The latest project from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lana Wilson confronts life's most vital question: Why is it worth living?
What if you had to distill your life down to the three things most important to you, and then burn those things up in a fire and watch them disappear? That is precisely the exercise conducted by Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto at his retreats for depressed and suicidal people in Japan. This heavy ritual, which takes place in the dark, forces participants to recognize the things that make their lives worth living.
When filmmaker Lana Wilson learned of this practice, she knew she had the kernel of a movie that could provide a personal journey for audiences. Thus began a two-year effort to film Nemoto and his disciples, beginning with the ritual that bears the same name as the resulting film: The Departure.
"If you present a vision you are really passionate about, you can inspire other people to go with you."
Wilson’s film succeeds in what many docs attempt. The essence of the story is captured and displayed by the style of the film itself. The movie is patient, serious, warm, and open-ended—just like Nemoto’s work. But this work takes a toll on the priest, as he is performing around-the-clock suicide watch. And the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Nemoto is not without his own personal vices and demons. The combination of these things presents a moving portrait of a man whose life is dedicated to serving others—at what could be its own peril.
The Departure has its UK premiere this week at Sheffield Doc Fest, but we spoke with Wilson after its world premiere screening at Tribeca 2017 about the Buddhist nature of filmmaking, overcoming language barriers when shooting internationally, and more.
No Film School: This film is not a traditional social issue documentary, so there's a lot of room for interpretation. How would you like it to be framed or perceived?
Lana Wilson: I think one of the good things about the film is that it's kind of open. I know people are just watching it, and it's a very personal experience for each person.
I've asked people, "What is the takeaway for you?" Artists would say, "The takeaway is that art saves your life." Or parents always say, "The takeaway is that, when you're a parent, it isn't just about happy moments. It's hard. It's not always fun but you can't have the happy stuff without the painful stuff because you wouldn't be able to feel that." Then, someone who is a social worker would say it's about how you can't save someone else and you have to draw a line somewhere, and that's almost impossible.
"If there's one thing I learned it's that I don't have answers."
One of the things that compelled me to make the film in the first place was the idea that the opening "departure exercise" could be a participatory scene for the audience. I think once you hear about that exercise that asks: what are the three most important objects in your life? The three most important people? Your three dreams? You immediately think, "What would I write down?" I saw a chance to do a cinematic scene for the audience to come into it. I hope the takeaway is that it's about what makes life worth living, and how we all have these big questions that have no answers.
Part of what drew me to this story was that I have a lot of those questions, too. If there's one thing I learned it's that I don't have answers. They only lead to more questions, but the questions are partially fulfilled by the depth and complexity of the other questions. It's more about the journey than about the end result.
NFS: It's funny you mention that the film is open-ended. It felt like the ending is literally open. How did you make the choice to not resolve things for the audience at the end?
Wilson: Well, I felt like what I had seen with Nemoto when filming was a subtle, internal change in his life after he went to the hospital for this emergency surgery, especially with the people he counseled. I wanted the end to really shape the overall counseling scenes throughout the film—to culminate with him getting helped by someone else.
It was my editor David Teague's idea to end with a metaphoric death, and we wanted the audience to really feel that at the end themselves. It all ends very quickly and suddenly with the way the sound and image go out. I have to give a lot of credit to my sound designer for that, actually, because originally we had this shot of Nemoto finishing the exercise and lying down. We cut to black but the sound kept going. Then the sound gently faded out, which was more in keeping with the gentle style and subtlety of the rest of the film. My sound designer just tried a total cut out of the sound, and when he showed it to my editor and I, we felt it so physically. You almost feel something in your chest and you can't breathe for a second.
There are a lot of bells and chimes in Buddhist practice. The idea is to wake up—to jolt people a little bit, because when you're jolted like that, you're conscious of, "I have these many minutes. These many hours. These many days of my life." You're more present. I love what he did with the sound there, because I thought was like that zen-like jolt to wake up to your life and how precious it is.
NFS: I want to step back a little. This film feels different from your last one, After Tiller [about American abortion providers]. Was the whole approach different or did you make the films in similar ways?
