Officially Selected Alumni Interviews

Richard Grehan: Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview

Director Richard Grehan, Poster and still from film Zan

Irish Filmmaker Richard Grehan’s feature documentary “Zan” follows the last of the Okinawan Dugong – a creature similar to the manatee – and the people who strive to protect them, located in the outstandingly beautiful and bio-diverse Henoko and Oura bay.

This emotive environmental doc will screen at Tokyo Lift-Off on Friday 20th April at 5:45pm, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. We interviewed director Richard to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

First of all, for those who don’t know, tell us little bit about the Dugong and the plight they face.

Dugong is a medium sized marine animal of the order Sirenia, which also includes Manatee. It is a strict herbivore that mainly depends on Sea Grass. Dugong can be found throughout the Indo-West Pacific, and in Japan there are estimated to be under 10 left. with only 3 having been officially identified. Their population is very endangered due to over hunting and loss of habitat.  They have a long lifespan similar to humans of 70 years or more. In Japan one of the last feeding grounds is based in Oura Bay, Henoko, there is a plan to build a US marine base over this important sea grass area and local people have been protesting to stop it for over 20 years. In recent months, the situation has become very serious as the Abe administration has pushed forward with construction against the people’s will and began landfilling and building.

When did you yourselves first become aware of this issue, and when did you know you had to make a documentary about it?

We joined the group One Percent for the Planet, which makes us commit 1% of our turnover to environmental causes yearly, through that network we choose NACSJ to be our partner. When looking through their projects, I came across the Henoko Dugong project which they are very involved in, researching about the conditions and effects the building has on the Dugong and other under water wildlife. I was shocked to learn that the government was pushing forward this new base construction and felt compelled to go further than our donation, and suggested making a film about the issue.

On a technical note, how did you approach the underwater filming?

I have an advanced open water diving certification and, being a cinematographer on land, I thought I would have no problem adapting to the underwater filming. Quality was of the utmost importance to me, and getting great footage, so we invested in an nauticam underwater housing for our Sony A7SII. We were lucky to have great guides recommended by NACSJ and scientist Abe Noriko to show us the important places. We had to privately hire local boats and our guides brought gear from Naha, as there were no local providers.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

It was soon realized that shooting underwater, particularly in rough conditions, was a very difficult task and it was quite a challenge to say the least to get good shots – I had literally thrown myself into the deep end! With many dives and perseverance we managed to get the shots we needed for the film, and owe a lot to our great guides and staff from NACSJ to guide us to the best places.

Do you think the intersection of film and activism is essential in communicating your message to the masses?

Film as a medium is a very powerful tool in activism, and highly effective to communicate complex issues in a way that the general public can understand. We took great care to simplify the messages enough to be understood by people who knew nothing about the situation, and we could also tailor the message to be not too removed from the general public, i.e. not too scientific nor controversial. We have learnt a lot from advertising and branding on how to distill information and convey the desired message in a way that the target market can understand. The power of cinematography can help people to really experience what the natural beauty of Henoko is like and why its important to keep these natural treasures intact.

What do you hope to achieve through this film, and have you witnessed an impact that it’s had already?

We want to counteract the misinformation that is out in the general media: a very one sided story is being portrayed in the mass media due to governmental pressure on the media outlets. We wanted to tell the story of the activists and the scientists that have been working tirelessly for over 20 years to stop the base construction.

We hope to be able to create public pressure on the government plans – the ideal result would be to stop the base construction, protect the Dugongs’ environment and prevent extinction of the Japanese Dugong. We have been quite successful in film festivals, winning or being officially selected in 8 so far. This is a great recognition of the importance of the film, and helping to spread the message locally and internationally.

We have also had good success with social screening – a new informal way to show films, whereby any informal group or company can rent the film and hold screenings.. This is a grass roots way to spread the messages, and the film has always been very well received with many questions being asked in the talk sessions. There are fresh Dugong lawsuits being launched in the states against the ministry of defence, to try to legally block the base construction, and the defense attorneys have been using our film to present evidence and show the American judges what is happening in Henoko.

Has the experience of making this film changed your perceptions in any way?

I have always been an activist, having been born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and growing up during the troubles there. My father was one of the heads of the civil rights movement and my aunt’s sister won the noble peace prize – peace activism was a natural thing for me. One of the things that was reinforced to me when making the film is how the establishment tries to divide people, painting a picture of two polarized sections of the community, which distracts them and us from the real situation.

For example, the media paints two sides to the Henoko story: people pro-base and anti-base who are locked in disagreement, however we discovered that people are more alike that that and both sides of the community don’t want the base construction. Both wanted to protect their natural environment and the Dugong, just that one side thinks they have no choice and need to accept the governments large plans and just try to negotiate what’s best for them as a community, i.e. they accept the base, but with conditions.

Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

We continue to produce films and videos for brands and companies, and try to bring our messages of sustainability and ethics into the corporate world. Governments are in a difficult position to make big changes, NGOs haven’t got the resources, so we believe it’s up to business and brands to change the world. We have a new project about the secret meaning and philosphy behind Beethoven’s 9th symphony, filmed in Hokkaido where we follow the talented Friederike Klein and her amazing youth orchestra.

Don’t forget to view the full Tokyo Lift-Off programme and buy tickets.