The personal documentary is almost a genre of its own within documentary films. The documentary festival at Thessaloniki screened several such films, among them Dutchman Tom Fassaert’s A Family affair. This film, which also had the honour of opening the Amsterdam Documentary Festival some months earlier, describes the director’s attempt at understanding and getting to know his grandmother, a former model who several decades previously left her two small sons behind to relocate to South Africa.
A Family Affair is a fascinating portrait of a show-off, and, at times, very manipulating person who is hard to pin down, and a film which takes several unexpected turns. Not least when the main character tells the film maker, her own grandson that she has fallen in love with him.
During the seven years of American occupation, it was illegal, in Japan, to speak in detail about the nuclear bomb and its adverse effects.
In the best of families. A Family Affair is an example of how the strength of a personal documentary lies specifically in the personal. How to use your family as an example to tell an interpersonal, and, at times, a psychologically-founded story. Despite the eccentricity of Fassaert’s family history, many will find it captivating and some might even identify with it. Quite because of it, one might say. Because we have all felt weirdness – also in the, seemingly, best-adjusted of families.
The Day the Sun Fell, also screened in Thessaloniki, is similarly a personal documentary – yet again with a film maker seeking out her grandmother. At the same time, the film demonstrates how a personal documentary can stretch far beyond personal business, to encompass very important historical and political events.
The grandfather’s story. The film’s Japanese-Swiss director, Aya Domenig, lives in Switzerland, but her family is from Hiroshima. Here, her grandfather worked as a young doctor during the war, and during the morning of Monday August 6, 1945, just as the USA dropped the nuclear bomb named «Little Boy» on the city, he left his countryside home to embark on his weekly commute to work. He only returned to Domenig’s grandmother ten days’ later, but never spoke about his experiences.
Some years later, he died from cancer, quite possibly connected with the radiation he was exposed to. Not even during the post war time years did he ever speak about what must have been very demanding days, when he was trialling treatment on the many horrifically injured – not even to those closest to him. In the film, Domenig visits her grandmother, now also sick from cancer, to see whether she are able to explain anything about the bomb and the time afterwards. The grandmother is one of several central characters in the film. The director has also been able to speak to medical staff who had been present in a similar way to her grandfather. Not least a charismatic former nurse, who proves to be a lucid voice in the silence which alarmingly is allowed to rule this country, if this film is to be believed.
Stigmatising. The Day the Sun Fell describes the social stigma connected with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something which to a certain degree still exists in Japan today. During the seven years of American occupation in the post war years, it was illegal to speak in any detail about the nuclear bomb and its adverse effects – something which was also quietened down long after the country regained its freedom. This was partly because the event naturally caused much trauma for many people, but there were also those who hid the fact that they had been exposed to radioactive radiation out of fear for being excluded. It could prove to be a hindrance for getting a job as well as getting married.
«The stigma was very strong after the war, not least for the second-generation bomb victims. But even today, third generation may be discriminated against, especially when it comes to marrying into a very old family,» said Aye Domenig as she met the press at the Thessaloniki festival. «It has happened that such families hire a private investigator to get information about someone’s background. Talking about the bomb itself is not off-limits, but you never speak about the social implications it lead to after the war. » Domenig explained that many young people in Japan today have little – if any – knowledge about what happened in Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945, in a marked contrast to the rest of the world.
Fukushima. Whilst she worked on her documentary, the theme suddenly became relevant again with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, and thus formed a natural part of Domenig’s film. There is little doubt that the people are more conscious about nuclear power now than two generations ago, not least following this accident, but the film also reveals how authorities to a certain degree repeat the lethal mistake of playing down the dangers connected with this. Although the Fukushima accident created a political will to step down the country’s nuclear industry, the national governmental has since turned. The handling of radioactive waste is, according to Domenig, lacking. Shortly the 100,000 internal evacuees will be forced to return to the still polluted areas because they no longer are in receipt of financial compensation.
The Day the Sun Fell is a strong, but a simultaneously liberatingly warm and amusing story about the film maker’s own family, whilst it also dares to speak about an unmentionable national trauma. And as much as it is a vital reminder of historical events, the film also warns of the existing threat of complete annihilation, created by ourselves. To paraphrase a song lyric, which in this case ought to be called «Expand and Die» (or «demerge», for the pedantic): It’s about you. It’s about me. It’s about all there is.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).