Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story premiers on PBS, June 19th. ABDUCTION is the true story of a 13-year-old Japanese girl kidnapped by North Korean spies in 1977, and her parents’ 30-year battle to bring her home. It was directed by Chris Sheridan (Director, Writer, Producer) and his wife Patty Kim (Director, Writer, Producer). In the interview Chris talks about the filmmaking experience.
ASIANCE: What are your backgrounds?
Chris: We are both Canadian. We’ve lived in the U.S. for 10 years, wow. We moved to the U.S. to work here. Patty and I both work in television. We work for National Geographic. I also work for CBS news and CNN, Australian television, Danish Television. I am a TV producer.
ASIANCE: What made you make the film Abduction, as a story that is relatively unknown in the West?
Chris: That’s a good question because we certainly didn’t know anything about it until 2002. In 2002 is when Prime Minister Koizumi went to North Korea for the first time. It made the international papers including the newspapers in the U.S. My wife, Patty, read about it in a newspaper I think the Washington Post. She read about the meeting and also the fact that Kim Jong II admitted that they had taken 13 Japanese people. And we were both totally shocked. We were even more shocked when we learned that one of the victims was a 13-year old girl. And that kind of started our interest in it. We were just so moved by this story that we wanted to know more. We started to look into it and do a bit more research, and here we are today. So initially it started from a newspaper article.
ASIANCE: What was the process of filming, in Japan and before?
Chris: We learned about it in 2002 but really didn’t take it seriously enough to want to actually do a film for another year and a half. We had started to do a bit of research and were both working for National Geographic at the time. In 2004 we had a window of opportunity to do something so over the course of the next year we went to Japan several times, shot the story, and gathered information we needed. Then by January 2006 was the first time we showed it. So you could say it was a two-year process actually making the film itself. From the first time we read about it until the time it made it to the big screen I guess it was about 3 and a half years.
ASIANCE: Did it receive the expected attention and emotional response you intended?
Chris: When you make a film, especially a film like this, where it is in Japan and told by people from Japan, in a different language, we were really taking a risk because we felt this family was wonderful people that deserved to have their story told, but you never really know how the audience will connect until you show the film.
It was always our hope to have people connect with the Western audience. When we first showed it January 2006 at Sundance it was really well received. It was sold out and everything. People were very moved and from there on, it was just the same story in every screening. People were very moved and touched by the story. They felt a mixture of sadness, and anger, and shock and hope because it is a very hopeful film too. The response to be honest was much greater than we ever could have imagined. The result: it has been shown all over the world in more than 20 countries now. It has been shown on BBC in England, CBC in Canada. It is going to be on PBS as you know, in the U.S. It was in theaters all across Japan, so we were really amazed by the tremendous response it got and quite pleased for the family in the film.
ASIANCE: In the film there are many conflicting pieces of evidence about Megumi’s situation. Is there any recent evidence after the making of the film that Megumi may be alive and well, so many years after her abduction?
Chris: That’s a good question. The thing about Megumi’s situation has been there are a lot of rumors that have come out of North Korea that are constantly floating around about her situation. There have been stories about her situation, people come out of North Korea and say they’ve seen her alive, or spotted here once in a while. But it’s impossible to corroborate the story. There are certainly her parents who believe strongly she is alive and think it’s just a matter of time before she comes back but you know, there hasn’t been any concrete evidence as of late to show if she’s either alive or dead. We just don’t know unfortunately. But I believe in my heart she’s alive and many other people do. But in the situation now too, the North Koreans have shut down any communication on the idea.
Anderson Cooper profiles the Megumi Yokota story
ASIANCE: What were the conditions in which she lived and how did she come to have a child and husband in North Korea, while captive? (In the film one theory was she had been forced to teach Japanese to Kim Jong II’s children, and more.)
Chris: From various reports, from the five people that came back, there have been some indications of how she lived. From those people, we know they all lived better than the average North Korean. They had better lives. Certainly they were not happy they were there, but their conditions were a bit better. They were closely watched by the North Koreans. There was one woman of the five people who returned. She lived with Megumi a bit when they were first kidnapped and had celebrated her birthday with her, that sort of thing. But that’s all we really know.
In terms of what we know about the other 8 people if they are alive or dead, the five people have not expressed information publicly whether they are alive or dead. About her daughter, how she had her, it was a big mystery that the Japanese people all wanted to know. In 2006, the North Koreans brought a man Kim Young Nam out of the shadows, so to speak, and is the husband of Megumi. DNA evidence confirms he is the father of her daughter. Basically he came out in North Korea in a press conference and reasserted she is dead. Of course many people were skeptical about that, that he was saying it for North Korea. Interestingly he is a South Korean who was kidnapped by North Koreans. It was interesting that Megumi and him were paired together and had a child.
ASIANCE: In the film there is one scene where a young woman says “Japan did the same thing to Korea” 60 years ago. What was the motivation for this issue or subject in the film? It was used very interestingly, was it meant to be diplomatic?
Chris: Essentially what the young woman was referring to is something that is always raised in the context of the abduction, which is the history between Japan and North Korea. We certainly didn’t want to make the film about the history between Japan and North Korea; we didn’t want to make a political, historical or investigative film. We just wanted to make a film about the family’s fight to get their daughter back but we also didn’t want to ignore that this is an element in the story and that in the early part of the century, Japan occupied the Korean peninsula and it was a very unpleasant experience for many Koreans. So that woman was basically referring to the argument that, and it is totally false, that it is hard to sympathize, when Koreans were abducted by the Japanese many years ago.
