September 1, 2013

Filmmaker documents unseen threat


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Ian Thomas Ash is a hero in Japan and elsewhere.

The filmmaker demurs and places the mantle on Japanese citizens in the two documentaries he filmed in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which triggered the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

In 2012, Ash released “In the Grey Zone,” a post-meltdown doc about Japanese children’s return to school and their life in the radiation zone of Minamisōma, located between 20 and 30 kilometers from the damaged plant in Fukushima. At last year’s Rhode Island Film Festival, the film won the Audience Choice First Prize for Best Documentary. Ash was presented with the Filmmaker of the Future Award.

In his new film, “A2-B-C,” Ash turned his lens once again on the children in Fukushima who are experiencing severe nosebleeds, skin rashes, thyroid cysts and nodules. The film’s title “A2-B-C” references the different classifications of thyroid cysts. A-1 means no thyroid cysts. A-2 means a presence of them.

In the film, he also documents parental distrust of government testing of their children and unease of suspect-radioactive decontamination. 

“The question we had: Are these kids going to be OK?,” said Ash, a Watertown native and Tokyo resident. A SUNY Plattsburgh alum, he holds a master’s degree in film and television production from the University of Bristol.

“So I kept filming and documenting what was happening to the children, although I didn’t remain in the same town. I went to other towns as well.”


“In the Grey Zone” was filmed closer to the damaged plant. “A2-B-C” was filmed between 40 and 50 kilometers away.

“It lies right in the path of the radioactive plume. If you see the map of where the radioactive plume went, it went northwest. These towns are farther away from the nuclear plant, but they are actually contaminated with higher levels of radiation. So because they are farther away, they were not in the original evacuation zone,” said Ash, who returns to Fukushima every month and is working on a third film.

Families outside of the evacuation zone bore the costs of relocating.

“There was no government support to do that,” Ash said. “And so, what happened was anyone who had money and could evacuate did. People who were left were people who didn’t have the money or means to evacuate. This is an area, an agricultural community, and so basically everything they had — their land, farming equipment, their homes —

was contaminated. So, they couldn’t sell it. Imagine trying to move your family when everything you have has been taken away from you.”


The economic divide between the Japanese haves and have-nots is similar to the predicament of Hurricane Katrina victims in the United States.

“When people had a car or someplace to go or could afford to stay in a hotel for a week, they left. People who were waiting for the government programs to help them evacuate were people who were economically disadvantaged,” Ash said.

The same is true in Fukushima.

“People who didn’t have money, or the elderly people who were sick to the point where they were not able to evacuate, that was true in America in Hurricane Katrina as well,” he said.


For the two films, Ash shot between 60 and 80 hours of footage. The films are not sequels and can be watched independently of each other.

It’s not typical to release two feature films in two consecutive years. But many of the same festivals that selected “In the Grey Zone” chose “A2-B-C” as well.

“It wasn’t the intention to do it quickly,” Ash said. “That’s how the story came out. It’s not something we could have waited another year to do. What’s happening to the children needs to be told now.”

The natural rate of thyroid cysts and nodules that occur in children there is unknown.

“It’s an interesting question,” Ash said. “It depends on what expert you ask. It’s difficult to know what this will mean for the children. Forty-three percent of children have them. (This is) according to many, many studies. This is just not normal.”


“A2-B-C” is also about other health issues the children are experiencing with a suspected link to radiation exposure. 

“One of the major themes of the film deals with the ‘decontamination process,’ and how it’s really not possible to decontaminate these areas where these children are living in,” he said.

“Through the decontamination process, people are becoming exposed to more radiation.”

In “A2-B-C” very young children wear glass badges and comprehend that the badges detect radiation.

“It’s done by the towns. They are on different schedules. It measures total radiation exposure for a two-month period,” Ash said.

The badges measure only external exposure and do not measure internal radiation exposure via food, drink and air.

“Children touch the ground and put their hands in their mouths. They run, kick up dirt, and they breathe up the dirt. They are also being exposed to radiation through dust, which is internally,” he said.

The glass badges also do not give an overall real-time reading of radiation exposure. 

