by Michelle "Ms. Geek" Klein-Hass
The tragic Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami will have happened four years ago this March 11th. And three years ago, the movie Pray For Japan premiered in Japan and the United States of America. I remember as if it was yesterday going to the AMC Del Amo Theatres in Torrance, CA, and reveling in the lovely chaos of our Los Angeles-area premiere. We had one theatre sell out, and the people at the Del Amo were delighted to open a second auditorium to us. The film was hastily ingested to a second digital cinema projector server, and we had doubled capacity. We got really close to selling out that second auditorium.
It was the culmination of hard work by a dedicated group of volunteers on both sides of the Pacific. I signed on in June of 2011, just out of Los Angeles Valley College's Media Arts program. Stu Levy had just come back from a second trip to Japan after being there for the on March 11th and volunteering three days later. We had a couple of volunteer post-production people already, and the person we had hoped would be the editor couldn't do it because he had just signed on for a very demanding gig with a cable TV network. Since all but one of the interviews that had been done for the film were in Japanese, and I only knew enough spoken Japanese to get me in trouble, Stu had to find editors whose first language was Japanese. However, there was plenty for me to do assisting the production, and the formal title I eventually earned was that of Assistant Editor. My task was to do the grunt work that would distract the Editor from his or her creative work cutting the documentary feature together. Actually, we wound up with four Editors: Emiko, who ended up with the nickname Panchita, given by a waiter at a Burbank Mexican restaurant, Nobuo, Susumu, and Noriko. Add to this Stu and his partner Yuka, and Yours Truly, and this made up "Team P4J" in Los Angeles.
For three months, we all shared a tiny office in Burbank, CA, taking terabytes and terabytes of digital footage and distilling it into a coherent narrative, told in a decent running time. We had a great crew, and even though lots of conversations went on in Japanese everyone took pains to make sure I wasn't left out.
The documentary had its genesis in Stu's volunteer work in North-East Japan after the tragedy. He had been in Tokyo when the Earthquake hit, and very quickly it became clear that this was not a Magnitude 8 in Tokyo, but a Magnitude 9 off the coast of Iwate Prefecture. Realizing that there would be a lot of need in the face of such an overwhelming disaster, he began trying to figure out how to get to the disaster area to help. By the beginning of the next week, he was there pitching in.
One of the volunteer leaders realized that Stu was a filmmaker and also in publishing, and began asking him to tell the stories of the survivors and the volunteers. Stu's role shifted from being a volunteer to being a part-time volunteer and a part-time documentary filmmaker. He brought his trusty DSLR, bought a digital sound recorder and a shoulder rig, brought along a friend of his to do sound recording, and Pray For Japan began production.
Once the film was picture-locked in Burbank, Stu left the US and returned to Japan, where the post production house V-Tec volunteered to put the finishing touches on the sound and video. At the same time, Stu raided his contacts for connections with film festivals and distributors. The uplifting tale of ordinary people being placed in the position of being extraordinary heroes, however, did not jibe with a documentary market looking for conflict and controversy instead. So people like Stu and myself who were still volunteering with the project had to put on a new hat: that of distributors. The contacts Stu had paid off there too: with AMC and Hollywood Theatres in the US and Cinem@rt Theatres in Japan volunteering auditorium space and time to premiere the film. DCP "prints" of the film were struck, as were HDCam digital tapes and other forms of digital media. The media was then shipped from Japan to the US for the AMC and Hollywood Theatres showings. There were nervous moments, but the shows went on, and we come full circle to that glorious night when our film was up there on a huge screen for everyone to see.
We're still extremely proud of the film. Our self-distribution wound up costing the film money out of pocket, but it all was worth it. We made back those expenses, and now we are giving 100% of proceeds to our chosen Tohoku-related charity, JEN-NPO. They are still on the ground in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, the city that is the focus of our film. Stu is going to be physically there on March 11th, the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, to be support to the people who are now part of our families. Like the Japanese proverb that provides the tagline of our film, kokoro wo hitotsu ni, we are of one heart.
You can help Tohoku in a small way by renting Pray For Japan here at YouTube.