Director Lana Wilson on courage and micro-level change
Director Lana Wilson gravitates to the crevices of desperation and taboo, and the altruistic mavericks who meet people there with empathy and understanding. In the shadowy places of suffering, the director asks philosophical questions about life and death, and observes the struggles that may yield their elusive answers. Her 2013 directorial debut, After Tiller, explores the tumultuous, risky lives of third trimester abortion providers, and the harrowing decisions their patients are forced to make.
Her sophomore film, The Departure, follows Ittetsu Nemoto, a Japanese punk rocker-turned-Buddhist monk, who is renowned for his unorthodox work in suicide prevention. His techniques are experimental and theatrical; and rooted in notions about ceremony, choice, and community. In a remote temple, we watch Nemoto facilitate group rituals called the Departure, in which suicidal participants process the experience of loss that is intrinsic to dying.
In one-on-one counseling—over text or tea—Nemoto avoids directives and lofty jargon, and instead focuses on meeting people in the heavy, irrational places where they’re trapped. In a scene that is both tragic and tender, Nemoto is slumped on a couch with a drug addicted, absentee father, and admits that he, too, is failing at parenting.
As the film gently progresses, Nemoto’s own life comes into sharper relief. His mounting health problems intensify, and the effects of his work on his family crystalize. The paradox of his character— it’s impossible to disentangle the man from the mission—structure the depth and definition of the film, and we are left to reflect on the value and purpose of our own lives.
The Departure doesn’t provide any concrete answers, but for their respective audiences, Nemoto and Wilson act as thoughtful docents of subjective and transformative journeys. Underneath the culturally specific layers of shame, stigma, and suffering, we get a universal story about choosing to live.
DM: What first drew you in to documentary, and what brought you back for another film? In other words, why is this the best way to spend your life?
LN: I worked at Performa - the New York biennial of new visual art performance - for eight years. I ended up as their film and dance curator, and I loved my job, but always secretly wanted to be a filmmaker.
I spent my nights writing scripts and plotting short films I would make once I could raise the money - but I wasn’t comfortable asking for anyone to support my work. It felt too narcissistic. And, I thought, weren’t there thousands of more worthy causes in the world? So I was always waiting for something to happen that would allow me to become a filmmaker.
When the abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in a Kansas church in 2009, I was shaken to the core. I had always been active in reproductive justice issues, and had volunteered as a clinic escort for years. I was upset by the tragedy itself, but also by the sensationalized media coverage that ensued. There was no attention paid to the complex, real-life circumstances of the women on the ground. I wondered what Dr. Tiller was like and what circumstances would lead women to seek his help. And I wondered, in the wake of his murder, if anyone would have the courage to continue this work.
“Imagine,” I kept saying to friends. “A movie going inside the lives of the doctors who are left.” I wondered who was going to direct that film, and felt jealous of the brilliant filmmaker who would do it. Then I had a realization: no one was going to make that film. It was an idea only I had. I had to make it myself. I suddenly understood how to become a filmmaker: stop second-guessing my ideas, and just go for it.
I had a friend, Martha Shane, who had been working in documentary, and was game for partnering with me to co-direct this film, which became After Tiller. Thinking about the bravery of third-trimester abortion providers made me realize how small my own fears were in comparison. And because of how urgent and important the subject felt to me, I knew I could ask for money to make it without feeling ashamed. I was compelled to make this film by a force I hadn’t experienced before.
Like After Tiller, my new film The Departure has a similar theme – how human compassion can reach individuals in their most desperate moments, changing the world on a micro level, through person-to-person interactions. That's what I like to make films about. That's what feels the most urgent to me.
DM: After Tiller and The Departure both feature people who provide intense, life altering care for others, often at the expense of their own physical and mental health. Can you talk about the threads of sacrifice and altruism in your films, and how they bind your work together?
