Thursday, November 3, 2011

Uncanny Terrain: A documentary about organic farmers facing Japan's nuclear crisis

1.9 million small farms are embedded throughout Japan, forming the soul of the archipelago's traditional culture, rooted in family, community, and heritage. They produce Japan's exquisite, locally grown heirloom foods. Small farms worldwide serve the same deep cultural functions. Japanese small farmers have mutually supportive relationships with their counterparts worldwide, in Europe, the United States, Latin America, Africa, S. Korea, the Philippines and other parts of Asia. The global/local organic farming movement is growing.

The farming region of Tohoku now under seige from the Fukushima disaster is reminiscent of the mountainous region of Appalachia (also under seige by the energy industry: coal companies that blow up mountains, streams, forests using explosives producing more force than the Hiroshima bombs have destroyed numerous small communities and are polluting entire eco-systems). The people of Tohoku, like those in Appalachia, deeply rooted in place and soulful ancestral folk culture, are independent, resilient, and stubborn. They aren't giving up.

Filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski have just wrapped up filming for their documentary about Tohoku farmers. In Uncanny Terrain, they explore questions about their future. They conclude that whether the land can be returned to its natural state, “or whether the farmers must abandon their ancestral homesteads, remains to be seen.”
Uncanny Terrain—Organic farmers face Japan's nuclear crisis

The first sprouts are beginning to emerge on Colors of the Seasons Farm, 45 miles from the malfunctioning Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant and 20 miles outside the evacuation zone.

28-year-old Masanori Yoshida left his job as a cook at a French restaurant in Tokyo three years ago to work his family’s land with his wife, siblings, parents, and grandmother. They grow natural crops including "firefly rice," so named because the insects, driven near extinction by chemical pesticides and fertilizer, have proliferated as farmers return to the traditional methods practiced by their ancestors.

The Yoshidas’ farm is one of hundreds of organic farms in Tohoku, the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged region of northern Japan that supplies much of the rice and vegetables to Tokyo and across the country. Government warnings have limited the sale of food grown there since high levels of radiation were detected in some spinach, milk and fish from the region.

“We don’t know if our crops will be safe,” Masanori says. “We can’t ignore this issue. But we won’t stop cultivating our land. We farmers need to nurture the environment, nature and culture, and pass them to them to the next generation.”

Noboru Saitou’s Nihonmatsu Farm is famous for cucumbers. He also grows rice, shiitake, garlic chives, bamboo shoots, and flowers. Noboru works closely with the agricultural city of Nihonmatsu, 25 miles from the troubled nuclear reactor, just outside the evacuation zone.

“Today, the ‘problem’ spinach sprouted,” Noboru says. “We were supposed to ship this after it grew, but now we can’t. After spinach is cucumber season, then rice. When the fields are golden we will harvest the rice. That’s the best part of farming. After that we’ll plant canola. Each plant yields a lot. I hope I can continue this year. But now I see how hard it is.”

Hiromasa Kitagawa is the unofficial leader of Mattari Village, an off-the-grid community of homes made from recycled construction lumber, powered by wind, solar and water, heated by wood fire. The people of Mattari share the food they grow.

“We grow vegetables that you can even eat the skin,” Hiromasu says. “We spend our time and passion to go back to the way vegetables are supposed to be grown… We aim for 100% self-sufficiency. Soon we hope to open our community for people to experience the sustainable lifestyle. It’s cold in winter, but spring is so green, autumn’s colors are vivid, the night sky is beautiful, the water is clear.”

After the earthquake, Megumi Kondou was evacuated from her Chitata Farm. Megumi awaits government approval to return to her farm. She may not be able to grow her renowned koshihikari rice this year. Instead she’s considering growing canola, which she believes may help reduce radiation in the soil, and is a potential source of biodiesel.

Farmers and scientists search desperately for ways to continue safely using this rich land, or restore it to its natural state. Whether they can succeed, or whether the farmers must abandon their ancestral homesteads, remains to be seen.

After suffering the world’s only nuclear attacks in World War II, Japan emerged from poverty and devastation and entered into a period of unprecedented technological innovation and economic growth. Can today’s Japanese respond to this catastrophe with new forms of innovation that will allow this nuclear-dependent society to continue providing healthy food to its people, and live in better harmony with the natural world?

The Project

Filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski are embarking on the new documentary Uncanny Terrain, to follow the organic farmers of Tohoku as they contend with the threat that nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Power Plant poses to their land and their livelihood.

From spring planting season, we will document the testing of their land and crops for radiation, their efforts to adjust to the changing environment, through the harvest and beyond.

We are seeking financial support to cover our travel and living across Tohoku in the coming months, and for the purchase of highly portable, high quality video equipment to document what we find.

We will build an international online community of people interested in sustainable agriculture and energy and in the future of Japan, through regular video updates and ongoing dialogue around the issues raised in the film. In the end we will have a film intended for international broadcast and distribution, and around the film we will have generated a wealth of new friends, knowledge and media to address these questions in our own communities.

The Filmmakers

Ed and Junko wrote, produced and directed the psychological drama feature film The First Breath of Tengan Rei. Erika Oda of Kore-Eda’s After Life stars as an Okinawan woman who kidnaps the teenage son of a U.S. Marine convicted of raping her when she was a girl. An IFP Independent Film Lab selection, Rei screened theatrically, at educational venues and festivals across the U.S., Japan and in India.

They’re developing the film and graphic novel Hand Head Heart, based on Junko’s experience growing up in a traditional extended family on a cattle farm in central Japan, and learning the sword fighting martial art kendo.

Their short film Homesick Blues, starring pop singer Zoey (now Remah) as an Osaka girl running off to America to sing the blues, won the IFP/Chicago Flyover Zone Film Festival and played the Hawaii and Chicago international film festivals...
Read more about Ed and Junko's journey with the farmers and people of Tohoku and see more excerpts from Uncanny Terrain their blog:
Seven months since the beginning of the crisis, Japan stumbles toward recovery. Evacuated communities are being reopened near the nuclear plant, even as many efforts to decontaminate land are proving ineffective. With a number of notable exceptions, testing of rice and vegetables is showing much less contamination than was expected based on results in Chernobyl. Researchers investigate the reasons for these levels, considering the differing composition of Japanese soil, particularly certain minerals and bacteria that may remove radioactive cesium or prevent plants from absorbing it—bacteria that may thrive in organically cultivated land.

But the food testing regime is still sporadic, and no amount of lower test results will be sufficient to convince much of the public that Fukushima food is safe to eat. The organic farmers here toil to repair their land using natural methods (land that many of their families have tilled since before the U.S. was a country), to grow their food as free as possible of radionuclides, and to accurately communicate the condition of their produce to consumers. Constantly exposed to background radiation and inhaled particles in their fields, as well as from food and water, the farmers rank with cleanup workers in the groups at greatest risk of suffering health damage.

We will edit the film in Chicago through the fall and winter, and return to Japan next March to cover how the farmers weathered the seasons and how they fare as they prepare to plant again, a year after the disaster. In the meantime, we still need your support to cover the costs of postproduction...

Uncanny Terrain is a documentary about organic farmers facing Japan’s nuclear crisis, and an online community fostering dialogue on food safety, sustainable agriculture, alternative energy and disaster response. Please keep the conversation going by spreading the word or making a tax-deductible donation.

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