Wilson: Yeah. Oh, man. I think the character has some similarities to the doctors in After Tiller. I was immediately driven to this extreme altruist. I think it's partly because I'm always curious about what is the best way to help other people, and I'm inspired by people who do that in extreme ways. What toll does that take on them?
The first line of After Tiller is an interview with Dr. Tiller. It's the only interview he ever did and it's just a shot of him saying, "I would rather have a short life that is emotionally and spiritually fulfilling where I'm really having a huge impact, than have a long life full of mediocrity. I want to make a difference to people." Nemoto says the exact same thing in this film.
"This film felt like trying to run towards a vision I saw."
NFS: I didn't realize the connection until you just said it.
Wilson: I didn't notice it, either, until an executive producer pointed that out to me. That was like my unconscious connection to these subjects; I wasn't even totally aware of it while making the film.
But in terms of how they were made, that part was different. I think I had more of a vision for this film at the beginning. With After Tiller, I hadn't made a film before. I had a partner [Martha Shane]. It was a much more stressful environment. It's intense. The protestors, the patients, they're in there so quickly and you're in this tiny clinic. It was limited what we could do within that space and that world. I'm so proud of it.
WithThe Departure, I had so much more room and space to do things. I also had these incredibly artful exercises and retreats that Nemoto was doing to work with. When I read about the death workshop, I could just see it visually. This film felt much more trying to run towards a vision I saw.
It had its own challenges, but that became interesting aesthetically. Like the language barrier: I don't speak Japanese. I don't understand Japanese. Neither does my cinematographer. I quickly learned when I got there that not speaking Japanese would help me get access because people were like, "We can speak freely." It's one thing to be captured by the camera; it's another thing to be really listened to by the camera, especially in these very personal, sensitive conversations.
We could get a lot more access if I didn't have a translator around. Because of that I was also really concerned about missing great stuff. We would miss stuff all the time. I'd find out months later from transcripts that we'd been shooting the wrong place or the wrong thing during the most critical exchange of all.
"We became really rigorous about how we shot it."
We became really rigorous about how we shot it. My cinematographer [Emily Topper] and I would shoot all day, and then we'd go back to the hotel room and go through all the footage and analyze the compositions.
There were stressful situations making this film, but it wasn't like After Tiller, where it was so stressful. It was terrifying outside the clinic. The doctors were under such pressure and things moved much more quickly. Here, we just had the time—I shot it over two years and eight shoots—to really be like, "What is working? What is not? What is the emotional experience?" To be totally uncompromising about that was such a treat for me. To get to pursue any aesthetic idea. Nemoto was patient and game for all of it.
NFS: To your point about the language barrier, you filmed some very vulnerable, private moments. How did you negotiate with your subjects and let them know what you were doing?
Wilson: I would just explain I want this film to be for audiences like a session that you're having with Nemoto, where audiences think about what makes their life worth living and try to discover the way out if things aren't going well.
I think that for people who are struggling with feeling suicidal or feeling depressed, often the only comfort is knowing you're not alone in those feelings. I saw that a lot at the retreats with Nemoto. When there were multiple people, they would feel comfortable and safe with other people going through the same thing. I think it appealed to a lot of the subjects that this film would be seen halfway around the world and that people dealing with similar stuff in America might get some comfort or perspective or see echoes of themselves.
"It was clear that this was a long-term commitment. It made people trust me more."
People have different reasons for doing things. Some just responded to the energy. They're like, "You seem very compassionate and like you're not going to make some exploitative movie, like, 'Look at these sick freaks." Which could totally be done—and it has been done with this kind of material.
Another thing was that I was there so often for so long. Nemoto sees people many times, usually. Often, I would meet someone, and they might not be comfortable the first time I met them, but three months later, when I was back, they would be a little more relaxed. I think it was clear that this was a long-term commitment and that I was always going to be there. It made people trust me more. It took time.
NFS: What about actually maneuvering in the space at the temple to film?
Wilson: I would record sound, and Emily Topper, the amazing cinematographer, would do cinematography. Then our translator and field producer would usually help me talk to the subject and get an okay for access. Then, they would leave.