LW: That’s totally true. I hope that both films are gripping examinations of some our most intimate emotional experiences, and how morally complex the dynamics of “helping” people are. They’re both films about extreme altruists doing life and death work that many people don’t understand. And their subjects are all working in these issues that are cloaked in secrecy and shame and stigma. The doctors in After Tiller, and the priest in The Departure are the people who are willing to go into those places with these incredibly desperate people coming to them for help. I think I’m drawn to them because I wonder, like everybody wonders, what is the best way to spend my life? How can I help other people? How do I balance wanting to contribute something to the world while taking care of yourself? Those are common questions of a lot of people in care giving work that I’m really interested in. And I also just think extreme subjects are a way for me to look at big questions about life and death because of the extremity of both of these professions it attracts these really interesting personalities, be it late term abortion providers, or be it a priest who specializes in suicide prevention.
I think what’s unique about Nemoto, the priest in The Departure, is that he is different than other suicide counselors. Typically with suicide counseling, the more traditional way is making sure the person's not going to commit suicide. Going “where’s the gun? Tell me the gun’s away.” Suicide counselors are not usually approaching this in a personal way. They’re not talking about themselves. They’re approaching more as a professional mental health expert. And Nemoto is different. For him, it’s a lot about himself too. He brings himself into the counseling sessions, and he’s like “I’m just like you. I screwed up. I did that. You and I are in the bad dad’s alliance together,” he says to the drug addicted man, who is breaking down in front of him. And that is something that is so unique about him. It’s brave. It’s reckless. It’s totally intriguing to me that he crosses those lines. In fact, he doesn’t see lines between himself and the people who come to him for help. I think that’s part of the reason why people are drawn to him.
DM: How did you transition between After Tiller and The Departure? Did your practice and/or strategies of being an observer of very sensitive experiences evolve between the two films?
LW: I definitely learned a lot while making After Tiller. I came out at the end and was like, “okay, I know how to do this, I know how to get access to people in really sensitive situations.” I learned from the process of making a film with Martha Shane, who co-directed it with me. I think I learned how to set the stage for the comfort of the subjects, and how to make it as easy as possible for them to participate in the film. And then with The Departure, I felt confident in that going in. But, I had a new challenge of the language barrier. I don’t speak Japanese. That turned out to have positive and negative effects. On the one hand, it was great in a surprising way because people were more comfortable with me filming them, and my cinematographer who is also America and speaks no Japanese. They were comfortable with us filming them because we couldn’t understand them. They were constantly telling me that it gave them the freedom to speak because we couldn’t understand them. But on the other hand, I couldn’t intuit stuff I normally would be able to. It was hard for me to detect how comfortable people were, what was okay and what wasn’t. I couldn’t emotionally intuit things in the way if could if we spoke the same language. Because you know there’s what’s being translated to you, but there’s what’s really going on underneath. And sometimes I would sense things physically, and I could feel that. But it was just like operating with an arm chopped off. It felt like missing a limb.
DM: You know intense things are happening, but the details must be difficult to detect.
LW: I try to think from their point of view. I think about every single shot, about asking in every position we were in, how does this feel to them? There were different ways of making my physical presence as unobtrusive as possible. [The language barrier] was liberating in some ways because I couldn’t understand them—and that gave them and me a freedom. For example, they couldn’t actually say stop filming because I wouldn’t understand. But there are challenges in other ways too. It was a very particular set of circumstances.
DM: What was it like to build a relationship with Nemoto, especially given the language barrier? How did you gain his trust, and how did you become close with him?
