Nemoto (right), subject of Lana Wilson’s THE DEPATURE

Director Lana Wilson in conversation.

Lana joined us for a screening of THE DEPARTURE on Dec 7th, 2017, the following is a transcript of our moderated conversation and Q&A with the audience at Amherst Cinema.

George: The Departure is such a powerful film I’m glad I was able to see it a second time. This time I was really captivated by all of the interweaving storylines about fatherhood. Are there other storylines that were important for you to include in rounding out the picture?

Lana Wilson: I love that you connected with a different storyline the second time you saw it. I think that’s great, and that’s kind of how I feel too even though I have seen it 100 times. It feels really different to me every time I watch it, depending on what’s going on with me and what point I’m at in my life. The father storyline … When I first learned about Nemoto I knew he had a history of health problems, and when I met him it was obvious that there was a real challenge in balancing his health and his family life with his work life, and his son had just been born, he was six months old when I met Nemoto.

Him becoming a father and understanding what it means to be a father — especially for someone who had as complicated of a relationship with his own father as he did — that was simply what was going on with him during the two and a half years that I filmed, because it was his son from age six months to almost three years old.

To me it was immediately all about the tension Nemoto felt between family and work — but I was also working with a great cinematographer, Emily Topper, who had a son the exact same age as Teppei. I’m not a parent myself, and I think that my cinematographer connected to Teppei in a way that I wouldn’t have if I was on my own. I would tend to be very focused on what the scene we were filming was, what the counseling session was about, or I’d be focusing on what we needed for the beginning, middle, and end of whatever sequence I wanted to get that day. I would see Emily, just shooting Teppei opening and closing the doors, and I’d be like, “What’s going on here?” Like, “We have a big scene coming up!” But I slowly realized over several months how invaluable that was, that she was seeing those moments and capturing them, and when we got to editing it became incredibly clear.

I worked with the amazing editor David Teague, who also has a son. It’s a fun thing to work on a film like this because you work with a tiny group of people, and it’s very personal for you, but for each person in a different way. For both my cinematographer and for my editor the son part was really personal to them. One Buddhist idea that David and I talked about a lot, which Nemoto would often bring up with his patients, was that you can’t have the happiest moments in life without the saddest. You can’t feel one without the other — it’s all in that contrast. We wanted to put that experience into the structure of the film. That’s what our lives are like, so we would have the darkest, most intense, difficult counseling session followed by a moment of beauty and joy with Teppei. We tried to put those rhythms into the film itself. Those are all things that developed gradually, but were inspired by how both David and Emily as parents saw this little boy.

Lana Wilson and George William Myers in conversation. Photo: Andrew Hart

George: Your previous film After Tiller, it’s an incredibly powerful documentary about the few health providers who will still provide third-term abortions, clearly not an easy subject. Is there something that draws you to these subjects, which are incredibly difficult to talk about?

Lana Wilson: Well, my goal is really just to make as much money as possible. That’s why I’m doing this.

[laughter from the audience]

George: We’ll pass a hat after the screening.

Lana Wilson: My father is always like, “Would you consider making your next movie about a rock band?” He’s like, “Those movies are popular, you know, people want to see them.” For me it’s such a treat to get to spend three or four years learning about a subject that’s tough, but something that also, for me, connects to these fundamental questions we all have about being alive. You get to wash around in these ideas for three or four years.

With After Tiller it was questions about what would bring someone to be one of the handful of third-trimester abortion providers in the country, a group of people who are not even supported by much of the pro-choice community. Why would you do that? What would drive you to do that? Who were the patients who sought their help? What does it feel like to be in those doctor-patient relationships? What are their lives like? Getting to be in that world and to see the incredible compassion and courage of those doctors, but that they’re also wrestling with all of these moral and ethical questions every day. That’s stuff you can spend years thinking about, you can devote your life to it, and you can still have questions. And the same is true with Nemoto and what he wrestles with every day.

