director Doris Dörrie’s poetic drama, shot on location, about two women bonding in wake of 2011 nuclear disaster makes link between civilian radioactive power and its destructive wartime use

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2016, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:23pm

Doris Dörrie has no rational explanation for why she took a trip to Fukushima just six months after tragedy struck the Japanese prefecture. “I went there because I was so shocked,” the German filmmaker says of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country’s Pacific coast on March 11, 2011, triggering the meltdown of four reactors at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, and a long-running national crisis.

As her gentle yet poignant films have shown time and again, the Hanover-born, Munich-based 61-year-old is ruled more by the heart than the mind.

“I have many friends in Tokyo, and they were so desperate and disappointed in the Westerners and foreigners – because they’d all left Japan and never returned,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Well, OK, I should go and visit my friends; I should also go and see for myself what this means’. And I must say it really blew my mind: it’s very different to be actually standing there and seeing what it meant.”

During that first visit, the idea took shape in Dörrie’s head that she had to talk about what she saw and tell a story about it. She would eventually come up with the fiction feature film Fukushima, Mon Amour, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It will be screened at the KINO/16 festival in Hong Kong and Macau, which opens on September 29.

The poetic black-and-white drama follows Marie (Rosalie Thomass), a young German woman frustrated with life, as she joins the Clowns4Help circus troupe (based on the real-life non-profit Clowns Without Borders) to share a little joy with the Fukushima survivors residing in temporary housing. Marie ends up staying with a cranky, elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), in her damaged house in the radioactive exclusion zone, and they form a bond that helps both of them let go of their troubled pasts.

The title of her film makes obvious reference to the cinema classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, a landmark of the French New Wave. The black-and-white 1959 film, directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras, contemplated the trauma of war through an elliptical romance in post-war Hiroshima between a French actress and a Japanese architect.

“There’s the connection, of course, of a European going to Japan, talking and filming about a radioactive disaster,” says Dörrie, who has spotted a more significant link in the Japanese psyche. “Because Hiroshima was the bad nuclear energy,” she says with a dramatic emphasis on the word ‘bad’, stretching it out for a full second.

“It was a catastrophe – bad.” Again the emphasis. “And then radioactive energy was always called the clean energy in Japan. And now it’s another catastrophe with radioactivity, and for the Japanese there’s this instant connection to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although for 50 years they were led to believe that there is one radioactivity which is good, and the other that is bad.”

After her first visit, Dörrie returned several more times to research her story. “Then I thought, ‘My god, who’s going to come with me to shoot this story – because of the radioactivity?’,” she recalls with a chuckle.

“So I started measuring everything with my Geiger counter. I tried to find the locations [for the shoot], and I measured the locations, took dust samples, and had them analysed in Japan and in Germany. I compared measurements because I wanted to see whether they were the same. During the catastrophe, a lot of Japanese relied on German measurements [of radiation levels] because the Germans were measuring very early on.”

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Dörrie attributes German involvement as “an attempt to be open and transparent about it, but also to help – we have had the experience with Chernobyl”. Although she has not peppered her film with political statements on nuclear power, Fukushima, Mon Amour does conclude with scenes of a demonstration she witnessed in Japan.

“Well, I’m German, you know? We are the only country in the world that decided to pull the plug,” she says of Germany’s decision to switch off its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. “It is again a very strong connection to Japan, because we are ‘profiting’ from the catastrophe: we learned the lesson. Our prime minister, Angela Merkel, is a physicist, and she understands the danger of it. So we are all, more or less, anti-radioactivity, because the people supported her decision.

“But in Japan it’s the contrary. The last shots were [at] a demonstration march and there were only old people. They are the ones who have developed a conscience; they know what radioactivity meant during the war, with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they make the connection. Not too many people make the connection with the radioactive nuclear plants today.”

The filmmaker spent “months and months” in the disaster-stricken region to prepare for what subsequently amounted to a seven-week shoot. “We lived there. We shot there. We never left the zone through the entire shoot,” Dörrie says. “Everything [you see in the film] is the real thing. Our main location is 11 kilometres away from Daiichi, the nuclear power plant.” For the record, evacuation was requested of residents within a 20km radius of the plant.

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Although the filmmaker admits she feared for her safety, she soon put her concerns aside. “I figured that all these people who had been evacuated [from their own homes], they had to stay there [in the shelters] every day. And then I thought, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be too worried about my own safety when everybody else had to put up with it.’”

Dörrie cast the actress Rosalie Thomass – “a very brave girl” – as her film’s protagonist to introduce a German perspective to the story, because she “cannot pretend to tell the story from a Japanese angle”. But the filmmaker holds a far deeper affection for Japan than her modesty allows. It was with her first film, the relationship drama Straight Through the Heart, that Dörrie was invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1985, her first visit to the country.

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“Japan and Germany have so many historical parallels, and you sense it,” she says. “We started the war; we lost the war; we then became this supermarket for capitalism; we had the so-called economic miracle in the ’50s; and then we were infatuated with America in the ’60s and ’70s; then in ’68, the student revolution was, again, happening in Japan and Germany. There are many, many connections.”

Dörrie feels like she is discovering a different country every time she goes to Japan, where she even worked as a professor for a period. “In Japan, the whole country is like Germany, I think. It’s like a Mercedes-Benz in a garage, which gets polished but doesn’t move much,” she says, offering the analogy with a laugh.

That Mercedes-Benz has been treating Dörrie well – at least creatively. Fukushima Mon Amour isn’t the first time she let her characters find peace and closure in Japan. A pair of German brothers learn to rise above their midlife crisis in her 1999 comedy Enlightenment Guaranteed, while 2008’s Cherry Blossoms – the filmmaker’s best-known work of the past decade – took a page from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story to tell a tender story of love and grief.

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“I’m a writer – maybe I’m primarily a writer – and so it’s to a certain degree that all I do is autobiographical,” reflects Dörrie, whose husband, cinematographer Helge Weindler, died of cancer in 1996.

Apart from writing all her own screenplays, the filmmaker has been publishing her novels, short stories and children’s books since the late ’80s.

“The big theme of loss is something that I struggle with – like most people,” she says. “Loss and love, death and love: those main themes of humanity, of human beings. So I try to learn for myself, with every project that I make. I try to be a witness to what’s going on around me.”

Dörrie is set to learn about something else entirely in her next project. “Again, it’s a tough one,” she says with a sigh. She’s developing a Spanish-language production about women wrestlers in Mexico. “Well, I did a lot of research. I know Mexico City quite well – I shot a documentary [2014’s This Lovely Shitty Life] in Mexico. I’m writing the screenplay right now. Then we have to start financing; it’s just always difficult, always.”

Yet if Dörrie could make a film in Fukushima so soon after the disaster, there’s presumably little else that could stop her.

Fukushima, Mon Amour screens on September 30 and October 10 in Hong Kong, and October 9 in Macau, as part of the KINO/16 film festival. Doris Dörrie will be in attendance to present her film at the October 9 and 10 screenings.

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