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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001
The truth about the 'enemies of the people'
For the past month there's been a lot of talk about how much our sense of the world has changed since the events of Sept. 11. Actually, it's mainly changed for Americans, but as someone once said: When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.
Given this atmosphere of increased unease, the premiere of Tatsuya Mori's video documentary, "A2," at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last weekend, took on a special meaning. The 130-minute work, a sequel to "A," Mori's rarely screened video documentary about Aum Shinrikyo, covers the cult's activities in 1999 and 2000, right after it changed its name to Aleph.
In the final scene, Mori sits with the cult's PR director and tells him he believes all of Japan's recent social problems started on the day several Aum members released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The sense of well-being that the Japanese traditionally enjoyed was destroyed that day and will never return.
It's the most startling moment in a startling film, not so much because Mori is bold enough to say this to a cultist's face, but because the man doesn't deny it.
According to an interview in the festival's Daily Bulletin, the filmmaker had not planned a sequel, since "I was quite satisfied with 'A.' " However, following the government's introduction of surveillance laws aimed at group activities, specifically Aum's, and in light of the realization that no community in Japan will allow the group to reside within its borders, Mori paid a visit to Aum headquarters and "things just seemed to happen, so I started filming again."
Mori isn't the only person who is troubled by the continuing demonization of Aum, but such concern has mostly been based on intuition and induction, since the public has no direct window on what is taking place, either within the cult or within the organizations seeking to ban it. The media, after all, is party to the demonization.
The director, who calls himself a narcissist, is unsympathetic to either side. Not being attached to any organization, he was permitted to enter the cult's facilities, interview anyone he pleased and observe their activities.
Mori's dissociated -- but by no means disinterested -- camera picks up the media as a distinct accomplice in Aleph's persecution, even when its intention seems to be the opposite. An earnest young Asahi Shimbun reporter explains to cult members that he is troubled by the hysteria that infects the coverage of the group and has tried to be unbiased in his articles, but his editors "always rewrite them." When Aleph executives visit a victim of the group's 1994 gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, to offer an official apology, a TBS crew is there at the victim's invitation, and the various parties discuss how best to proceed for the sake of the cameras.
But it's the scenes that do not involve the media that point to how distorted Aum coverage has been. Mori spent a lot of time at a training facility in Gunma, which was surrounded by local "observers" who set up tents and prefab structures to make sure the cult wasn't up to any funny business. Over a period of several months, the followers and the observers became friends. A local and a cultist exchange religious textbooks over the wall of the facility. When the observers quit, the cult helps them dismantle their tents. Another local, with tears in his eyes, tells a departing Aleph executive that he will miss him.
If this sounds ridiculous, it's because it is ridiculous. The large audience that watched the film in Yamagata roared with laughter during many scenes, especially those involving rightwing nationalists. Viewing the cult through Mori's privileged lens clarifies how inconsequential the group really is and how unbalanced our fears are.
Still, the fact remains: Aum's supreme leader attempted mass murder. At one point, Mori confronts a follower with the all-important question: What if Asahara had asked you to carry a bag of liquid on to a subway car? Would you have done it? The follower can't answer, which is an unsettling answer in itself.
Mori insists, however, that the entire story requires understanding, and that once you see things as they are, the popular belief that "Aum equals the enemy of the people" loses all justification.
The followers are less notable for their devotion than for their awkwardness and lack of social skills. ("We seem to attract a lot of depressives," one follower admitted.) The ultimate goal is to cut all worldly attachments, but most of the cultists seem clearly incapable of doing so. Mori is always pestering them about their food, which is supposed to be bland. "This isn't that bad," one follower says hopefully, handing him a bowl of instant mashed potatoes. Mori takes a spoonful and says, "It's absolutely revolting." The other followers giggle.
"A2" won the Citizens' Prize at the festival, which is determined not by the jury but by ballots filled out by festivalgoers. However, during the post-screening Q&A session, the director said that he doesn't expect it to be shown on TV, which is the medium it was made for. "A" has never been broadcast in Japan, either, even though -- given their subject matter -- both documentaries would surely attract large audiences.
While he's a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, Mori said that one of the purposes of "A2" is to show that "the world is richer and people kinder than you think." The fact that such an opinion is now considered subversive shows just how much the world has changed for the worse.