I’m finding that serendipity plays a big part in the Sundance experience. Yesterday a publicist tossed me a DVD of a documentary short called The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. It’s part of the festival, but in any given hour there may be 22 films playing simultaneously at 16 far-flung sites. You can’t see everything.
I watched it on my Mac late last night, exhausted after a day of interviews and screenings. Seven hours later I woke up and learned that it had just been nominated for an Oscar.
It’s a well-deserved nod. The 38-minute film captures the Japanese experience of the March 11, 2011, tsunami with a quiet beauty, power, and dignity.
Director Lucy Walker, one of the most accomplished and prolific documentary filmmakers of the past decade (Devil’s Playground, Waste Land) took her camera to Japan just a couple of weeks after the tsunami. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she lets survivors tell their stories -- of riding out the deadly water in cars and on hillsides, of watching lifelong friends swept away to their deaths.
We’ve all seen the shock video of water swallowing towns. But Walker does simple things like translating the words that the Japanese people, watching in horror from a hillside, are saying. One quote sums it up: “Dad? Where’s grandma?”
Walker moves from the horror of March 11 to the grim cleanup, and then to an elegaic look at the symbol of the cherry blossom, why it means to much to the Japanese, and how the flower’s aching beauty and fleeting life came to occupy such an important role in the nation’s culture.
The cherry trees blossomed not long after the disaster, and Walker captures the bittersweet days of their bloom. The survivors find some hope and meaning in the flowers. One man whose town was swept away takes Walker down to the beach to show her some shoreline flowers. “This was all killed by the tsunami,” he tells her. “But now, a month later, there are new shoots. The plants are hanging in there, so us humans had better do it, too.”
The film has a few more screenings in Park City this week. No word yet on when the rest of the world might get a chance to see it. I’m hoping Walker is taking some serious meetings this morning.
Follow Bruce Barcott's daily reports from the Sundance Film Festival.