We filmed so many different kinds of counseling sessions, it’s heartbreaking to me, all the people we had to leave on the cutting room floor, because so many people were extraordinarily generous in opening up to us, and letting me film these sessions. One of the biggest challenges with editing is that if you film enough seven-hour counseling sessions, any idea you might have about life is somewhere in there, it contains almost everything, and that’s the challenge and the joy of it. You get to be in the thick of all of that, and then choose the way you want to tell this story. For me, it’s about having material that can sustain me and that I can live with day and night for years.

Photo: Andrew Hart

George: Did you have trouble getting permission from people in those sessions?

Lana Wilson: It was a process. I went to film with Nemoto eight times over two and a half years for extended periods of time. When I filmed with someone it was not the first time I’d met them. I’d almost always met them and had not filmed with them, I would get to know them and would film with them later on. It was also an odd kind of gift that I didn’t speak Japanese, and many of the people in the film in fact told me they were comfortable with me filming because I couldn’t understand Japanese.

There were many challenges that came with that of course, but it was a boon for filming these sensitive counseling scenes. The crew was me, recording sound, an American cinematographer, Emily Topper, who I mentioned, and then a wonderful Japanese narrative filmmaker and animator named Eri Yokoyama, who was the co-producer of the film and was my translator and field producer while shooting. She would help me get permission to film with people, but then I had her leave the room or leave the building and be away while we were filming, because I could see people relax, their body and faces relaxed when she left. With Emily and I they could see by the look on our faces that we weren’t understanding anything. They found it kind of amusing, and they said over and over that was part of it for them. This led to many horrible mistakes too, of course.

I remember one time, there were two tables of people, and one table had all these people laughing hysterically and talking loudly, and at the other table everyone was talking very, very quietly, and I thought, “Well, let’s film this table. They’re probably talking about something really serious, you know, suicide, big life questions. Let’s film them.” Months later I got the translation back of that footage and I learned that the people laughing were actually joking about their suicide attempts. The quiet table, they were all talking about a particular type of Japanese candy that is extremely rare and hard to find. That happened over and over again, and in a way it was painful, but I would just think, “But I’m getting this special kind of access in part because I’m an outsider.”

I think a lot of the patients in the film agreed to participate because for a lot of them, everyone around them seems to be doing great, they seem so happy and successful.

One of the only comforts you can find in the most painful moments is hearing your own experience echoed in someone else’s. That’s often what people were getting out of the group sessions that Nemoto led — connecting to others who had been through similar things. They loved the idea [of the film]. Some people told me explicitly that they really wanted their stories to go halfway around the world, and potentially touch someone in America who is going through the same thing. Because then it was like there was a kind of value in going through such a painful, difficult moment. That really appealed to some people who participated.

George: First questions [from the audience], “Has the film screened in Japan and how has it been received?” People often ask if the subjects have seen it, and then the second was about your scoring choices.

Lana Wilson: The film has not been shown in Japan yet, but we are very close to confirming a theatrical distribution plan there, which I’m really excited about. Nemoto and his family, Yukiko, his wife, and Teppei, his son, all came to New York for the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and that was awesome, to have them here. In part, because Nemoto couldn’t do work, since his cell phone wasn’t working here, so it was kind of like a family vacation for them. It meant so much to have them here, and Nemoto could talk to audience members after screenings, and all of that stuff. He, and Yukiko, really loved the film.

Nemoto loved it, and Yukiko loved it even more. I think that for her even though she’d been with this guy for so long, she was seeing a side of him she hadn’t seen before, because she was witnessing the counseling sessions themselves for the first time. I think that really stayed with her. She watched the movie a few times and I would notice she was really moved during the counseling sessions. She’s a big part of his work, supporting everything he’s doing, but to see him in those rooms, absorbing everything like a sponge sometimes, I think it just … it really, it meant a lot to her to get to see that for the first time. Nemoto, of course, wanted to go clubbing in Brooklyn, so we did some of that. It was fun, it was like a continuation of the movie in some ways. When we did Q and A’s Teppei would come up and we would just give him some toy cars and he would play on stage quietly in front of the audience. It was really special.