Emily dresses in all black and she has a very grounded, steady, calm [demeanor]. Her website says, "Emily Topper: Steady as she goes," which I think is perfect. She just radiates that. There's no nervousness. She is very warm and gentle. Especially when you can't speak to someone, that makes all the difference.
I am a little more high-strung. I would just try and convince [subjects] of my passion for the ideas of the film. Then, when I was actually recording sound, I would try to be more like Emily and try to disappear more. I would never look directly at [people we filmed]. I think it makes a big difference when you're recording sound. Just look down. Look at your buttons. People are more comfortable if you're looking at the equipment rather than staring at them. I would glance at them and I would glance at Emily. We had all these hand signals and stuff that we'd do about shot scale and where she should move. We would be communicating all the time.
NFS: That's a great tip.
Wilson: The counsel scenes could be very long—like seven hours. I would be holding the boom up and shaking or balancing it on my head. It gets so physically intense that after a while, you kind of lose your mind a little. I don't understand what they're saying, so all I'm thinking about is, "Where is Emily shooting? How does it feel emotionally?"
Sometimes you really feel like you're dissolving into a wall in a weird way, because it's so long and you don't understand anything. You go through these trippy experiences when you're doing this for seven hours. Maybe like a kind of meditation exercise.
NFS: What did you shoot with?
Wilson: A Canon C300. It's great. It's little. It's fairly light. We didn't use tripods very much. We usually just used yoga blocks because we're so low to the ground in Japan. A lot of balancing an elbow and the camera on yoga blocks.
NFS: Did you come up with that on the fly?
Wilson: It was Emily's idea. After the first shoot, she was like, "I know what I need next time: yoga blocks." We did a lot of tests. She had a shoulder mount, which gave the footage this very floaty quality. I wanted it to feel grounded but not locked down. Grounded but still alive. The tripod was just too deadening in a way. That's why she suggested yoga blocks. We watched that and I was like, "This is perfect." We could bring them anywhere we went to shoot.
NFS: That sounds pretty physically rigorous for her, too.
Wilson: It was. We were staying up all night sometimes with them, and she's incredible. It is really rigorous. Emily thinks that shooting for me is like shooting in a strait-jacket—but in a good way. That's how she describes it. I have these very strong impulses about how the film should look. I like symmetry and I like things that are at a 90-degree angle, a 45-degree angle. Any kind of in-between angles unsettle me.
"My DP had a shoulder mount, which gave the footage this floaty quality. I wanted it to feel grounded but still alive."
When we first started looking at footage all night, I talked a lot with her and we discussed all the footage, but by our final shoot, watching her would be like reading my own mind in terms of when she moved the camera and where. It was like we developed this set of rules together that ended up giving it this really strong, stylistic voice and consistency but it's pretty rigid. No unmotivated camera movement. Never.
NFS: When you get to that point with a DP, it's so wonderful. I have a question that's unique to this film: Is there anything that you learned from Nemoto and his approach to life that you could potentially bring into filmmaking?
Wilson: That's so interesting. Well, one thing I learned—especially because this is my first film directing on my own—was that if you present a vision you are really passionate about, you can inspire other people to go with you. Less because they care about the end goal; more because they're just like, "I want to go with her. She seems really excited about that."
I think Nemoto is so like that with these group retreats that he leads. I watched him command the room and lead the retreats, but also involve everyone in these conversations in such a sensitive, compassionate way. The way he works with groups of people is how I would love to be as a director. It's such a model for me. The way he listens to people. I would notice him at retreats going towards the people who weren't talking to anyone, pulling them in. He sees the macro—the big and the small—all at once.
Also, the other thing I learned is that it's okay to not have all the answers. I think that's what's so great about him in these counseling sessions. He is like, "I have these questions also. I'm really screwed up. I'm sad in these ways." He's open about that. It makes it easier for other people to talk to him.
As a filmmaker, being curious and not knowing where something is going or not knowing what the answer is is okay. It's even good to come in with a lot of questions and this curiosity and desire to learn, rather than the desire to say, "This is what I think is going on here." It's always this fusion between revision and reality.