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“The Biggest Challenge was Working Amidst the Radiation”: Jake Price on The Invisible Season via Filmmaker

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This second project, The Invisible Season, launched in English this spring and Japanese this summer, with further translations in the works. It’s an important addition to the canon of interactive docs on environmental and social issues, and I wrote about it in this summer’s print issue of Filmmaker magazine. What follows here is my entire conversation with Price, conducted via email as he traveled while working on a new project; it shows more about his creative and technical processes and how the people of northern Japan and the nature of their plight weighed upon him throughout the entire production, showing how ethical issues of ethnographic documentary that have existed since Robert Flaherty still inform nonfiction filmmaking as it pushes deeper into the digital age.

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From very early on in this project I wrote that Fukushima represents all of our backyards, that it’s not some small place on an island in distant Japan. The disaster that struck there could easily happen anywhere there is a nuclear power plant, so I really wanted people to think about the consequences of what it means to have to rely on this source of energy. Indeed, when I was filming on my second trip Hurricane Sandy forced the Oyster Creek nuclear facility, 89 miles from where I live in Brooklyn, to shut down. And closer to home we have the Indian Point Nuclear power plant 37 miles from New York City and its 8.5 million people. (And that’s not counting the millions of others in New Jersey and Connecticut.)

Indian Point has been shut down numerous times the past year for everything from bird droppings on important wires to a transformer explosion, and yet Entergy, the company that owns it, says it’s safe — just as Tepco, the owner of the Fukushima plant, told people there it was safe. With so many possibilities for failure we need to urgently think about the way we power our modern existence. No one in the world should ever have to  to suffer the fate that the people of Fukushima did.

Adding to the parallels of Fukushima, so many nuclear power plants in the United States are situated along the coast. With sea levels rising and hurricanes becoming stronger and more frequent the possibility for an accident like Fukushima’s happening elsewhere is all the more likely.

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For example, when I met Tomoko Kobayashi, who is one of the featured characters, she was not allowed to live in her hometown of Odaka. She could only visit it during the day for limited hours. She did not know if she would ever be able to return home. However, because there was a possibility of it, she kept up her hope by planting flowers and starting to repair her small hotel that was in her family for generations. I thought her actions were a beautiful example of pragmatic hope, a faithful gamble. She knew that if she did nothing then there absolutely would be no future for her town. Only time could allow this story development to occur.

On the other end of the spectrum there are towns where there is absolutely no hope of a recovery at all. I needed time to convert these complexities. The upcoming film that will accompany the website opens and closes with the same abandoned school along the coast. The school is a symbol of the slow decay that has engulfed people’s lives. In the school sand slowly infiltrates the building, and one can imagine that in time the individual grains of sand will form dunes that will ultimately fill the entire structure. Each grain of sand represents the disappearance of a world that was once alive and thriving and is now covered up, a result our bad human decisions. Other parts of the school also progress in their decomposition: the hole in the school’s gymnasium sinks and widens over time, weeds encroach and erase the human presence.

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Price: The biggest challenge was working amidst the radiation. I always traveled with a geiger counter and there were some moments within the exclusion zone when it went off the charts. It was a traumatizing experience and really gave me an understanding of what it’s like to live amidst a threat that cannot be perceived by our own senses. Once you come across an event like this you’re always worrying about the next one. Every time I entered into the exclusion zone I did so with trepidation. The way it affected me psychologically was that I felt a tremendous heaviness over me and I worked extremely quickly in the places I visited. I also did not want to stay long because I was amongst the ruins of people’s lives. Out of respect for the people who lost everything, I thought that I had to work as efficiently as possible so as not to have my presence disturb the silence.

Read more at “The Biggest Challenge was Working Amidst the Radiation”: Jake Price on The Invisible Season 

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