Of course, the two have nothing to do with each other. They are not related, but because of the tension between the two countries and because these feelings exist it kind of gets in the way of making progress in the issues of the abductions, so that’s kind of what she was referring to. If you ask me there is an interesting generational thing happening in those two scenes because you see an older man stand up and say “let’s get them” and then this woman who is representing the younger generation who is a little more, I don’t know the word but, pontificating, thinking more about the social and political context in which the abductions exist.
ASIANCE: North Korea is so closed off to Westerners, were you able to learn more about the situation while filming?
Chris: We’ve learned more about North Korea and how dire the situations are there. We mentioned how the Japanese abductees lived a life that was better than the average people in North Korea and that’s not saying much because they were living a lifestyle we would consider poor in the U.S. We absolutely did learn a lot more about the situation in North Korea.
ASIANCE: In the film it was said the people from Japan were abducted for North Korean spies to learn about Japanese culture and imitate it. Can you explain more about this phenomenon?
Chris: Although the North Koreans never said why they were taken, the common theory and belief is they were taken so they could basically teach Japanese language and culture to North Korean spies, who would then take on missions around the world pretending to be Japanese. Many of the people were taken essentially to train the spies in the ways of the Japanese. Now, as much as they would not like to admit sometimes, Japanese and Koreans sometimes do look very much alike so it would be easy for a Korean person to walk around in Japan and be considered Japanese if they knew how to act and sound that way. It is why they essentially took average, every day people to North Korea because they wanted to emulate the characteristics.
ASIANCE: Were you emotional while making the movie?
Chris: We became very emotional ourselves because we saw these parents of real people and got to know them pretty well. What was interesting for us is we started filming and got to know them as the people in front of our camera. But later on we also received the old archived film from a Japanese television station.
We saw, particularly when Mrs. Yokota is on TV in 1979 pleading for someone out there to tell her something about her daughter, it just broke our hearts. We had seen this elderly woman with the gray hair, and then to see her 25 years earlier with jet black hair, looking so young, it just told us how long these people had waited for some kind of answer about their daughter and that was a very emotional moment for Patty and me, when we saw that. It really moved us. There were other scenes that were very emotional.
Of course when you are making a film like this you get emotionally attached but have to remember it is a film being made for people to appreciate for many different reasons so there is that element of distance you have to have. We maintained that distance in a way so everybody could understand. That was the biggest challenge for us was making it universally accepted.
ASIANCE: What do you want people to take away from the PBS premier, June 19th?
Chris: The reason we made this film was to move people, emotions. We wanted them to feel something in their hearts. And I think if that happened like it has the times we have shown it, then I feel we have done our job. When they’re also touched they ask the question, “what can I do to help?” We never made it with a solution in mind but with hope people would want to do something about it. So I think if people are moved in an emotional way that will be good. We’ve noticed there is no one group of people who are touched by it. People bring their kids to see the film. We want it to be a film across the spectrum that can touch many different people.
ASIANCE: Did many Asian Americans react a lot to the film?
Chris: Yeah, definitely. I think Japanese Americans in particular are very moved by it because they feel a connection to the Yokota family and connect culturally. Japanese people have tried for many years now to get Americans interested in the story. They talk about it, tell friends at work, people sympathize to an extent but never really have been able to imagine it as it takes place in a different country where people don’t speak English- so its hard for people in the U.S. to connect with the story, but this film gives the a chance to see exactly what those people were talking about all those years. I think it’s a boost for Japanese people who have worked hard to try to have others see what it is all about. I mean, certainly when we’ve shown it all over this country when there have been large Japanese audiences, in San Francisco, Boston, we’ve had a tremendous response and we’re happy about that. It lets people know there are other people out there who are not Japanese who care about the story and that’s important.
ASIANCE: There was one point in the film when the Prime Minister was telling the families there was much to be done to help them, but at the moment nuclear weapons were a bigger issue- can you talk about this important theme?
Chris: Certainly. What he was saying at the time and what has been a constant with the government is, Prime Minister Koizumi was basically telling the families, we understand there are many answers you need, but we are also dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons at the same time. That’s actually a really good point in the film because it puts the story into the context of the nuclear negotiations which continue even today and we have told audiences across this country and other countries that this story about Megumi is the story behind the nuclear negotiations.
It is the story that Americans need to know why there are tensions. Why North Korea gets in bad moods quickly. Why people may or may not know there is the Six Party talks between Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China and the United States and at those six Party talks, quite often, or almost every time, the Japanese bring up the topic of the abduction and it puts North Korea in a bad mood quickly and affects the whole mood of the talks. The outcome of these nuclear negotiations affects us here in the U.S. very much. It’s important people listen to this story and know it because it is a story that has much bigger ramifications for Asia and the United States and the world.
ASIANCE: Is there anything you would like to add?
Chris: Patty and I have a couple of things we’re working on. We want to make another documentary. We seem to get along, (laughter) because we’re husband and wife. This film Abduction was our first feature film together but we made it through and fought more than we ever have on anything else, but in the end it was totally worth it because we trust each other’s ideas and opinions. We plan to make more films. I do think it’s important for people to know it’s a really important story right now not just a few years ago because the nuclear talks with North Korea continue. As the world convinces North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, this story will be an issue under it all and it’s important people know that.
Hopefully you will get a chance to watch this film on June 19th on PBS. www.itvs.org