George: [Another audience question] was about your scoring choices.

Lana Wilson: For the score, I worked with this incredible composer named Nathan Michel, who’s based in North Carolina and who did a couple pieces of music for After Tiller. He has a PhD in Music Composition, so he’s very chameleon-like. He can really do anything, any kind of instrumentation or mood he can do, and he specializes in really unique electronic textures, like the sound during that boat ride scene at the end of the film. These sounds where you can’t quite place if they’re organic or electronic or what, and I think he did such a beautiful job with the score. He also has this unique gift of being able to pull out the emotional subtext of a scene, to kind of reveal what’s underneath the surface with his music.

With composing an original score, it’s all about how you can communicate, because music is so abstract, and for someone like me who knows nothing about the technical part of music, when you work with a composer, it’s all about your communication — if you get each other or not. You have to be able to speak in imagery, or even metaphors, and then translate that into music. Nathan and I just get each other.

There are also three tracks in the music from Ryuichi Sakamoto, the great Japanese composer, and Christian Fennesz, the Austrian electronic artist. They were there because in the early 2000’s, they made a couple of albums together that I’ve always loved, and when I was playing with temp music for the film I had some music by them in rough cuts of a few scenes. I think it was always in the back of my mind when making the movie, and while editing I had an assistant editor, who at one point said, “You know, all the temp music that you’re using is by my dad.” I was like, “Your dad’s Ryuichi Sakamoto? Composer of The Revenant and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor?” He was like, “Yeah,” and I thought, “This is … Something was meant to be here.” We got Mr. Sakamoto to watch the film, he loved it, and helped me negotiate a good deal with his record label to use three of the pieces of music in the film, which I loved because they were there as part of my inspiration from the start. There’s a few other pieces by a couple of other people in there too, but those are the main composers.

Photo: Andrew Hart

George: Next question from the audience: What were some of the challenges in presenting a film that discusses suicide with the cultural differences in the East, in Japan, and here in the West?

Lana Wilson: I don’t know enough about suicide prevention systems in the West, so I feel like I’m unable to fully answer that. One thing I did notice is that, well, Japan actually has a very strong mental health system, and they’ve done an incredible job as a country of addressing the suicide problem there. There was a recent WHO case study about how Japan has addressed the suicide problem, that is a fascinating read. Japan does have a much higher suicide rate than we do here in the US, but their suicide rate is declining right now, and my understanding is that ours is skyrocketing, and has been especially since the 2008 financial collapse. In Japan the suicide rate soared after the 1998 financial collapse, and the government put in place extensive hotlines, plus there are mental health hospitals and psychiatrists everywhere.

There is not a lot of talk therapy there or support group-type things, but there are mental health services, and most importantly they launched a campaign of awareness. I think that almost everyone in Japan is very aware that there is a suicide problem, and it’s talked about a lot. It’s talked about much more there than here, where I think we talk about it only in relation to specific problems, like military veterans and suicide, for example. There’s been a lot of coverage in the media about that, but there isn’t this larger conversation and awareness in the same way that there is in Japan.

Nemoto is seeing people usually who have fallen through the cracks of the mental health system in one way or another, or they have tried the traditional approaches and nothing has worked for them, and they might hear about Nemoto because he was on the news or there’s a magazine article about him. He’s unusual in the suicide prevention context in Japan, but he’s also unusual in the Buddhist priest context there.

Japan is a very secular country. There’s a saying that when you’re born in Japan you go to a Shinto shrine, and when you get married you go to a Christian minister, and when you die that’s when the Buddhist priest comes. The Buddhist priests themselves live very secular lifestyles, too — they can get married and have kids, and drink, and smoke, for instance. It’s not like some other Buddhist countries, where there has been a really long tradition of Buddhist engagement with social activism — that’s much more recent in Japan. In the last 10 or 20 years this new wave of Buddhist priests has emerged, who have wanted to be more directly engaged with people in their lives, for example in anti-nuclear activism, in end-of-life care, and then in suicide prevention. There is a whole group of priests who are very interested in addressing suicide prevention — because as Zen priests, they have pointed out that they’re uniquely qualified to talk about these questions of life and death with people.