LW: I was immediately so curious about him. I thought wow, what an extraordinary, unusual, different kind of person. I didn’t realize until I got there—half way around the world—how much he and I had in common. That gradually emerged over the course of making the movie. It really surprised me. I would notice that the same concerns that Nemoto’s family had about—concerns about his health, overworking, not sleeping enough—those concerns are actually the same concerns the people he counseled had for me. Many of the people he counseled seemed genuinely worried about me. They’d ask “when are you taking a vacation? You’re not eating enough, you look really thin.” I was struck both by the fact that they were in this incredibly difficult moment in their lives—they were visiting this temple for help—yet they were so concerned about me. I was amazed at their capacity for empathy at such a difficult moment in their own lives. I also slowly realized what they were echoing the same concerns people in Nemoto’s life have about him. We definitely noticed we had a profound bond that developed over time, and a lot of it I think is in recognizing those similarities in each other. We were both the people who would stay up all night, even if nobody else was there. We’re both people who others tend to call with problems. We’re [both] so interested in what makes other people tick, and what their lives are like. Sometimes I think it’s a way of avoiding ourselves. When you get immersed in the pain of other people, you’re free of yourself in a way. And I think that’s something I feel about documentary filmmaking in general. It’s such a rare pleasure today to forget yourself. Especially in America, it’s the Me Society—the happy society. We’re all on social media, and we’re all branding ourselves. It’s me me me. And to have the chance to film these other people and get completely immersed in their stories and their experiences—you can completely forget your own existence in a way that’s really wonderful, that’s very freeing. Nemoto’s drawn to that, and I’m drawn to that. his extreme practice is suicide counseling, and my extreme practice is going half way around the world to this place I can’t communicate with anyone and making a documentary.
DM: it sounds like you became a player in the dynamic that he was creating with his patients. Did you ever wonder or worry that you were influencing relationships he was developing with the people he counseled?
LW: When Nemoto is with [suicidal people], he’s performing a certain role, a certain character. He puts on a strong face, and he can’t show that he’s taking on their pain like a sponge. So, I don’t think I affected him.
In the group retreats, [Nemoto] creates a really theatrical experience. It’s a start to finish experience that they’ll go through together. And that’s similar to what I’m trying to do when I make a film. I’m trying to create an experience that people go through that changes them. And for the group retreats, yes, it became a little collaborative. At the end, when we did the departure retreat a second time, I was like, “can I put some lights backs here? They’ll be hidden, nobody will see them, and it will make the room a little more dramatic. Is that fine to do?” And he was like, “totally.” I mean, he’s already setting the space up in a dramatic way; I just amplified it a bit.
And, with his one-on-one sessions, I don’t know. Maybe I just had to convince myself I wasn’t affecting them. Some people didn’t want us to film them, which is fine. The people who did, they liked the idea that their stories would go around the world and would reach other people who are in similar circumstances. I think they liked having somebody there listening to them.
DM: In a way, the exploratory and reflective nature of the Departure ritual felt like a modern dance exercise. And I know you studied dance in college—-did you bring any choreography or dance theory to the film?
LW: something Nemoto and I connected over early on was our love of dance. He was doing these contemporary dance experiences with people, and that’s in part because he has a really close friend who’s a modern choreographer. It’s both the physicality of the workshops he does—it isn’t just talking, he does these physical exercises and experiences with people. I think that drew me in immediately. But also the fact that I could just go to the club and dance for hours with him without stopping. We would often just be together silently because we can’t really talk to each other, and we’d just stretch. Like we’re both totally happy just zoning out stretching for hours. I don’t know—it was a weird bit of a connection.
DM: the film asks so many questions, but doesn’t really supply a lot of answers. Did you find that anything was answered for you in the process of making the film?
LW: one thing that was answered for me was that it’s amazing how no matter where you are in the world, no matter what person or what culture, there’s so much that’s universal about our emotional experience of being alive. In different cultures it doesn’t show up in the same way, and it doesn’t express itself in the same way. While it’s not performed in the same way, what’s underlying it—the causation, the feelings we have—it’s the same everywhere. That continually struck me. And I think in part because Americans tend to exotify Japan and see it as a place that’s very different. And of course it’s different culturally –there are different understandings of death in different places. But I was really stunned by how the reasons that brought people to Nemoto—the stuff they were struggling with in their lives, and issues Nemoto was wrestling with—how totally universal it was. It’s going to a totally different place, and having a process of self-exploration. Aren’t those the best moments when you read something or you watch something, and you’re inside somebody’s head and you’re like “oh my god, that happened to me, too. I experienced that too.” It’s always more incredible if there’s someone who on the outside is totally different than you. So I try to leave it open to the audience to come to their own conclusions and to have their own experiences with the film. But I always emphasize what connects us.
