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Pray for Japan moves Auds to Tears at Okinawa International Movie Festival

By Liza Foreman

 

Tsunami Documentary Moves Auds to Tearsat Okinawa International Movie Festival

 

Okinawa 

 

When Stu Levy flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo on March 9, 2011, he had no idea that he would return a filmmaker with some up-close footage of one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. It lead to his moving documentary, Pray for Japan.

The purpose of his trip was to inform hisJapanese business associates that Tokyo Pop, his fifteen-year-old Manga publishing-and-productioncompany, had closed down its U.S. operations. "Borders owed me a lot of money,"he said. "It closed down and I just couldn't pay anyone after that."

On a conference call to Australia twodays later, the first earthquake struck. He kept talking. "I'm from Los Angeles.  I kind of ignored it," hesaid. When the second quake hit, his associates told him that it was time tohang up. He listened but was forced to stay put. "Our housing association asked everyone to stay indoors," he recalled.

Still, he wasn't to be housebound for long."In Tokyo we all saw it on TV and it was crazy and heart breaking. But for me personally, there was a lot of soul searching that I was going through because of Tokyo Pop. That area happened to be one that I had travelled through on aholiday. I had these amazing memories. I had always told Japanese people and friends that this is a place you should go. I had said that for many years. Allof a sudden, I was watching it all being swept away. It was unfathomable. But the first thing I thought was that we have to go up and help. So I made contactwith my friends and said we have to go."

His friends "flaked" but he soonconnected with a non-profit and was on his way. "I teamed up with a guy who knew what he was doing. We drove up with gasoline and a bunch of rice and provisions. There was no idea of a film in me," he recalled.

"There was a lot that touched me abouthow the people were behaving up there, that special Japanese spirit of helping people out and not being so selfish and what about me, like it is in our part of the world," he said.

He was also shocked by what he saw. "Theimagery is something that you can't ignore," he said. "These people had lost everything. It was freezing cold. It was worse than camping, There were old photos and debris everywhere and cars in the trees. You couldn't create a movieset like that. The production managers would get angry and say you are fakingit. This is too extreme."

A film didn't come to mind at first. What'smore, Levy was unable to continue to help as word had spread on Fukushima and the volunteers were ordered to leave. "The NGO found out from the French Embassy that they were pulling out, and they pulled us out and we had no choice," he said. "I remember this one staffer near the shelter and she was just crying. I just said don't let the victims see you crying. We will come back. It was so sad. None of us wanted to leave. We felt terrible."

In Tokyo. it was back down to business. "I had to go back to dealing with my production company. I dealt with that for a week or two. Can you imagine?" he said.

Still, Levy was soon on his way back upnorth to start a soup kitchen with a friend. "I had a friend who was a butcher from Osaka and we went up with all this meat and did a soup kitchen and stuff,"he said. "That's when we met a local guy and we got talking. He found out thatI make shows. He said you should make a documentary about this. I had not thoughtabout it until this moment."

Levy had his doubts. "I said to him,wouldn't it be a problem because we are all helping? And wouldn't it be aproblem because wouldn't it be rude? He said in this moment helping is urgent,but for the future for our children it is important to remember what happened."

A friend offered to match whatever moneyhe would put in and after discovering that every cameraman was booked throughthe foreign media to cover the tragedy, Levy took to doing the camera workhimself. Between filming, he would continue to help and put down his camera. "Icouldn't just stand there and film," he said.

 

The resulting documentary, "Pray forJapan" went on release in New York and Los Angeles March 14ththrough AMC. It is still playing in the AMC in Burbank, and at this week'sOkinawa International Movie Festival. "It is a foreign-language documentary butit has made a real impact on many in the audience," he said.

 

Tokyo Pop is continuing its international operations.

 

 

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