OF LOVE AND LAW is a documentary, currently crowdfunding, about Japan’s first LGBT law firm, run by partners Fumi and Kazu, and looking at issues including adoption, same sex partnerships and undocumented people. We talked film-raising with the international team behind the film: director Hikaru Toda, producer Elhum Shakerifar, and co-producer Estelle Robin You.
Can you tell us about OF LOVE AND LAW? How did the project come into being – and how did you build the team?
DIRECTOR HIKARU: I met the lawyers a few years ago when I was filming in Osaka. Japan is a homogenous society with strict social codes and ideals governed by traditional and conservative values. To be different in a homogenous society means that you are expected to hide your difference for the sake of collective peace of mind. To me, the lawyers and the people who come to them for help represent the voices for change. They are risk takers who decided to face the consequence for breaking their silence, and there are legal implications to this as well. The lawyers believe in the law as a vehicle for change but are also frustrated with the outdated and often contradictory legal system that doesn’t take into account the lives of the few they represent both in court and in their personal lives.
For me, having grown up in Holland, and so as an outsider coming into Japan, I feel the deep responsibility to communicate the realities that silence the people challenging it. I believe the themes in the film are universal – people fighting to be who they are, seeking for acceptance and for love. Love for each other but perhaps more importantly for themselves – something the lawyers embody in their search for a family of their own while battling with depression. I am compelled to tell the story that they represent – of strength that comes from accepting others and our own difference and weaknesses.
How do you make things work with a mixed team of parents/carers and non-parents/carers?
CO PRODUCER ESTELLE: I am a mother of two, 8 and 11. I travel very regularly for projects, but I try not to leave for too long each time. Therefore, in the team, I am often the last one to arrive and the first one to leave, with less time to go with the flow and see what happens, less time to see films, to visit, to network… everything is usually very intense, has to be efficient, but I never forget to have fun! When in the office, or in my home city (Nantes), I try to be flexible and arrange for Skype conversations outside of office hours if necessary, including weekends, so that everything can move forward. So my kids see the faces of the teams I work with, they hear them speak in English, they ask questions about the films, my husband does too. Sometimes they couldn’t care less, sometimes they show a lot of interest, depending of where they are at in their own lives!
PRODUCER ELHUM: On a very international co-production like this one, there are many things to take into consideration – sometimes we’re communicating across four time-zones (US – France – UK – Japan) and so naturally you are mindful of each person’ lifestyles and worlds. Some of our team are parents and carers, others aren’t – for example Estelle is a working mother of two, whilst our editor Takeshi is a stay at home dad – but I think that the diversity of our experiences feeds into the narrative we will follow in the film, and add to it’s richness.
What insights does this team balance bring to the project – including insights about the range and meaning of family lives and caring work?
PRODUCER ELHUM: Working on a documentary film that follows real people in real time requires a flexible approach to filmmaking. Our team is united in its values, and I think the diversity of our individual family lives and situations reflect both the openness necessary to logistically make such a film as well as how those values can influence what you seek to underline in your work. In our different ways, our lives have all been influenced by different understandings of family – personally I could say that my family unit is ‘adopted’ into a large Irish family, and this has been one of the most defining elements of my life and identity. Whilst this reality is second nature to our family, some people struggle to understand how this works and bring it back to a basic question of blood relations, which always amazes me because it’s based on an assumption that there’s only one way to understand family.
Why is it important to tell more diverse stories about who families are and how they work – in Japan, and internationally?
DIRECTOR HIKARU The concept of family is particularly important in Japan as it is the smallest social unit and is seen as providing the fundamental values with which the society is structured. As such, there is a strong sense of what a family should be and a restrictive family and marriage laws that defines family as married men and women bearing children. Individuals are registered in Japan on family registries called ‘koseki’ and falling outside of the traditional family structure can lead to individuals who are unregistered, creating stateless individuals whose basic human rights are unprotected as they are considered to be non existent in the eyes of the law and alienated from society at large.
It is important to show diverse ways in which families can exist in contemporary Japan to challenge the archaic law that ends up punishing the individuals, particularly mothers and children who doesn’t fall under the strict family structure. It is the same law that restricts rights of the women which forms the basis of gender inequality that exists in Japan. As the law only considers married men and women as the basis of a family, same sex couples are ignored by law. This leads to complications with inheritance, hospital visitations, renting and buying a house together, opening a joint account etc, as well as making adoption by same sex couples virtually impossible.
