Matters of Life and Death: an interview with The Departure filmmaker Lana Wilson

by Andrew Parker

Documentarian Lana Wilson excels at making films that focus on fascinating human beings capable of exhibiting great empathy for their fellow man, and her latest effort, The Departure (screening this week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival), is no exception.

The After Tiller filmmaker reunites with cinematographer Emily Topper and travels to Japan to tell the powerful and unique story of Ittetsu Nemoto. A former hard partying punk rocker turned Buddhist priest and family man following a near death experience, Nemoto has devoted his life and work to helping people considering suicide reconsider such a fatal decision. In addition to hosting the titular retreat – glimpsed at the beginning of the film, where people who have considered suicide reflect and meditate on their mindset – Nemoto travels across the country to sit down with those in need face to face. His cell phone and email are going constantly, and he’s duty bound to help. At the same time, his lifestyle is catching up with him. He barely sleeps. Health problems are mounting. He hardly ever gets to spend time with his wife and one-year old son. Nemoto’s altruistic goals are something for all humans to aspire to, but how long can he keep them up?

We caught up with Wilson on the morning of her first screening in Toronto to talk about The Departure.

Were you familiar with Nemoto or his retreat, The Departure, first?

Lana Wilson

Lana Wilson: I was familiar with him. There was a New Yorker magazine article about him, and I read that in the summer of 2013, and I was immediately fascinated by him. I could tell he was a really complicated person, and I wondered just what someone would say to someone who wanted to die. How could he convince someone in a single sit-down session to find a reason to keep living? What words were used? What does that sound and look like? I wanted to just sort of make a movie that revolved around him and see what was happening.

The article didn’t explain The Departure, but it did describe that he did “death simulations” with people, and that they end that simulation by lying down with a piece of cloth over their faces. I did immediately think when I read the article that it would be incredibly cinematic or it could be a participatory experience for the audience, where you are really going through the exercise yourself as a viewer.

I went to meet him with no camera and did The Departure exercise myself in a group of other people who were there, and I just found it incredibly powerful. I was so curious about what people halfway around the world would write down on these pieces of paper and if they would be the same or different. Of course, I had to confront such questions by myself, but I was so moved by what I saw and experienced. It was then that I knew that this could be a central scene of the film, and make this film feel like a sit-down session with Nemoto-san. I think over the course of filming, when Nemoto’s health problems kept rising and I saw how contradictory of a person he was in a lot of ways, I realized the movie would start people thinking that we all need help in some way if there was this priest who was so affected by all this. By the end, you’re not so much identifying with the patients so much as you are with him, and what he’s going through from a very different place.

It’s got to be one thing to read something about Nemoto, and another entirely to keep up with someone like him who’s constantly on the go, on the phone, on his email, and all the while trying to save lives. What was it like adapting to the pace of his life and his drive to help?

Lana Wilson: Right, and it’s especially hard because Emily [Topper], my cinematographer, and I didn’t speak Japanese, so it was tough to know what was going on a lot of the time. (laughs) It was hard, and a lot of it included a lot of late nights where we really weren’t sleeping. Many nights we were lucky to get three hours of sleep, and we KNEW that he was getting even less sleep than we were. He always slept less than us, so there was definitely some physical stamina needed for it. Then there was just the intensity of moving in and out of these peoples’ lives that he was working with. The good thing was that I did get to know many of these people who came in and out of his life because I went back there to film for so many times over years. This wasn’t a thing where we meet Nemoto and suddenly everything was great and we had this great guide and everything was going to be fine. Like anything, it’s a process. You go up and down and up and down again. You’re never cured. No one’s ever cured entirely of feelings of hopelessness and loss or confusion and pain. These are people who are in various states of how well they’re doing or not doing, so I did get to know them for a time.

