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“Uncanny Terrain” fund-raiser

A pair of Chicago indie filmmakers captures farmers in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear disaster.

OUT TO PASTURE Kajino milks some good cow footage in the nuclear evacuation zone.

One steamy day last July, Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski found themselves in Fukushima, Japan, hiding beneath a tarp in the back of a pickup truck full of cow feed. The farmer behind the wheel smuggled the filmmakers into a government-mandated 20-kilometer evacuation zone that became highly contaminated with radioactive cesium after a massive earthquake 43 miles off the city’s coast in March. The quake triggered tsunami waves that smashed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing meltdowns of three reactors.

Nearly all of the farmers who owned land in the area were forced to abandon their crops: rice, apples, chestnuts, cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes and the city’s famously juicy peaches. Livestock was either put down or left to starve. But this particular farmer had secured a permit to feed his cattle in the danger zone, keeping the animals alive for future scientific study.

“We weren’t thinking about the dangers,” Kajino, 37, says. “We were thinking, This is our only chance to get these wonderful images of this farmer risking his life to protect his animals.”

Kajino and Koziarski, who met in Ohio as film-school undergrads in 1997, had planned to travel to Japan to shoot a fictional film based on Kajino’s youth on a farm in central Japan. But as the two saw images of tens of thousands forced to leave their homes, they decided instead to spend five months capturing the struggle of the organic farmers whose ancestral land and livestock were contaminated by the nuclear disaster. “They allowed the nuclear power plant to be built,” Kajino says, “so many now see it as their responsibility to stay and help clean up or sustain the land for future generations.”

The filmmakers will screen a preview of their in-progress documentary, Uncanny Terrain, at a Sunday 5 fund-raising event. Donations will finance a second, two-month-long trip to Fukushima in March to document the one-year anniversary of the meltdown. They expect to release the film in 2013.

“A lot of people tried to talk us out of going to Fukushima,” recalls Koziarski, 36, who set aside freelance writing gigs for the Reader and TOC to make the film.

They arrived in June and stayed with a family of rice farmers who had been on their land for nine generations. “I remember the anxiety,” Koziarski says. “They immediately served us these wild vegetables harvested from the mountains which are known to quickly absorb cesium. We couldn’t say no; these people were opening their home to us.”

Early on in the filming, Kajino and Koziarski took preventative measures, donning surgical masks, drinking only bottled water and avoiding meat, milk and mushrooms—foods infamous for high cesium levels. They also carried a Geiger counter to test background radiation levels. But it wasn’t long before they let their guards down.

“You can’t see or smell the danger, so you forget,” Kajino says. “If you don’t see the Geiger counter number, it’s just regular life.”

Much of the drama the filmmakers captured occurred outside the evacuation zone, where farmers are caught in a strange purgatory: Their land is not polluted enough to earn them government compensation, yet it’s too polluted for the public to trust the crops. “The government allows farmers to grow food that’s pretty contaminated and still sell it,” Koziarski says, “so the public doesn’t trust it.”

“These farmers used to be the victims,” Kajino adds, “but now they’ve become like criminals in the public’s mind for growing food on bad land.”

Koziarski says the moral of Uncanny Terrain is that food and energy choices have consequences. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this is a case where that happens to be much more visible.”

High Concept Laboratories (1401 W Wabansia St) presents Fukushima: 1 Year After the Meltdown, a benefit for Uncanny Terrain, Sunday 5, 5–8pm. Donations accepted. RSVP (required) at uncannyterrain@gmail.com.

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