Filmmaker Lana Wilson’s effervescent personality belies the dark subject matter she chooses for her documentaries. In her first film, the Emmy Award-winning After Tiller, Wilson tackles the thorny issue of abortion and profiles late-term abortion providers who regularly receive death threats. In “Jacked,” the episode Wilson wrote and produced for the National Geographic Channel miniseries I Am Rebel, she tells us the story of African-American activist Louis Moore, a victim of police brutality in Detroit who exacts revenge by hijacking an airplane.
It seems only fitting, then, that Wilson delves into suicide in her latest film, The Departure, a raw and intimate look at the life of Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist priest in rural Gifu Prefecture who works in suicide-prevention counseling. The film had its New York theatrical premiere on Friday, October 13 and runs through Thursday, October 19 at the Metrograph.
Wilson first discovered Nemoto in an article by Larissa MacFarquhar published in The New Yorker in 2013. She was intrigued by MacFarquhar’s description of the Tokyo native’s experience with the suicides of three people who were close to him and how his lifestyle of playing in bands, drinking, brawling, and moving from one menial job to another eventually led to his becoming a Buddhist priest in a remote town.
“I think what was so compelling about this man is that he’s not just a Zen priest who helps suicidal people; he’s a bit of a bad boy. He’s a bad boy do-gooder,” says Wilson. “You know immediately that he has these two seemingly contradictory sides to him, and that’s the central tension in the film.”
Nemoto’s bad-boy side manifests itself in riding his motorcycle and dancing and drinking at clubs until dawn, a habit he did not leave behind when he, his wife, and his mother left Tokyo for Gifu. But his “do-gooder” side overshadows that. Nemoto throws himself tirelessly into his work of suicide prevention, having face-to-face meetings and phone conversations with people who have lost all hope, staging group retreats that encourage suicidal people to explore what they would leave behind, and speaking at suicide-prevention conferences.
Japan’s astronomical suicide rate is among the highest in the world. Beleaguered salarymen and women die from overwork, and others take their lives for not having any work at all. While suicide in Japan has shown a gradual decline in recent years, it is still a disturbing problem, but a problem that is being addressed more urgently.
“Japan as a country has done an extraordinary job of addressing the suicide problem there on all levels: government, hotlines, mental health care,” says Wilson. “The suicide rate has declined there, I think, because of the national attention to and the increasing awareness of the problem, talking about it, setting up structures.”
Wilson met with people providing different avenues to suicide prevention in Japan, including other priests active in field and counselors at LIFELINK, a Tokyo-based, non-profit suicide-prevention organization. What sets Nemoto apart are his approach and his total immersion into the lives of the people he helps.
“This isn’t someone just trying to stop someone from committing suicide,” says Wilson. “This is someone who wants to understand the meaning of life himself and gets so much out of these conversations. He loves doing this because it helps him explore his own reason for living. And he loves talking out these big life-and-death questions that he has with people who are unusually honest because they’re suicidal. There’s an honesty, a candor, and an openness . . . they’re willing to air this stuff that would be stigmatized and unspoken otherwise.”
Filming the honesty and candor of people who want to take their own lives in a country as extraordinarily reserved as Japan requires a delicacy that Wilson needed to convince Nemoto she possessed before he agreed to participate in the project. When she first met with him, she showed him After Tiller, which showcases her ability to film people in sensitive situations in an empathetic and non-judgmental manner while being unobtrusive enough to capture their stories.
“I try to set the stage for the subject’s comfort,” Wilson says. “How can I make it as easy as possible for them to participate? How can I make my presence as minimal as possible? I’m constantly thinking of every shot we get, ‘How does this feel for them?’ I try to put myself in their shoes.”
An early scene in the film is particularly intimate. In a tatami mat room, Nemoto has gathered a group to, as Nemoto puts it, “find out what it means to die.” He asks each person to write down nine things on separate slips of paper: the three most important possessions, the three important people, and the three things they’d most like to try to do. Wilson’s small crew of three people – all female – were in the room with them, capturing close ups of the participants’ faces as well as what they were writing. It takes a great deal of trust to allow a room full of strangers into your thoughts at the lowest point in your life, especially if two of those strangers are from another country and bearing camera and audio equipment. Yet the participants seem not to notice.
“They could see that I was curious, that I was empathetic, that I was really invested in understanding them and sharing their stories with other people because people halfway around the world are going through the same things they are,” says Wilson. “And I think that’s something that resonated with them because people who visit Nemoto because they are struggling with depression or feeling suicidal often feel so alone.”
Wilson also credits Nemoto for creating a safe space for those he counsels to “vent those scary things.” Nemoto’s group sessions are a way to express your feelings openly to complete strangers.
“Meeting other people who are going through the same thing as you is the most powerful thing in the world,” says Wilson. “Being in someone else’s life, seeing things in a different way but realizing, ‘Oh my God, I had that same experience; I know that feeling that you can’t put into words.’ That’s what’s so remarkable about the connections we create.”
People from all over Japan find Nemoto on social media and through the various stories that have been written about him by the press. His non-clinical approach to counseling leaves him open and available for people to reach out to him at all times of the day or night. His empathy and compassion, while commendable, also complicate the issues he has with his health. His penchant for clubbing and alcohol consumption don’t help, and it led to a frightening medical crisis during Wilson’s filming.
Faced with his own mortality, Nemoto must learn to shift his priorities to his health and his family, which he is gradually doing as his young son, who was only six months when Wilson began filming, grows older. His patient and understanding wife, Yukiko, is another source of balance for Nemoto. A former nurse whom he met in the hospital while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident more than 20 years ago, Yukiko is supportive of the important work Nemoto does, and she tolerates his need to blow off steam with late-night clubbing sessions. But she’s not afraid to give him gentle reminders when he needs to back off from that side of his life and spend more time relaxing with his family.
Wilson says part of the reason it’s hard for Nemoto to have regular office hours is because he cares so deeply for the people he counsels. The responsibility weighs heavily: What if he didn’t answer the phone one day, and a person needing help ended her life as a result?
In the end, The Departure isn’t a film about suicide or death or even Nemoto. It’s about life.
“It’s about looking at death so that we can understand better how to live,” says Wilson. “I tried to create an experience for the audience where they would have the chance to think deeply about their own lives, about what makes every minute precious for them, what it is that they value the most.” (She succeeded: During the aforementioned group session scene, you’ll find yourself thinking about those nine most important things/people/projects.)
It’s also about connecting with people who are in pain and trying to find the right path for themselves, something to which we can all relate regardless of where we are. We see that throughout The Departure because Wilson is adept at capturing truly human moments in a thoughtful and sensitive way.
“For me what was so surprising was that I went to this place halfway around the world and was stunned by how much we had in common and how much both the good and the bad parts of our lives are the same,” says Wilson. “ . . . That’s what I want people to experience. To see some of themselves in a place that might seem very far away.”
Experience The Departure through Thursday, October 19 at the Metrograph. For a list of showtimes and special guest Q&A sessions, please visit the Metrograph’s website.