Top of the Docs #32 – ‘Sennan Asbestos Disaster’ (2016)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. This month we are focusing on the films of Kazuo Hara!

Court cases are a long and arduous process, not least for the victims. What can make this process all the harder is when one comes up against an institution or corporation, something with more power and resources than you could hope to amass. The scales are tilted, and suddenly justice doesn’t look all that blind. Some court cases take weeks, others months. In his 2016 documentary Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Kazuo Hara tracks the eight-year long struggle of people seeking state compensation for asbestos related damage in Sennan, Osaka.

Kazuo Hara is a Japanese documentary filmmaker who has made a name for himself for filming various quests for justice in post-war Japan. Usually these quests follow an eccentric character, or someone to hone into. What makes Sennan Asbestos Disaster different is that we are instead focusing on a cast of people, not one victim but a whole host of them. This also becomes one of the film’s more tragic aspects. As the film progresses along the trial’s epic quest for justice, we lose certain figures in the group to asbestos related complications. The director makes sure to tribute each victim as and when is appropriate throughout the course of the film. With the film running at almost four hours, we are given space to learn about each of the victims, what the case means for them, and what they have been through, making every death even more harrowing.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster is a perfect example of how political filmmaking need not always be aggressive or didactic. Simply through providing footage of the victims, their communications, and when possible interactions with the state, Kazuo Hara creates an organic bond between subject and spectator, without needing to resort to a more traditionally political style of filmmaking. This allows the film to have an almost quiet rage, respectful of the loss and upset being caused to the victims, but quietly angry at their mistreatment. 

Although a difficult and at times long watch, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is certainly a rewarding one. Given the amount of injustice and state mismanagement present across the globe at the current moment, this documentary is the perfect display of the struggles of fighting against bureaucratic power, whilst also providing a glimmer of hope. Being from the UK, I could not help but think of the similarly arduous journeys the families who suffered at Grenfell or the Hillsborough disaster must be going through. It is almost impossible to imagine. And yet Kazuo Hara manages to make a film that captures a journey that words simply couldn’t. His film is masterful and reverent. It shows that although documentaries focused on tragedies can sometimes come across as vain, or a cash grab, they can also be incredibly thoughtful and tell stories that fiction would buckle under the weight of.

Trailer for Sennan Asbestos Disaster

Header image courtesy of Second Run