But it was challenging to follow Nemoto because I was constantly wondering if I was being an invasive presence here, or if I was making things better or worse for people to talk. I just had to do my best to be really sensitive to that. Of course, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to be filmed, but for the people who did want to be filmed, even though they said yes, I still made sure they were okay with it on every level. I didn’t want to doubt their reasons for wanting to participate in the film because you don’t want to feel alone, which makes it a lot like what I experienced with After Tiller in that same kind of way. I think hearing your experience echo out in other people can have a healing effect for some, and I think that’s really what art is for in a lot of ways. That’s why I seek out certain movies and books. You want to hope that you can find something great that makes it feel like someone can see and understand what’s going on inside your own head. I think that people like the idea of their stories going to America, Canada, and around the world and touching people. At the same time, I think there are also people who have a generally higher level of comfort when other people are around. They like warm, compassionate presences around, and that’s also great. It’s still hard with the language barrier, but I do think there were people who liked us being there. I tried not to question things too much. (laughs)

You brought up something I wanted to talk to you about, which was this issue of consenting with people to film their lives, which is something you had to take great care with in After Tiller, as well. You guys keep a distant, respectful distance from the situations you are documenting. Did it take some convincing to let Nemoto know that you were going to treat this very private world with an appropriate amount of delicacy and respect?

Lana Wilson: I think it was just a matter of saying all that you just said. I showed him After Tiller, and talked about the process of filming that with him. I said that we could do some things similarly here. We could show peoples’ faces or not show them. I was open to whatever. It was just telling him to let us know what he felt comfortable with. If he ever said, “I don’t want you filming right now,” we would leave immediately. There wouldn’t be any questions at all. We would just get out of there.

He saw in After Tiller and while I was with him that I was getting to know these people over a long course of time in many cases, and he was always busy with other people – at group retreats and things like that – so he wasn’t the person doing any of the convincing for people to be on camera, which I think was good in a lot of ways. You can’t just say, “You’ve come to seek help from me, and, oh, by the way, want these people you’ve never met to film you.” He just stayed out of it, and we talked to the people.

It’s funny because even though we talk about people sharing these stories that would resonate around the world, there were so many people who would come to see Nemoto who were always showing concern for my health and my mental state. (laughs) I can understand that. When you’re shooting a documentary, you can definitely seem kind of manic and depressed. A lot of them I think just wanted to help me in this really beautiful way. (laughs) This is also, for them, a great way for them to build a community and make friend and supports. I have never met people as kind and sensitive as the people Nemoto-san counsels. My experience with depression and with people who have depression has really made me notice how sensitive they are, but sometimes in good and caring ways. Anyone who never gets depressed or feels sad clearly never pays attention to the world around them, so I found these people some of the kindest, most sensitive people in the world. Not only did they allow me to film with them, but some of them would even give me gifts and we’d have these pen-pal kind of relationships. I really feel like I became friends with several of them in really profound ways, not just in a superficial “I’m here and then I’m gone” kind of way. I learned a lot from them.

I can’t even tell you the stuff we have on the cutting room floor because Nemoto and these people were filmed over the course of seven or eight hour sessions. I learned so much listening to them and Nemoto wrestling with questions that all of us have. It was different from After Tiller in this respect because the patients that went to these clinics were there for a week, and that was it. In this case, I was seeing them over years. Nemoto was their friend for life, so I feel like I got to know a lot of the people in the film in a much deeper way.

You have done two films in a row now about people who have to have an immense amount of empathy for the people in their care, and you spent a lot of time on both films. What’s the attraction for you as a filmmaker to look at these kinds of people who have jobs that rely on comforting others, but that the general public might not have a full understanding of?

Lana Wilson: I feel teary just thinking about it. (laughs) I think it’s because it’s so very personal. The biggest thing is the admiration I have for these people. I admired the doctors in After Tiller, and I admire Nemoto-san greatly. Especially after the most recent presidential election in the states, I know a lot of people are asking themselves what they should be doing and how they should be helping other people. It feels like we have overwhelming pits of need all over the world, and when you’re trying to make art or trying to help, there are always these questions of where we draw the lines and how we take care of ourselves while trying to take care of other people. I feel like the doctors and Nemoto-san are both ways of exploring that.

But another thing is that there’s the quality of self-forgetfulness that’s really lost in today’s society with our Facebook profiles and our “branding.” I think what’s so special about making these kinds of observational documentaries is that there are moments where you just forget you exist. I was booming, doing the sound, and Emily was filming, and we were shooting these seven hour sessions that we couldn’t understand, so it does become this kind of trippy experience at a certain point. (laughs) You’re just listening so carefully that it’s almost like a zen training experience. Because we’re staying up so late at the sessions are so long, you get pushed to these physical points, but I would also feel like I was just dissolving into the wall. Those moments of forgetting yourself are really wonderful. It can be kind of a prison to always think about who you are, and it can be kind of zen to just let yourself exist and not exist at the same time. I think that making these kinds of observational documentaries in situations that are so intense that I can’t be thinking about my own comparatively very trivial problems, stresses, and issues to be freeing. I love going to these extreme places physically and emotionally. It’s not an addiction to me, but that’s something I definitely relate to Nemoto-san on. You can see that he’s the most alive when he’s going to extreme places. I am definitely like that, too, and we can both go to those places.

