Wednesday, December 09, 2015

AIFF 2015: Lost And Found Eventually Lost Me

I'd seen the trailers for this enough that I was getting a bit jaded, but I had high hopes for this film.  What could go wrong?  People find tsunami debris on Alaska and Canadian beaches and track down the owners and take the things back.  International cooperation, returning lost items to disaster victims, all good fodder for a movie.  Generally the movie was good and I felt the people in the movie were sincerely trying to do some good.

But somewhere along the way it got a little cloying and annoying.  I think the underlying issue for me is the construct of helper and help.  Being a helper means you have the power to do something for another who, in this situation anyway, has less power.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't help others, but we should understand our motives and not get carried away with what we've done.  I posted long ago about charity and included some Jewish thought on charity that is relevant here, though not sufficient, I'm sure, for some to get my point about the power relationship in giving.  Part of the issue is that in Japan there is a very strong culture of gift giving and thanking.  So the degree of thanks became a bit embarrassing.  

After all, these people where doing what they enjoy doing - beach combing.  They found some stuff an said, wow, wouldn't it be interesting if we could find the owners?  So far so good.  But then they get on planes and fly to Japan and become the recipients of this overwhelming level of thank you.  I get all this.  It's my nature to try to find the person who lost something, to get something back to a rightful owner.  But I also know that it's what I enjoy doing and I'm not making any big sacrifice to help out.  I'm not interrupting my life or giving away money that I can't afford to give.  I'm just doing what I enjoy doing and if that makes someone else happy, then that's a bonus.
Kevin and kids answer questions after Lost and Found

So I was sitting there watching the film end and thinking about whether I'm being overly picky and critical.  But my gut was telling me this was a bit over the top.

And then the movie ended and one of the finders, who's from Anchorage, and his kids went to the front to answer questions.  Two things he said stood out:

  • Some people weren't interested in getting stuff back or even talking to us.   Wow, that certainly wasn't in the story.  We were told about a signed volley ball whose owner hadn't been found, but not about people who weren't interested, who didn't want to be 'helped.'
  • That he'd been contacted by the film makers and they were interested in his story and that they paid for his trip to Japan.   

OK.  That made more sense, because the returning of the found items and the meetings between the losers and the finders were all filmed.  So maybe that was my problem.  This was the story line for a film and the filmmakers found the folks to fit their story line.  Japan experiences disaster.  Debris crosses Pacific.  People find the debris and track down and return the debris.  What a wonderful heartwarming story.  But at least some of these folks wouldn't have gone to Japan on their own if they hadn't been encouraged and financed by the film makers.  And the film never mentioned the people who didn't want their stuff back and didn't want to meet or even talk to the people who found it.  Including that would have made this a much richer film.  But instead we got an, apparently, artificially sweetened feel good story.

It makes Ruth Ozeki's novel, A Tale For The Time Being, all the more remarkable with its richness and darkness.  This story, completed just before the tsunami hit, tells the story about a Japanese-Canadian who finds a teenage Japanese girl's diary on a beach in British Columbia.  She too wants to find the owner and return the diary.  But the story doesn't have the Disneyesque happily after after quality of Lost and Found.  The diary tells us very dark tales of life as a teenager in Japan.

That said, I have no criticism for any of the beach combers.  My sense was that they were each doing their thing and genuinely wanted to be helpful and that they all learned a lot and grew from these experiences. What I saw in the film makes me think the people returning stuff to Japan were themselves a bit overwhelmed by their reception. And it's up to the filmmakers to decide how to tell their story.  It's just that they told a story that didn't sit all that well with me. Their story put happy makeup onto a situation that wasn't nearly so happy.


  1. I'll go ahead and disagree with 85% of your post.

    The tragic stories told throughout the film by people who lived through the tsunami is in no way shape or form "Disneyesque." I don't even know where that descriptor comes from. The film never portrayed any tidy wrap-ups or blissful brides by getting back a buoy (or other item) from their previous life as your review seems to suggest. It did portray thanks given, but I'm not sure what you mean when you write the thankfulness was "embarrassing." Embarrassing to whom? To you the viewer? I wasn't embarrassed to watch people being overwhelmed that someone on the other side of the world took the time and energy to think about them, and care enough to return their things.

    The film portrays people who lost livelihoods and loved ones (18000 people!) in minutes, and this review kind of flippantly boils all that down to gift-giving and a criticism of happy endings. It's like you missed all the parts of the film with the Japanese people talking about how they were affected by the tsunami.

    Here's another thing from the Q&A that could have stood out: both Kevin and his kids (I forget their names) talked about starting out thinking it was just cool to find and return stuff. But that changed when they actually went to Japan, met people, and found out how much it meant to them. They've all been back multiple times since then, without the financial help of the filmmaker. Doesn't that speak volumes about what it means?

    I think your gift-giving analogy is a bit tangential to the point as well. If I return something that you lost, I'm not giving you a "gift," at least not in the sense of the word that you then go on to talk about with your references. The real point of the story (to me) is that it's not about the stuff. It's about human connections that people can make through stuff. But you don't address any of the friendships that were made throughout the film. Why not?

    The 15% of your review that I will agree with is that it was indeed interesting to hear that some people didn't want anything back. Presumably they didn't want to remember anything about that terrible day, and that's indeed a detail that I would have liked to seen portrayed in the film.

    Overall, it seems like you might be one of those people that think "there is no such thing as true altruism" — hence your implication that people returning these items is somehow worth less because it wasn't "any big sacrifice." The thing is, Steve, that what is a small sacrifice to you might mean a lot to someone else. If anything, that was made patently obvious in the film, but you seem to have missed that part too.

    1. Anon, I'm sure that most people who see this movie will agree much more with you than with me. Something didn't feel right with me watching the movie and the post was my attempt to figure out what it was.

      I agree with you that 'gift-giving' isn't exactly the right term, nor is 'charity.' I was trying to raise the issue of the helper-helped relationship. There's a lot more to think about here and I'm hoping to do it on a later post, but I wanted to thank you for recording you view here.
      The only thing I'll add is that I'm watching these films as film, not simply the story they tell. I'm sorting through my head once again the responsibility of a documentary film maker to, not necessarily tell the whole story, but at least to be straightforward about the boundaries they've set and whether there's more outside those boundaries.

      I think this is important in this day and age when we are getting so much filmed propaganda. We have to understand how to watch films critically, to be thinking about what has been left out and whether what’s left out is important to the story and what the viewer gets.

      Again, thanks for your comments and I hope you'll catch my follow up when I get to it.


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