Photo courtesy of StudioAPA
Steve Nguyen and Choz Belen chatted with Schema’s Sadiya Ansari over Skype about their new animated documentary, HIBAKUSHA.
“Hibakusha” is a Japanese term which refers to a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film was built around the story of Kaz Suyeishi, an 84-year-old survivor, who recalls her memories as an 18-year-old Japanese American student when the atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima.
Not only is the story compelling, but so is the form. Well into the project Steve decided it shouldn’t be a documentary with talking heads, it needed elements to bring to life the emotion of the time. And so the animated documentary was born, taking Kaz’s memories and transforming them into animated reenactments.
Steve, who signed in from Los Angeles and Choz, from New York, began their creative collaboration in 2010 when Steve sought Choz out after hearing praise for his work as a director, including his work on two videos for the Far East Movement.
Steve and Choz were both ready for a creative challenge and from our conversation, it looks like the result of their efforts will definitely be worth watching.
SA: To start, tell me a bit about the film itself.
SN: HIBAKUSHA is a film based on the real life experiences of Kaz Suyeishi, a Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor. Choz and I were inspired to tell her story, so we reached out to the real life Kaz in order to produce an animated film using computer animation and hand-drawn techniques.
CB: The story really drew me to the project. I got involved with the project when Steve approached me about it after seeing my previous music videos.
SA: What made you think about turning it into animation?
SN: Honestly, I thought it was the only way this story could be told. Animation gives you so much creative flexibility, and I wanted Choz on board because I think he understood my vision for the script from the very beginning.
SA: Tell me a bit more about the story and how you discovered it.
SN: Kaz was introduced to me through a family friend, and I remember she was introduced to me as a “hibakusha.” I asked, what was that? Then from that point on, I got both a history lesson and a story.
Twenty minutes into the conversation, I could just visualize all these images that she was telling me about, and I wanted to do something with it.
SA: Let’s talk a bit more about the making of the film. What did you think it was going to look like initially?
SN: In the beginning, I showed Choz a really rough documentary idea that I wanted to do. It was essentially Kaz’s narration mixed with animated images and graphics.
SA: When did you change your mind and decide to go all animation? And why?
SN: We based the framework around that idea, and then halfway through production, I decided to scrap it and go into producing a narrative instead. I felt the story could’ve been told a lot better than what we had originally planned. I had to talk Choz into it, and he was more than willing to cope with going a new direction.
From then, I scrapped most of what we had and started writing a treatment on the new script.
SA: That was pretty risky to do half-way through! What convinced you, Choz, that this was going to worth it?
CB: It was funny actually, I remember being at work and getting a call from Steve and him having this epiphany of a moment. It was definitely going to be more difficult to do, but I believed the end result would be more than worth it.
SA: So now that you have pretty much reached the end of production — was it worth it?
CB: I’m gonna be honest. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever done. The project was driven by passion.
SN: Here, here!
SA: When do you get to share the fruits of your labour?
CB: October 20th.
SN: We’ll be hosting our first screening in Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum. It’ll be open to the public with free admission at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum near the Japanese American National Museum at 2 PM.
SA: Is there anything else you wanted to add about the film, its making, where you are going to go from here?
CB: We had big aspirations after we made the decision to redo the script and I think that was a huge turning point. We got more people involved and I think the collaborative efforts of all the talented people really helped make the film what it is. From the actors to the sound engineers, it was truly a blessing to meet and work with everyone.
SA: Choz, what did Steve bring to the project that was absolutely necessary (other than the story itself!) and Steve, what did Choz bring that really made the film what it is today?
CB: I think Steve’s ability to get everyone to buy into his idea. When he talks about the film you can sense his enthusiasm and it’s definitely contagious. When we started this thing I don’t think anyone really knew what exactly the outcome would be, but we knew we could trust him and that the project was in good hands.
SN: Choz’s vision and creativity made this film happen! He turned my ideas into reality, and HIBAKUSHA wouldn’t have been possible without Choz and his creative team of animators and fx people.
SA: Awesome. There is lots of love and respect between you two, nice to see.
SN: Most def!
Updates on tour dates, festival screenings, and talks are available on the official HIBAKUSHA website.
For more information on the October 20 screening, visit the film’s Facebook event page.