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DOC NYC 2013: 'Sole Survivor' + 'Things Left Behind'

Two documentaries explore the circuitous processes of remembering and forgetting, how these shape both collective and individual experiences.

Sole Survivor

Director: Ky Dickens
Cast: George Lamson, Jr., Hannah Lamson, Bahia Bakari. Kassim Bakari, Jim Polehinke, Ida Polehinke, Amy Clay
Rated: NR
Studio: Yellow Wing Productions, CNN FILMS
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-15 (DOC NYC)

Things Left Behind

Director: Linda Hoaglund
Cast: Miyako Ishiuchi, Takeo Yamashiro, Michiko Sakata, Karen Duffek
Rated: NR
Studio: NHK Enterprises
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-17 (DOC NYC)
"I feel like something came back to life."

-- Miyako Ishiuchi

Miyako Ishiuchi takes photographs for a living. Born in Japan two years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, her images have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. That she calls her work "taking" draws attention to the process of photography, its delicate straddling of past and present, its framing of stories so they might be at once remembered and forgotten.

The process revealed in Ishiuchi's photographs drives Linda Hoaglund's Things Left Behind, screening at DOC NYC 2013. Another version of the process is visible in another documentary at the festival, Sole Survivor, looking at the phenomenon of sole survivors of plane crashes. Ky Dickens' film -- airing next year on CNN -- includes interviews with several of this small collection of individuals (only 14 in the world), with a focus on George Lamson, Jr., who lived through the 1985 crash of Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 in Reno, Nevada when he was just 17 years old. As tends to happen in these cases, he became something of a celebrity at the time, and the documentary includes bits of interviews and news reports, showing the boy in casts and bandages, his face and body broken even as he smiles, as he says now, "just happy to be alive." But even if, as Jane Pauley puts it, "Of all the gamblers on that plane, sir, you are the luckiest," being a sole survivor brings with it particular burdens, too.

These burdens have to do with trauma, of course, as well as guilt over being the only one to live, to be able to endure that trauma. As it turns out, most sole survivors are young (the film offers no guesses at why this might be), which means they usually lose family members on the flight. Immediate changes for them can involve relocating to new homes or living with new families, whether relatives or not. If George's case is, in this sense, "typical" (of an extraordinary, utterly atypical experience), that of Jim Polehinke is absolutely not.

The first officer on Comair Flight 5191, which crashed during takeoff at Blue Grass Airport near Lexington, Kentucky in 2006, Polehinke to this day feels responsible for his passengers, a feeling reinforced by an NTSB investigation that found fault with decisions made by Jim and his pilot, Jeff Clay. This even as the understaffed control tower cleared the plane to take off from the wrong runway. "They wanted somebody to blame," says Jim's wife Ida, who goes on to recount their emotional trials, on top of Jim's physical challenges.

Like guilt, blame is one means for the living to manage the past. Cecelia Crocker, who survived a crash when she was just four, is least inclined to seek out pieces of that past event, to meet relatives of the dead or other sole survivors, shows the tattoo of a plane she has on her wrist, "So I can remember where I come from," a phrase that resonates in difficult ways. Jim reveals that he's been depressed and that he self-medicated; George spent years wanting to contact "the relatives of" Flight 203, but unable to do so because he feared they would judge him for not doing "enough" with his life, the miracle he was granted when their loved ones were not.

Sole Survivor shows him making these efforts -- montages of phone calls and emails, as well as several meetings -- as well as his attempts to connect with other sole survivors. If these efforts constitute something like a plot for the film, and if their representation is occasionally sentimental (piano on the soundtrack, the camera hovering too near an embrace or awkward conversation in a cozy living room), the movie also gestures toward what cannot be represented or articulated, that experience that sole survivors can only know or begin to share with one another.

It's this gesture, as the camera shows George and Hannah meeting with Bahia Bakari and her father Kassim. She was the sole survivor of Yemenia Flight 626, which crashed into the Indian Ocean in 2009, killing 152 other people, including her mother. Like George 24 years earlier, she became a sensational media story, dubbed "la miraculée." If the montage of her visit with the Lamsons is trite -- they play table tennis, walk on the beach, and show each other their scars -- the film also suggests here the utter mystery of their experiences, their desire to share it, their earnest sense of connection, and their essential aloneness, too.

Even more compellingly, the film also suggests the frankly bizarre accounts of these experiences, on television, in headlines, and increasingly, on the internet. Looking after her young daughters, Jeff's widow Amy Case observes, "Everything is preserved forever, everything's on the internet." She's talking about the assessment of her husband's culpability in the crash, but even for Bahia or other survivors who might become celebrities now, the excessive access to and reshaping of stories, makes incessant the judgment George so feared.

Things Left Behind (2013)

And so Sole Survivor considers not only the initial trauma, however elusive, intimate, and ultimately private it may be, but also its various and uneven public evocations, that is, their ways of remembering and forgetting at once. Things Left Behind considers a similar process in what might be called exquisite detail. Most obviously, this detail is layered into Ishiuchi's gorgeous work, photographs of clothing that frame and present items donated to Hiroshima's archives -- shoes, coats, pants, and slips -- so that they seem at once still and in motion, remote and too close. In turn, the photos of the objects become objects, installed on gallery walls, and then again, rendered in Hoaglund's film, which features long takes of visitors gazing on the photos, talking about them, responding to them, as well as frames that show how Ishiuchi does her own framing, leaning over or near a kimono laid out on the floor or against a lighted wall.

As Ishiuchi discusses her own process, she underscores her effort to maintain the past, not so much to preserve or contain it, but to let it loose into the present, to expose students and young mothers and security officers outside of Japan to the history that haunts that nation. This even "after the disaster at Fukushima," when, she says, "I realized that nothing has changed since Hiroshima." The excesses represented by Hiroshima -- the event, the place, and the word -- remain at some level unacknowledged (when Ishiuchi's show, "Hiroshima," goes to Vancouver, she learns of an apology by Canadians to Japan, for its mining of the uranium used in the bomb, and she notes as well, "America never apologized"), and they're re-invoked by the nuclear plant catastrophe. For Things Left Behind, the question is not so much who might be blamed, but rather, who is lost.

After showing photo after photo of dresses, so gauzy-thin and burned and fragile-seeming despite their very existence after a nuclear explosion, she speaks names, noting the individuals who once wore these jackets and slippers when they were lost. The detail is at once abstract and profound, visceral and ethereal and jarring. The layers here mix experience and art, sense and chaos. And when these images are juxtaposed with interviews with Hiroshima survivors, the film offers yet another layer. Moved from Japan to Canada, Takeo Yamashiro remembers being singled out. "When people found out I was a survivor," he says, they were surprised, they treated him differently. "That's when I realized for the first time that objectively speaking, I'm an abnormal human being."

What makes him "abnormal," is that he lived, that he embodies collective memories for others, and that he remains so wholly other in that embodiment. As much as Ishiuchi's photos might allude to what's lost, Takeo Yamashiro remains at once lost and not.

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