On March 11, 2011, Wesley Julian was visiting his former junior high school students in Osato, Miyagi Prefecture, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. The disaster not only changed his immediate travel plans but was also the beginning of an emotional journey that would eventually alter his career ambitions.
Out of instinct, Julian, a former English teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program who was visiting his former students to surprise them on their graduation day, turned on his camera as everything in the teachers’ staff room shook uncontrollably. He knew this day would be something he would always remember. Some of his footage eventually appeared on the BBC’s website and the Discovery Channel documentary, “MegaQuake: The Hour that Shook Japan.”
Despite the horror of the day and losing a friend — Julian knew Taylor Anderson, one of two Americans killed in the disaster — he would return to America about a week later. In the summer, however, he returned to Tohoku to volunteer. There, beyond the destruction, something surprised him.
“While I was there, I just saw all these people volunteering from around the world,” Julian, 28, says. “I thought that was so inspiring, and I kept hearing all these stories of people dropping what they were doing and starting non-profits.”
Julian finished graduate study at the University of Richmond in 2012 and moved to Chicago to start a position with the Consulate General of Japan. Yet the memory of those stories lingered. Following a successful photo exhibition that he and former JETs coordinated to help raise money for an orphanage in Fukushima, Julian launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a film that documented the volunteer efforts that moved him so much. The Kickstarter campaign helped the crew raise $11,021.
The film, “Tohoku Tomo” (“Friend of Tohoku”) premiered March 12, 2014 in Chicago and made its debut in Japan on Aug 3 in Sendai. The film documents several volunteer efforts created by international residents who share a deep connection to Tohoku. Among those interviewed are musician Maynard Plant of Monkey Majik and filmmaker Stu Levy (director of “Pray for Japan”), as well as several JET teachers who launched their own non-profits to help the stricken Tohoku area.
“Really, it was a pipe dream,” says Julian, who produced and directed the film. “I had no background in movie making whatsoever. I only knew these were powerful stories and I wanted to share them. We wanted to have people remember Japan like we remembered it as JETs — cheerful images since most imagery was negative and focused on the destruction. We wanted to change that.”
The documentary was filmed over 10 days on the second anniversary of the earthquake in 2013 using Canon EOS 5D and 7D cameras, and a Zoom H4N for audio. In their 10 days there, the crew interviewed 12 people across three prefectures.
Although each individual interviewed in the film had a unique story to tell and created a different type of project, Julian says their efforts all share a theme that is best described on the title of the movie poster: The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.
“After the earthquake, everyone seemed to have this sense of hopelessness, but they didn’t just sit there,” he says. “They did something, and they might not have had the skills that they needed, might not have had the experience, but they were moved and they were passionate about what happened. They were so connected to the region that they got up and made a difference.”
For associate producer Dan Martin, who could not travel to Japan with the crew but assisted with translation and overall planning, the term Tohoku Tomo is an all-encompassing phrase that can even apply to those who have never visited Japan but feel connected to Tohoku and what happened there.
“We didn’t want to create another dark, depressing film focusing on the destruction because that’s already been done, rightfully so,” Martin, 28, says. “So I think what helps make this film unique is the grand idea of the name itself, Tohoku Tomo, friend of the area, that can spread to anyone.”
Although Julian, Martin and screenwriter/associate producer Elizabeth Gordon did not have any filmmaking experience prior to making “Tohoku Tomo,” they enlisted videographer Philip Holbrook, 29, to help create a visually appealing story that emphasized the natural beauty of the region and the stories of international community members who fell in love with the area. Holbrook had never been to Japan before this visit, but he was instantly struck by the gorgeous scenery of Tohoku even amid destruction. He wanted to capture this natural beauty as well as the stories of those trying to make a difference.
One of the shots Holbrook is most proud of is of a cherry blossom tree on top of a large hill that overlooks an area in Ishinomaki deeply damaged by the tsunami.
“We were looking out over the destruction zone where the tsunami swept in. We were up on this hilltop right near a school that was still functioning, it was where many people sought refuge,” he recalls. “We were surrounded by something that felt normal, something that lasted. In the foreground of our shot, we had beautiful trees but behind it was destruction, an area that had hundreds of homes that were completely wiped out.”
After filming was completed in March 2013, Julian spent the next months editing the film. “Tohoku Tomo” has been screened seven times in America so far, with more showings scheduled for this fall.
In addition to the Aug 3 premiere of “Tohoku Tomo” in Japan, Julian, Martin and Holbrook spent part of August in Japan filming a series of small video “webisodes” for the 113 Project, an initiative Julian and other “Tohoku Tomo” crew members founded based on a concept mentioned in the film.
“In the film, Stu Levy mentions the 1+1=3 scenario, which is where you go back to Tohoku not because you have to but because it’s really beautiful and you can also volunteer and let people know they haven’t been forgotten. And those things together create a situation where the sum is greater than the parts, where everyone really benefits,” Julian says. “So when he said that, I was really moved by that logic. I thought 113 is 311 backwards. I’d like to see Tohoku reclaimed, kind of reversed, so it’s not just this disaster area. It returns to being this really beautiful, culturally rich part of Japan.”
The webisodes will focus on the lively summer festivals of Tohoku as well as more stories of friendships and recovery with hopes of creating an interactive website that attracts visitors to Tohoku to volunteer and/or visit there on vacation. Longer-term goals of the 113 Project involve creating a cultural exchange program between Tohoku and cities in the Midwest of America. A Kickstarter campaign for the 113 Project has also been launched.
For some of the webisodes that will be posted to the website, the crew is hoping to interview many Japanese who have spent much of their lives in Tohoku, including peach farmers and those still displaced and living in temporary housing.
“I think we want to be positive but we also want to be honest about the situation,” Martin
says. “A lot of the students I have had a chance to talk to from the area [as a result of my
current position at the Laurasian Institution in Seattle] have this huge burden because a lot of the media, especially with Fukushima, has been so negative. A lot of their stress and desire was to show the rest of the world, and even the rest of Japan, that there are still real people here; there are still great things in Tohoku, even within Fukushima. We want to highlight those things. We don’t want to create this fairyland kind of display but at the same time, we don’t want to create this completely negative set of films. We want to help with the restoration process.”