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Mar 28, 2009

Interview: Mirjan van Veelen

by editor


In her latest film Megumi, Mirjam van Veelen tells a story of Megumi Yokota, a 13-year old Japanese girl, kidnapped by the North Korean spies. She talks to Kamila Kuc about the feelings of pain and loss it caused Megumi’s family and how she wanted to express this in the film.

Kamila Kuc: Megumi is a very moving story of parents searching for their daughter who disappeared over 30 years ago…How did you come across this tragic and intriguing story? Were you aware of Abduction: The Story of Megumi Yakoto, made in 2006 by Chris Sheridan and his wife Patty Kim, produced by Jane Campion?

Mirjam van Veelen: In September 2002 I read an article about the kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens and the confession of it by the North Korean leader. It was in the Dutch Newspaper.   I was immediately touched by Megumi Yokota’s story, who was the youngest one taken. I saved the article and a couple of months later I started to do research. It was Spring 2003.

I think this subject inspired a lot of filmmakers. There are 4 films in total, my film being the third.

The first one was  “Kidnapped!” (2005). In my opinion this wasn’t a documentary but a composition of fragments that had been already broadcasted on Japanese TV.  A very useful way of bringing the subject to the attention of an international audience. The second one, “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story” (2006) was released just before I was about to shoot my own film. I didn’t expect a second film to be made and cried when I heard about it but went to see it. It is a well-made 90min long documentary. If you want to get to know all the facts, the historical and political background of the kidnappings and the efforts of all the families to get their children back, I would recommend to see it.

The third one is “Megumi” (2008). I was always interested in the human side of the story: How, as a parent, do you survive this tragic loss of your 13-year old child? This was my leading question. I concentrate only on the things you need to feel: the pain, loss and grief. For me films that explain everything are boring; I guess films that don’t will have more effect on the audience because the audience have the possibility to think themselves.

The Anime, released in 2008 is made after the book the mother of Megumi Yokota wrote: “My daughter, I will come and save you”. You can see it online. It would be interesting to show all 4 the films in a row. They are about the same subject, but are completely different.

KK: Until this day it is not clear what actually happened to Megumi and whether she is still alive. The North Korean government claims that she got married, had a daughter and then hung herself due to mental problems she suffered from. But then they sent a can of ashes that were not Megumi’s…

MV: There are many unsolved mysteries about the whereabouts of Megumi Yokota. The only thing that is 100% sure is that she was abducted to North Korea: the DNA of her daughter born in North-Korea matched exactly with the DNA of Megumi’s mother.

The fact that there is no proof of her death (ashes) means in fact that she is still alive. There are too many unsolved mysteries, too many lies.

KK: How was Megumi and what happened to her? What is the latest news?

MV: She was an intelligent girl and she was kidnapped when she was still a child so she had not had enough time to assimilate into her new world.  Megumi Yokota was also the only one who taught Japanese in the spy institute in North Korea. This indicates that she may have a high position now, which means that she has too much information ever to return to Japan.

The latest news came up last year. America announced to remove North Korea from the Axis of Evil after Pyongyang agreed to disable its main nuclear facilities and to open the dossiers from all the abductees. But then the North Korea decided not to disable their facilities and…nothing happened.

KK: It is truly heart breaking watching Megumi’s parents still searching for her. What do you think happened to her and do you really believe she is still alive? Why would she not contact her parents then? Do you really believe she is still alive?

MV: It is impossible to say what really happened to Megumi Yokota but I think in general, parents instinctively feel if their child is alive or not. The Yokota parents are so convinced that she is still alive thus it didn’t take me long to start to believe it too.

KK: Why do you think she never gave a sign of live?

MV: She may have tried but it would have been almost impossible. North Korea has a dictatorial regime, people live in fear plus it’s isolated from the rest of the world. Even the 5 Japanese that returned didn’t dare to say what really happened to Megumi Yokota.

KK: Watching parents looking at a wedding picture of a woman who could be Megumi seems rather uncanny, considering that the way you constructed the film makes the viewer feel like Megumi is in the film and that she is alive.

MV: Thanks. My aim was to show that Megumi Yokota is still alive so I am happy to read I succeeded in that. Did you realize that when we see the wedding photo it is the first time in the film we see a grown up Megumi Yokota? Before that she is always 13 years old, because she never became older for her parents.

KK: The film subtly explores the relationship between North Korea and Japan, best described by one of Megumi’s brothers who says that North Korea ‘always lies.’ Was that your intention or was it supposed to be just a backdrop for the story?

MV: It’s both I think, though I never intended to say North Korea or Japan is wrong or right.
Those words show the brothers’ anger and helplessness. You see also that their lives are destroyed too. And then what one brother says is right, North Korea has been telling them only lies: they denied for 5 years that they had ever heard about Megumi Yokota before they admitted it in 2002. They then came up with Megumi’s death and daughter at the same time. About the father, there was no sign till it was discovered by accident that he was abducted from South Korea. The husband told us that the Japanese allegation that Megumi had died is true indeed and that he had buried her body (they don’t do that in Korea…) but that he missed her so much that he decided to dig her bones and burn them to ashes to keep her close with him at home. Weird story. Those ashes were supposed to be the ashes that were send to Japan… and so on. Lies.

KK: Why did you not want to appear in the film?

MV: At first I cannot act. And then in the story itself the border between what is real and what’s fiction is unclear so I tried to find a way to express that in film by having to actresses.

KK: How would you best describe your film’s genre?

MV: Normally I call it film. I can’t help it but I don’t care about genres. In general I don’t care that much about what’s real and what’s not. Life is too complex for that. I do however care about what you really can feel or not and try to express that in my films. If we have to categorize “Megumi” I would say it’s a poetical film because poetry is the best way to express reality and that’s what I do.

KK: You have your own production company, Mirfilm. What are the origins of the name?

MV: I founded Mirfilm in 1996. I just came back from Russia where I lived for 3 years. I went there to make my first film. In cooperation with the famous Lenfilm studios in Leningrad …and in Moscow you had Mosfilm and Mir means in Russian Peace and Mir was also the shuttle that flew to the moon and then of course they are the first 3 letters of my name so the name of my company became Mirfilm. I mainly produce my own films there. However, I wouldn’t mind working with a producer for my next film though.

To read a review of the film, click here.

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