Kathy Hearn, “Fukushima Fallout” (101 East / Al Jazeera, 8 March 2012)
A year after the combined earthquake / tsunami / Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant explosion and meltdown disaster in northeast Japan in March, 2011, very little has appeared in the news about how the country is coping and whether there’ve been moves to prevent another nuclear plant catastrophe. This documentary by Kathy Hearn, made for the 101 East program on the TV news channel Al Jazeera, goes some way towards explaining what’s been happening in Fukushima and surrounds, what the Japanese government has been doing (or not doing), what the Tokyo Electric Power Company has been doing (or not doing) and what ordinary citizens have been up to and how they have been coping. Hearn travelled about northeast Japan to interview Fukushima residents and refugees, a TEPCO spokesperson, an actor-turned-activist, some politicians, a researcher and others about their views on the nuclear disaster and what they believe Japan should be doing with the Fukushima reactors, other nuclear reactors around the country, and its future energy needs.
Hearn provides some voice-over narration and appears sporadically throughout the documentary: her style is straightforward and low-key, sticking to presenting the facts she finds. She allows her interviewees to speak for themselves with English-language translators speaking over them where needed. Throughout the film, various issues in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster arise and pop up periodically: the ragged psychological health of the Fukushima residents and refugees, many of whom are suffering stress, uncertainty and depression; the continuing leakage of radiation from the stricken reactors into the environment and the panic and other reactions this causes; the inaction and obfuscation by the Japanese government and TEPCO; and what to do about the country’s remaining nuclear reactors. All these issues and others are linked: the longer the government and TEPCO delay doing anything significant to the Dai-ichi nuclear complex, the more frustrated and upset people in the affected areas become. A researcher is shown teaching Fukushima residents how to take matters in their own hands and not rely on the government for help that might never come; a volunteer, Kenji, delivers donated bottled water to elderly residents and teaches yoga as a way of helping people to cope with stress.
The film moves at a steady clip and features some beautiful nature vistas in parts. There is a sickly kitsch Oriental music soundtrack but most of the time it’s not obtrusive. The narrative frequently takes the point of view of the interviewees and zigzags smoothly between individual points of view and an overarching general survey of the situation in Fukushima and Japan.
While the documentary tries to be even-handed in its treatment of its interviewees and of TEPCO and the government, neither condemning nor praising anyone, it’s hard not to be angry at Japan’s leaders and TEPCO for concentrating so heavily on nuclear energy production and neglecting other forms of energy production such as solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and geothermal energy. The United States also must share some of the blame for pressuring Japan in the late 1940s and the 1950s into adopting nuclear energy technology as part of the American Cold War strategy to use allies to counter the power of the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the film could have gone much further and looked at ways in which Japan is developing alternative forms of energy production and by doing so, ended on a more optimistic note about the country’s future. As is, Hearn’s presentation is an interesting and informative survey of the post-3/11 nuclear meltdown disaster and of how people cope with on-going stress and uncertainty in the face of a dithering and ineffective government.