No Man's Zone: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival Press Still No Man's Zone - H 2012
Berlinale Film Festival

Berlinale Film Festival Press Still No Man's Zone - H 2012

Japanese-French documentary's sensitive depiction of post-Fukushima devastation tiptoes into poetic pretentiousness.

Toshi Fujiwara's doc chronicles the aftermath of last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.

Invaluable as historical record but frustratingly inert as a film, No Man's Zone (Mujin chitai) is among the first documentaries to chronicle the devastation of coastal Japan following March 2011's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Working in areas that, while contaminated with Fukushima radiation, remained inhabited several months after the catastrophes, Toshi Fujiwara elicits moving testimony from the embattled survivors. And although he stumbles when attempting to draw wider conclusions from what his cameras capture, ongoing global interest in this subject will ensure plentiful festival and TV interest. In terms of theatrical distribution outside Japan, there's the possibility of limited play in territories where environmental matters in general and nuclear power in particular are hot-button issues.

Starting with a 360-degree pan of apocalyptic scenes in the decimated town of Ukedo, 41 days after the cataclysm, Fujiwara (best known for 2006's improvised We Can't Go Home Again) delivers raw images via hand-held digital video. Almost immediately, voiceover -- written by Fujiwara and delivered in English by Armenian-Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian -- prompts us to question our response to this harrowing visual material, setting the tone for a film of over-ambitious philosophical scope.

Police officers are observed from a distance in "white protecting gears [sic]... Perhaps they were lost souls..." muses the narrator. The nature and power of disaster footage is examined -- "anger becomes a way to hide our fascination" -- while just after the halfway point there's the information that "for the last hour we've been watching images, just images," underlining the limitations of visual media.

The aftermath of Fukushima is, it goes without saying, a matter of the utmost seriousness. But Fujiwara's default mode of precious solemnity veers towards the po-faced, with Barre Phillips' sonorous strings and soaring angel-voiced choirs deployed to intrusive and counter-productive effect. Compiling what's essentially an elegiac first-person travelogue, Fujiwara is clearly rather fond of his own authorial voice -- as filtered through Khanjian -- but these contributions aren't helped by oddly echoing sound-mixing that employs weird, tinny fading techniques. The verbose voiceover itself frequently strays into faux-profundity -- "it is not that everything is God, but all is God," we're informed at one late juncture - though translation issues might well be a complicating factor at play.

No Man's Zone becomes much more eloquent and engaging when Fujiwara steps back and lets the residents speak for themselves - which he allows them to do for several unbroken minutes at a time. Displaying the famed Japanese qualities of fatalistic stoicism in abundance ("that's life - things happen, good and bad"), his mostly aged interviewees don't hide their polite annoyance at the failings of national and regional governments -- making their points with a dignified simplicity that certainly doesn't need musical or choral accompaniment.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 13, 2012.
Production companies: Aliocha Films, in co-production with Denis Friedman Productions
Director / Screenwriter: Toshi Fujiwara
Producers: Valérie-Anne Christen, Denis Friedman
Director of photography: Takanobu Kato
Editor: Isabelle Ingold
Music: Barre Phillips
Sales Agent: Doc & Film, Paris
No rating, 105 minutes.