“You wouldn’t know if you were exposed to a large amount of radiation by going to a radiation hot spot,” Ash said. “If you were exposed to that each day that’s different than if you were exposed to that in one day by wandering in a radiation hot spot. But the badge doesn’t tell you that. It gives people a false sense of security.”

It could take as many as three generations for the effects of radiation to be revealed in the Japanese population, according to some scientists.

“Which is not true in animals. People are doing studies of butterflies and other insects. There have been studies in Chernobyl as well,” Ash said.

“For me, those children will live their entire lives wondering if there will be an effect on them. The young women may think, ‘Should I get married? If I have a child, will they face some consequences because of the radiation I was exposed to as a child?’ Regardless of what the ‘science’ says, there is nothing we can do to alleviate that fear or that worry from those people.”


Ash had remarkable access to the people in his film because he is a Westerner who speaks Japanese.

“In Japan, you’re not really supposed to complain about your situation. You’re supposed to say, ‘We will persevere. We’ll put on a strong face.’ I think being able to talk to someone that was foreign, they felt they weren’t going to be judged. I’m just guessing. I don’t really know,” he said.

He developed initial relationships and was pulled into an intimate circle of mothers and others concerned about their children’s plights.

“Eventually, there were people contacting me,” he said.


Since the disaster, Ash repeatedly risks his health for his art and chosen mission.

“If a person I’m interviewing wears a mask or tells me to put one on, I will put one on. If the person I’m interviewing is not wearing a mask in the film, I don’t wear one. I can’t have a wall between me and the person I’m interviewing,” Ash said. 

“The choice would be if I thought about it at the level that I really need to protect myself to the point of wearing a mask all the time, even when the people around were not, then I just wouldn’t go. There’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing you can do.”

Ash doesn’t measure radiation where he travels.

“Some people say that’s stupid. If there are kids in that area, I’m going to go there,” he said.


In June, “A2-B-C” was awarded the coveted Nippon Visions Award, the top prize for new directors at the film’s world premiere at the Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt, Germany. 

“The cinema was full. A young woman who was a child of the time of the Chernobyl meltdown, she came to the screening. People were just shocked, and that it wasn’t in the news. They weren’t being told about it,” Ash said. 

“As adults, we can make a choice. We evacuate or not evacuate. The children are dependent on the adults making the decisions for them. The most difficult thing for me is that I’m not sure how much good will come out of this for the people that it is happening to. Part of me thinks this is only going to mean something in the future and what I’m doing right now is not going to directly help these people, and that is very hard for me.”

“A2-B-C” upcoming screenings include the Global Peace Festival in the United States (Sept. 17 through 22), the Guam International Film Festival (Sept. 24 through 29), the Chagrin International Documentary Film Festival (Oct. 2 through 6) and the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (Oct. 4 through 8).


The film’s Japanese premiere is this month.

“I’m curious about what will happen. Even people in Tokyo don’t know what is happening. One of the things I realized in filming, as citizens of a country, ... when something goes wrong, we think the government is just going to provide for us and take care of us,” Ash said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima disaster, he realizes that is not always the case.

“We have to be active participants in the way our government works as members of a society,” Ash said. “We have responsibilities to be good citizens as well and to be active participants in society. It’s not just sitting around and waiting for the government to do something. We have to take action to protect our children. Those mothers are taking action. They are not waiting for the government to measure radiation. They are in radioactive hot spots and measuring radiation around the school to protect their children. They are not waiting for someone to help them.” 

He attributes the film’s festival-selection success to people’s desire to become more informed.

“The festival programmers want to program films about current events and things that are happening now. The film is in so many festivals in the next two months alone. I’m really shocked and pleasantly surprised at how many festivals this will be in and really grateful to share the story of the children of Fukushima with audiences all over the world,” he said.

The Japanese mothers agreed to do the film for this very reason.

“They want their story to be told,” Ash said.

Post-screenings, festival-goers ask him what they should do.

“I don’t know the answer,” Ash said. “This is the first step to get people to know there is a problem. Then, we can talk about a solution. If you don’t know there is a problem, then you can’t come up with a solution.”

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