Nemoto is a part of that group, but most of the other priests are not doing, like, theater improv games, and stuff like that. He’s a bit of an anomaly, both in the suicide prevention world and in the socially engaged Buddhist world.

George: The question from the audience, how do you pursue your career as a filmmaker?

Lana Wilson: I’ve almost always worked other full-time jobs while making these movies. I used to be a film and dance curator for an art biennial in New York, and I worked there the whole time I made After Tiller, and then with this one I was able to move into writing and producing on television shows. I worked on two TV shows at National Geographic Studios for most of the time that I was making this film. I raised independent funding for the film, and 40% of the budget came from ITVS, which is the commissioning arm of PBS.

I was shocked and amazed and thrilled that American public television would support this film. It’s incredible. Please consider giving to public media. They are under siege in this new administration, and what they do is so important, and they’re working with such a diverse group of projects from all over the world, with all different kinds of filmmakers, and they’re showing them to American audiences. I have never worked with an organization like [PBS], that so carefully tracks every dollar. As a country, we give only a tiny amount of money to our public media, it’s especially small compared to what is in the national budget overall, but they track every dollar and cent of that. PBS knows where every dollar is spent, and that each expenditure was absolutely necessary, in a way that I don’t think almost any other company or organization in this country does. I really admire them.

They were the biggest funder, but then also several foundations — the Artemis Rising Foundation, Candescent Films, individual donors like our extraordinary EP Diane Max, the Hartley Film Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, NYSCA, Chicken & Egg…I’m forgetting people, but many film institutions and grants supported the film as well.

Audience Member: I wanted to thank you, Lana, for your beautiful film. Some of the moments that struck me the most, one came very early on, where it was a group of the suicidal folks sitting together in the temple openly supporting one another. What was it like to witness some of those intimate communal moments of talking about suicide?

Lana Wilson: Being in a group setting allows you to form these bonds that can last a whole lifetime, and can normalize something that otherwise might not seem normal. Suicide has been around since the beginning of human existence. It’s a part of the human condition. It’s something people experience and think about. The group sessions are really Nemoto’s ultimate goal. He won’t be here forever, but building communities, and building those kind of support systems, and shared projects and ambitions, that’s something that can last beyond one person’s lifetime.

How was it for me filming them? It was a mix of extraordinarily emotionally intense, and really fun and playful. I loved that Nemoto did so many theater games and wacky exercises. A lot of people kept telling me, “We know this is weird even for you, but this is especially weird for Japanese people, all this free-form dancing.” There were people telling me that all the time, but part of the fun was that they could go do this crazy off-the-wall stuff and not be judged. There was a lot of just cooking food and having dinner together, drinking, all of that, and it was great to be a part of it.

I gradually learned to speak more and more Japanese over time, so by the end I could communicate with people a little bit, and often in those group situations my translator would come back, and we would alternate hanging out with the group and filming. We’d go in and out of being part of the experience.

Photo: Andrew Hart

George: Question from the audience: “why there were no scenes in the film where Nemoto actually was dealing with someone who had committed suicide?”

Lana Wilson: Well, in the ten years that Nemoto has been doing this work — and in that time he has met hundreds of people, maybe even a thousand people — out of all the people he’s met in person, only one person has committed suicide, and that was several years ago. It was not something I ever saw. Nemoto knows, and I’m sure anyone who works in suicide prevention or as a social worker or therapist knows, you can never “save” someone else, Nemoto looks at it as more like, “We’re saving each other here.” I think that’s what makes him so unique, how he’s saying, “I’m exactly like you, in fact, I need help. I’m seeking the answers to these questions too. Can you help me?”

He doesn’t draw any lines between the person he’s counseling and himself. There is a downside to that, but the wonderful part of it is that he is always there for these people. It becomes more of a real … it’s a real friendship. I think that’s part of the reason his success rate is so high, it’s because it’s not professionalized. He doesn’t accept money for this. It’s something he needs as much as the people he’s counseling needs, it is a real friendship.