DM: How do you feel when you watch the film now?
LW: I watch it over and over again. If I haven’t watched it in a week, I miss it, the way you’d miss a child. It’s a very strange relationship that I have with my own movie. It’s like you create a film you want to be told yourself, almost like a bedtime story or something, or a fable.
DM: Have you been surprised by any reactions or interpretations on the festival circuit? And what do you hope audiences take away from the film?
LW: The hardest thing of all is meeting people who have lost someone to suicide—especially a young person. They would say “if only they had someone like Nemoto in their life,” or “what if they had had the departure exercise? We should try and get the departure exercise taught in schools.” I think I would just often be at a loss for what to tell them. There is no answer to why somebody committed suicide.
So often people go to Nemoto because they can’t tell their family or people close to them what they’re going through because they know how much they love them. They don’t want to disappoint them because they love them so much.
I think people have had the most poetic and profound reactions to the film. An artist would watch it and say “this film is about how art is what keeps us alive- the dancing and the music—this is what we’re living for!” A parent might say “your children are the purpose of your life.” The social worker would say “it’s giving to other people, that’s why we’re here.” Everyone has a different thing. Last weekend I was in Maine, and a woman was like “I could see it wasn’t about what Nemoto was saying, it’s that he has this empathy that carries like an electrical current from him to them. And I loved that. I thought that was totally true.
DM: Do you have a daily documentary practice? What do things look like when you're not working on a film?
LW: I have a pretty rigid daily schedule that I try to stick to most days. I wake up really early. I write three pages in a notebook. I exercise and meditate and then do any and all creative work I can for a couple of hours before (usually) heading to a day job around 9 am. If I don't have a day job, I use an "egg timer" technique (inspired by my friend, the great jazz composer/pianist Fred Hersch) to work for 45 minutes in a very focused/tunnel vision way, then have a 15 minute break during which I can use the internet, get coffee, take a walk, whatever. I try to do like 3 of those periods in the morning and 2 or 3 more in the afternoon.
If I'm traveling, or approaching some big event (like my film's theatrical release) this schedule often falls apart, but I still try to do the "early morning" part every single day. Since I've had full-time jobs for most of my career as a filmmaker I've found that forcing yourself to get up early, and focus on whatever personal creative work you most want to do in your life - even if it's generating material that might not ever "go" anywhere - it completely changes your perspective on your day, your life, who you are as an artist and human being. It says you're putting the creative work first - even if the majority of your day is devoted to a job that might not be exactly aligned with your goals for your career. You can feel satisfied and stimulated no matter what you technically do for a living.
DM: Who are some influential or favorite historic/legendary women documentary filmmakers?
LW: I love Heddy Honigmann. She is probably my all-time favorite female documentary filmmaker. Her movies are so subtle and rich. I also love the work of Agnes Varda, Kim Longinotto, Yoko Ono --some of whose films I would consider to be Warhol-style conceptual documentaries-- Ava DuVernay, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and my friend Penny Lane.
During the making of The Departure I thought a lot about Su Friedrich, and especially her Sink or Swim - a film that the editor of The Departure also really loves. Sink or Swim is Friedrich's hand-wrought and crushing portrait of her relationship with her father. It has a brilliant circular structure that mimics the repeating patterns we all experience in our relationships with parents. It's about being a girl in a man’s world, and how family can help you and hurt you. At one point the main character reads from a letter to her father: “It’s so strange to have such an ecstatic melody accompany those tragic lyrics.” I would love this to be the tagline for The Departure. We can only understand the difficult parts of life by telling them to ourselves as stories.
DM: What's next for you?
LW: I'm starting a new documentary project and writing a fiction screenplay.