Speaking of addictions, I think that the film can be read that Nemoto is so complex because he has seemingly traded addictions. He used to lead a hard partying lifestyle, but now he has changed and devotes every moment of his life – sometimes to the detriment of his physical health and time spent with his family – to something more altruistic. Was that something you really noticed early on and wanted to try to highlight as a parallel in the film?

Lana Wilson: I think it’s interesting. I noticed that at first, but what I gradually came to realize was that the thing was… It’s true that all this running around, time, and thought that he puts into every individual person’s needs takes a physical and mental toll on his health, but then I started to notice that when he’s helping people is when he seems to be the most healthy and radiant and alive. I think that comes across a bit in the movie. On one hand, I can see that he can’t keep doing this much, but at the same time I can see how he comes to life in this totally different way when he’s counselling. He feels like he can be real with them. He has his troubles, and they can also help him deal with those. Also, I think why he likes counselling people who are thinking about suicide is that they’re really honest. There’s no fakeness. There’s no lying. If you’re being open about that kind of pain, you’re being honest. I think he finds that refreshing, and he comes closer to figuring out the meaning of life when he’s having those conversations, more so I think than when he’s doing more healthy, relaxing activities that might be better for the average person. It’s so complicated.

The other comparison that I saw between The Departure and After Tiller is that I got the sense that like the doctors in your previous film, if Nemoto were to suddenly stop doing what he was doing, a lot of people would be hurt or endangered by the void he left. Did that ever cross your mind when you’re making a film like this in Japan, which is a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world?

Lana Wilson: I do think that, but on the other hand, I think that Japan is an interesting situation to be looking at when it comes to mental health. Japan’s suicide rate started growing after World War II, and it really exploded following the economic collapse that happened there in 1998. Here, we’ve seen the suicide rate explode since the global economic collapse in 2008. I think in some ways, Japan has addressed this problem in a really thoughtful way, and their suicide rate, although still much higher than it should be in global comparisons, is actually going down. In the U.S., it’s actually going way up.

It would be a loss if Nemoto were to stop doing his work, but the Japanese government has set up a lot of resources and hotlines for people in need. There’s also just a lot of interest in working on suicide prevention in Japan, including among Buddhist priests. There’s a whole wave recently of Buddhist priests becoming engaged in a whole range of different areas, like hospice, end of life care, anti-nuclear activism, and suicide prevention. At the start of this film and when I was researching it, there was this wonderful writer named Jonathan Watts who runs this organization called the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He’s a scholar, a writer, and an American who has been living in Japan for the past 25 years, and he calls himself a Buddhist and he introduced me to a lot of other priests who are doing this work. There are so many different approaches to it, but Nemoto is definitely the most unorthodox in his approach, for sure. He doesn’t draw any lines, and I think a lot of the other priests doing this work have a more traditional or professional approach. But there are a lot of people there doing a lot of special things.

This film also shows a side of Buddhist culture in Japan that I don’t think a lot of Western audiences have seen before. What was it like showcasing that side of the culture?

Lana Wilson: It’s surprising because in Japan their priests can get married, have kids, smoke, drink, and in many cases they HAVE to drink because of some of the rituals and services the perform. It’s part of their job. It’s a very secular lifestyle in a lot of ways, and Japan is a very secular country. I think that’s really surprising to people. Nemoto-san isn’t the only priest who rides a motorcycle. (laughs) He has a lot of priest friends he meets up with to go on road trips around the country. There’s been a longer history of social activism among Buddhist priests in other countries than in Japan, but I hope this will surprise people Even in the editing of the film and during rough cut screenings, we realized that people didn’t quite understand that he could drink or have a wife and son. We really had to finesse the cut of the film to reflect how it’s different to be a priest in Japan because Western audiences weren’t accustomed to that We’re actually just finishing the poster now, and the tagline is “This is not your ordinary monk,” and I think that kind of says it all.

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