CO PRODUCER ESTELLE: I am an adoptive parent – both my kids were adopted (from Ethiopia). For them, for their school friends, for the parents, teachers, for society in general, I feel it is hugely important to portray families in a diverse way, whether in books, films, news articles… I live in France, which is more diverse and open than Japan in LGBT, adoption, family law… and even I find it really oppressive sometimes, how the “norm” is formatting people’s views on things. We are a “mixed” family, with a house dad, a working mum (working in film on top of everything else), so we are not totally ‘standard’. So I can imagine how difficult it can be in Japan to be out of the box, and I hugely admire the lawyers for their standing up for freedom.
Why do you think that adoption and LGBT parents have been under-represented and even mis-represented in film and TV?
DIRECTOR HIKARU: It is underrepresented because the current laws surrounding adoption only allows adoption by married men and women. Adoption does happen in small numbers but realities surrounding adoption by same sex ‘couples’ (adoption can only happen as an individual as same sex couples have no legal entity in Japan) are largely unknown as many fear their sexuality will work against their adoption process.
Adoption itself functions on a entirely different level in Japan as the common adoption is primarily for inheritance purpose instead of it being for childcare like in the western societies. Adopting children is only allowed for children under 6 years old and for parents who are married men and women.
Same sex couples use the current adoption system to adopt each other to gain legal status so they can protect their joint possessions and leave inheritance to the partner and not to the next of kin assigned by the family law that restricts family ties to blood relations.
CO PRODUCER ESTELLE I am not sure, if I would put it in terms of quantity, but at least they are always represented in an ‘extreme’ or ‘subject related’ role, whether in comedy or drama, animation or documentary, they are always portrayed as out of the norm, they are in the films because they are gay or adoptive, and not just as “protagonists”. They have to be either a successful or a traumatic story elements. As an adoptive parent, I usually look for books to approach the issues related to adoption. The stories are very often with non-human characters (animals, aliens whatever!), I guess that helps talking about things in a round-about way with children. I think the growing movement of making docs for kids is really a good idea, and I need to start diving into it myself, I really think this is where it must start.
How do national film industries differ in how they welcome (or don’t welcome) diversity, including how they support (or don’t support) parents and carers?
PRODUCER ELHUM: (Good but difficult question!) It’s hard to say but whatever your situation and wherever you live, the support of your own structure will enable you to combine work and home life.
What would you most like to see change about the film industry? What changes would help you most in pursuing your practice sustainably?
PRODUCER ELHUM: Filmmaking is telling stories, so I would like to see and ensure that a diverse range of people are enabled to tell stories. I don’t think diversity of income is talked about enough, and feel that it is one of the biggest barriers to hearing diverse stories. I have huge respect for working parents in this industry and particular in documentary – juggling an often frugal career like creative documentary making, which relies on huge personal investment in terms of time, energy and empathy, with balancing a family life or raising a child is hugely challenging. To my mind it is a near impossible feat if you cannot rely on an extended family to support you with childcare and a partner who can help pay the rent.
If we cannot safeguard the voices of those who don’t have an extended family or a wealthy partner, then we will lose them to the detriment of our society and the voices that will come to reflect it, and enable it to reflect on itself. Sustainability is a big question for documentary filmmakers – you might put your all and remortgage your house for the first film in the hope that it will be your calling card for the future, but there is no guarantee. And it’s not something you would do twice.
What are the positives for you about crowdfunding? Do you think this new way of making films can particularly support a more inclusive film culture and more diverse filmmakers?
PRODUCER ELHUM: Crowd-funding is a great way to gather an audience around your film – it’s interesting, because you get feedback from people – often from unexpected places – and this is both precious information about who will want to see your finished film, which you can also use to prove the existing audience and value of the film, should that become necessary later down the line.
Crowd-funding also enables you to make the film you want to make, and this does enable a more inclusive film culture because you aren’t relying on any gatekeepers to give you the go ahead to develop your idea, you’re building the resources to make it your own way, and if relevant taking it to them once its finished and your vision is clear.
Finally, and very importantly, crowd-funding has given us great energy to keep going. Documentary filmmaking can be a long process and so for us in the edit, it’s a wonderful energy boost to see people gather around this and support us to finish making the film – fingers crossed we can get to that finish line!