Two years ago this month, the Tohoku earthquake literally threw the ocean.
Striking just after two o'clock in the afternoon (Japan Standard Time), the 9-magnitude mega quake lasted six minutes, its force displacing the Pacific from a depth of 30 kilometers, well beneath the ocean bedrock. Forty-metre waves fanned out with the destructive power of a nuclear explosion.
Sixteen thousand deaths later, western beaches of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska stand as a testament to the worst natural disaster in recent history, the memory washing ashore, one lonely pool of debris at a time. But as a word, "debris" comes off as an understatement. To Toronto documentary filmmakers John Choi and Nicolina Lanni, it's something more meaningful: evidence of humanity.
For more than a year, they've been trolling the Pacific coastline, communities and villages of the U.S. and Canada that became the final resting place of the tsunami. And continues - hopefully - with the pair's departure to Japan this summer to reunite families with their belongings. Everything from cars and boats to smaller personal items, as simple as clothing, stands to be reunited with the last mortal connections to their owners. "For us, [the idea] seemed really far-fetched," Lanni told NOW recently.
Eventually, the pair made contact with the ranks of oceanographers, beachcombers, surfers and environmentalists that became the documentary's panel of experts. From there, they developed the nuts and bolts of how to make the idea work.
"I started to speak with the first people who found something," she said. "And then when we got down to the beach and held one of those items for the first time, it changed everything for me."
The enormity of what they were dealing with them struck hard.
"We became overwhelmed with the impact of what had happened," Lanni says, "and just decided to go with it, not really sure how many stories we would get out of it."
The Tohoku catastrophe claimed a heartbreaking number of lives. And though the scouring of western shorelines has often resulted in relatively unremarkable findings, there have been moments that the tragedy has been brought home especially hard. Some 25 items have been collected, waiting to be reconnected with Japanese families. But that number is changing by the day with the high season and trade winds coming in.
Choi describes a little girl's slipper, washed up the shores of Kamilo Beach. "The slipper was violently chewed at its heel, and the plastic was visibly altered by the salt water. I can imagine if that were my daughter's, I would immediately recognize it. That swell of emotion is intense."
Lanni, meanwhile, recalls other tragic subject matter - a workers' white construction helmet.
"It was found by a man whose name is Mark McQuinn, and he's from Washington, one of the beachcombers. The crazy thing about this hat is that...it belonged to one of the crewmembers on this massive fishing vessel lost in the tsunami. They went out to sea, not too far from shore, and it was essentially just lost. The ship has never been found."
Inside the hat are snatches of human hair, all sticking to the circumference of the rim.