George: question from the audience: can you talk about if that temple is larger than just to him, are there other people who are working in that type of counseling service?”

Lana Wilson: The temple belongs to his Rinzai Zen sect, and he and his family live there and maintain it. “The Departure” retreat is an idea that he came up with that’s inspired by a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, and he adapted it to his own purposes. He does it usually two or three times a year, and he always changes it a little every time. What you see at the end is the most recent version of it. I think that [the] retreat itself is replicable. I think that is something that is adaptable and can be taken other places.

In a way there’s no method to his method. He’ll try lots of different things and see what works. There are many other priests doing suicide prevention in Japan, and I saw and filmed some stuff with them, including working with Nemoto, and in some ways they want to do similar things to what he is doing, and in other ways they have their own unique approaches.

Audience Member: Where did you get the idea of the film? How did you contact the people in Japan?

Lana Wilson: How did I find the story? I read an article in The New Yorker about Nemoto, and I was immediately compelled by the fact that he was a bad boy do-gooder. I found that fascinating, that he had this history, growing up in Shinagawa, clubbing all night, all of that, and that he became a priest later in life, which is very unusual in Japan. Most priests inherit the profession from their fathers and they grow up in a temple.

It was an article from June 2013, a really wonderful article. There was a sentence in the article that said, “Sometimes Nemoto does death role plays with people who come to him for help.” That was the part that really jumped out at me. It sounded so cinematic. I thought, “Death role play, what is that like?” I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a film could create an experience for the audience where they participate, in a way, in a death role play themselves.

Whenever you think about death it’s a way to remind yourself of how to live. The author of the New Yorker article introduced me to another author in Japan named Jonathan Watts, who is American but has lived in Japan for 30 years, and he works for the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He had written an article about this new wave of socially engaged priests, and he focused on a handful of priests that do suicide prevention, including Nemoto.

I went to Japan with no camera, and Jonathan, who’s good friends with Nemoto, took me to meet him and he was doing The Departure retreat that weekend, and I participated in it myself. I had an incredible experience. I was there to get to know him and see what he was like, and to indicate this wasn’t going to be a, “Pop in, get the footage I needed, pop out,” kind of thing. To build trust and show that I was in this for the long haul. It felt really important to me symbolically to just come with no camera and no expectations that first time, but I owe a lot to this beautiful, original article by Larissa MacFarquhar, and to Jonathan Watts, his writing and work.

Audience Member: It’s not really a talk therapy, I didn’t hear him really talk about feelings. What he talks about is connection, throughout he is making a connection. I think that’s why it seems successful. It’s not a traditional talk therapy approach.

Lana Wilson: I think that’s true. I think his method is totally dependent on the person he is with. The other thing that I think is one big idea that binds his work together, is this idea of meeting people where they are and going through a process with them in which they find meaning in their life. One of my favorite moments in the film is when a woman says, “I’m trying to find the meaning of my life. Shouldn’t there be a meaning?” Nemoto says, “Well, I don’t know. Does a river have a meaning?” It’s a beautiful and comforting idea, that there is no secret meaning we need to discover. But you want one, Nemoto has created this process that is a way of creating your own meaning, together, even if it comes from the smallest thing, like wanting to see the cherry blossoms next year. The small moments, that is exactly the idea, that by the end of the film you’re feeling that those small moments, like the feeling of the sun against your face, those experiential sensual moments, that is the meaning of our lives. That’s what it’s all about.

George: Lana Wilson, thank you so much for joining us with The Departure.

Lana Wilson: Thank you so much.

To learn more about The Departure: https://www.thedeparturefilm.com/

To learn more about Lana Wilson: http://lanawilson.net/

To learn more about Bellwether: https://amherstcinema.org/series/bellwether

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Bellwether Film Series

New Directions in Cinema. An ongoing film series @AmherstCinema, showcasing striking & important new films, engaging artists & filmgoers in discussion #WMAfilm