Will this documentary’s sex slave survivors ever get The Apology?

Debut filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung ­shares her ­experience with the ex-comfort women forced into prostitution, their ­relentless pursuit of an apology from the Japanese government and the source of her own passion about the project


THE APOLOGY directed by Tiffany Hsiung. 105 minutes. Screens April 30, 6:30 pm, Bloor Hot Docs, as part of the Big Ideas series, with Hsiung and Grandma Gil interviewed after the screening. Also screens May 1, 10:30 am, TIFF 1 May 8, 12:45 pm, Isabel Bader and 6:30 pm, Hart House. Rating: NNNN


Early on in Tiffany Hsiung’s exceptional first film, The Apology, young men can be seen screaming obscenities at protesters: “Whores, go home!” “Fuck you, commies!”

The target of their rage is a clutch of very elderly women who are picketing in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. They are former “comfort women,” a euphemism for females forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the Second World War.

They’ve been protesting every single Wednesday for the last 25 years. They want no money. All they demand is an apology and recognition of the historical fact of their trauma.

The scene in which that verbal abuse is hurled at these women – affectionately referred to as grandmothers by their supporters – comes just four minutes into the film. And it’s devastating.

“I was floored,” recalls Hsiung. “It was hard for the editor to use that footage because I could be heard swearing over it.”

That sequence, so hard to take as a viewer, made me wonder how Hsiung managed to cope over the years she spent working with such difficult material.

“Are you kidding me? I’m fucked up,” she laughs sardonically. “I went through so many relationships while I was making this movie. No one could handle me, and I wouldn’t listen. You know how passion drives you and you say to yourself, ‘I have to do this.’ And people say, ‘Yes, but you have to take care of yourself.’ But you’re just driven by adrenaline and emotions: ‘How can I sit on this? Everyone has to know about it.’”

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You can tell Hsiung hasn’t yet recovered from the experience. During our conversation, the articulate and mostly very animated local filmmaker and Ryerson film school graduate becomes so overcome with emotion that she grows tearful and has to stop talking.

She learned of the grandmothers’ situation in 2010, when she was invited on a study tour documenting World War II atrocities. She met survivors from China, Korea and the Philippines.

“I was blown away,” Hsiung says, “I realized I had never been taught any of this in school.”

Sexual assault has been used as both a weapon and a perk for soldiers for centuries. The word “hooker” refers to General Hooker, who had a parade of sex workers following his regiment during the U.S. Civil War. 

I was part of a demonstration on Remembrance Day in the late 70s when, after the official ceremonies, members of Women Against Violence Against Women put up our own makeshift cenotaph that read, “For every woman raped in every war.”

But that referred to random – though systemic, too – rape. What’s different here is the way in which rape was institutionalized. Some right-wingers in Japan say the comfort women were required for army morale. Buildings were seconded in which the women were forced to live. In one sequence, one of the three grandmothers Hsiung highlights is taken to the garrison where she was imprisoned. She can barely look at the building.

“But the worst were the caves,” says Hsiung. “One woman described how in one cave, what separated her from the sex slave beside her was a stack of artillery. That’s what created their individual little corner. Rape is a weapon, too.”

When Hsiung decided she would make a movie about the women she met, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund trips to Asia. Sympathetic friends at Aeroplan threw in free flights that allowed her to head east and begin shooting.

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Gradually, she made connections and found her three central subjects: Grandma Gil, from Korea, who has been relentless in her pursuit of justice and has taken the case to the UN, Chinese Grandma Cao, and Grandma Adela from the Philippines. Her choices were determined by relatives’ willingness to talk about a shameful experience on screen and, of course, by her ability to make an authentic connection.

But the women opened up, mainly because the director has her own history as a survivor of sexual abuse.

Unbelievably, at the same time as Hsiung was working on The Apology, she and her sister were involved in the trial of their own abuser, one of their mother’s boyfriends, who had assaulted Hsiung when she was eight. In fact, it was those early sessions with the grandmothers that inspired Hsiung to break her silence and testify. 

“We were in our 20s and decided we had to do something – we were really concerned that he was going to continue to hurt girls. Just before the grandmothers’ 1,000th demonstration, I was going through two weeks of trial during the appeal. But my testimony was inadmissible because I didn’t say the exact words I said to the police when I was 10.”

Hsiung recognizes all the connections between the grandmothers, her own story, the Ghomeshi trial and all survivors. Central to her relationship to the women whose stories she was telling was her profound understanding of their shame.

“When I was at Ryerson I could never talk about what happened to me. I felt embarrassed and worried that people would label me, even someone as progressive-thinking as I am, gay and proud. When it came down to it, I felt shame. Even though we experienced it very differently, the grandmothers and I could talk about shame and silence and the people around us who perpetuate that.” 

With over 100 hours of footage in hand, in 2013 Hsiung took the project to the National Film Board. She may have been a first-time di-rector, but when they looked at what she’d shot they quickly stepped in to help her complete the project.

The NFB was also smart enough to see the value in giving Hsiung an all-woman, entirely Asian crew. Three generations were involved: Hsiung, NFB producer Anita Lee and editor Mary Stephen, a long-time collaborator with Éric Rohmer and the person who cut the award-winning Last Train Home.

“Stephen was my dream. I told Anita that the ideal editor would be an Asian woman so she could understand the Asian nuances and culture, and old-school, someone who appreciates patience and lets things unravel and takes that time.”

As for the issue itself, the Japanese government made what Hsiung refers to as a bullshit apology late last year. It had conditions. They would apologize only if the women agreed to stop talking about the issue and ceased their petitions to the UN. Officials said nothing about putting information about comfort wo-men into history texts – a real problem, says Hsiung, because they’ve been so expert at expunging the info anywhere it surfaced.

The movement, which is rapidly growing, bol-stered by scores of younger women, has rejected this approach.

“The international community said, in effect, ‘What the fuck? You’re taking one step forward and two steps back and silencing these women even more.’”

Which is why, though it’s about something that happened in the past, The Apology is not a historical account. It’s a contemporary story about these women today, their families, what they’ve gone through, yes, but also how that affects them now.

“And it’s still happening every single day,” says Hsiung passionately. “These grandmothers are setting an example for all of us.”

I’ll be interviewing Grandma Gil with Hsiung onstage after the April 30 screening. It will be the first time the intrepid campaigner has ever seen a film in a movie theatre.

“I asked her if she would come see the film when it’s completed. ‘If it ever gets done,’ she responded, ‘and if you invite me. I’ve never been to a movie before. When would I have time?’”

Read the review for The Apology here.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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