Viveka Melki’s ‘the FENCE’ tackles revisionist history of Japanese POW Camps

Montreal director discusses new doc

Documentary the Fence examines Japanese Prisoner of War camps.
Credit: 
SUPPLIED BY LOUIS-PHILIPPE CUSSON

This article was updated with new information on Nov. 26, 2020.

Viveka Melki’s the FENCE examines the four-year period during WWII in which 2,000 Canadians suffered incarceration inside Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Hong Kong and Japan.

The film features interviews from Canadians George Peterson and George MacDonell, the last two surviving veterans from the camp in Hong Kong, who, for the first time, describe the atrocities that happened there.

In an interview with The Journal, Melki discussed the film.

“I was interested in a silence that I was feeling around the story,” she said. “When I would interview veterans on other projects […] I felt there was a silence, there was something that wasn’t being said in the interviews […] There was something that was so hidden about the story.”

Melki’s the FENCE is the culmination of a decade of research that carefully uncovered the truth behind Japan’s revisionist history of events.

“This is a network of people, of historians, researchers, survivors, who have created a network around this story because they were trying to understand what happened, because there were few archives of life in the prisoner of war camps. So, with their help, and especially with the help of Dr. Chi Man Kwong, who is in the film and is a[n associate]  professor at Hong Kong [Baptist University], we did uncover for the first time the first proof of cannibalism in Hong Kong during this period in time,” Melki said.

During the making of the film, Dr. Kwong discovered the first ever document proving that Cannibalism was occuring in Hong Kong during WWII. Dr. Tanaka in his book Hidden Horrors, had already found files that starvation had led to exempted Cannibalism within the Japanese forces. 

Another atrocity which has been glossed over is the bayonetting of babies committed by the Japanese imperial army.

According to Melki, it was very important to her that these upsetting truths be acknowledged in the film because the Japanese history of the war would tell you it never happened.

“Well it did happen,” she said. “And we have a veteran [George Peterson] who tells us the story of his trauma on camera. So, even if it’s not registered in a history book and we don’t have an archive of it, the living memory is right in front of you.”

The film also features interviews of Luba Estes, who was 10 years old at the time and living in Hong Kong while her father, Alexander, was interned in the Sham Shui Po prison. 

“Discovering Luba Estes and discovering that she was alive was incredible because this is her first time ever telling her story as a white Russian ten-year-old girl who was in Hong Kong.”

Melki also explained how important it was to show compassion to her interview subjects when asking them to share their trauma.

“I specialize in history and trauma and resilience-type interviews, so I have gone through a lot of training on how to interview somebody in what we would call safe space,” she said.

“For example, after we interview a veteran, I would also make sure there was either a counselor or a priest and definitely a family member aware and present […] I’ve been lucky to recently go through Indigenous teaching[s with First Nations Elders] and it’s been a gift to know that you can—using methods that have been taught to me—you look at somebody in the face, and you’re transparent about what you’re doing, and you’re transparent about your job as a director or as a filmmaker to tell those stories for the right reasons.”

Melki added that people want to tell their story because telling the truth is how they heal.

“In a lot of ways, I’m glad to say that people have left my film not more traumatized. They’ve left my film happy that they’ve told their story and maybe sleeping better at night.”

It was also important for Melki not to present a simplified historical narrative that says “we are the good guys and the enemy are bad guys.” She also wanted to avoid demonizing the Japanese soldiers.

“You have to do your research really well and you have to be backed up by those who have 20, 30 years [of] experience around this story or in the case of Chi Man, he’s written [seven] books on military history in East Asia,” she said. “I chose people who had compassion. I chose people who wanted to cross the fence […] We were never out to make a story that didn’t have compassion because I don’t think history is black and white.”

“George MacDonell in the film says, ‘there was compassion, there were [Japanese] soldiers who looked away so that we could receive food,’” Melki said. “There’s always the individual in the collective even when there’s fear there.”

For Melki, the documentary’s title, the FENCE, is about more than just the literal fence at the POW camp which Luba would often walk by to try and see her father.

“The fence is very much about perspective […] about how you look [at] which side of history are you in, which side is right, which side is wrong? It’s never clear. Which is why, for me, it’s something in between. 

The main themes of the film are compassion and acknowledgment.

“It’s important to acknowledge the suffering of people,” Melki said. “To move forward, I believe you have to acknowledge your suffering and others acknowledge your suffering, and what gets me about this story is that that suffering has been erased. It’s been erased from the history books—not our history books—but if you erase it from Japanese history books then you’re erasing our history as well and that’s not okay.”

However, Melki also noted some of the archives used in the film’s research came from the POW Research Network of Japan, a group that want the true history to be told. 

“We are an international network of people who are just saying, this is the story. Don’t look away from the story. This is what happened,” she said.

Melki considered it her responsibility as a filmmaker to help the two veterans and Luba work through the trauma by telling their stories for the first time.

“The veterans in the film are […] amazing people and they never expected anything. The thing that struck me with them is they had moved on, they weren’t waiting for an apology […] I believe, of course, that trauma stays in the walls of the house. If you don’t deal with that trauma then the next generation is taking it down in some way.” 

To shoot dramatic recreations, the art directors Greg Nowak and Patrick Binette designed the POW camp based on drawings by Luba’s father, Alexander, and rebuilt everything to scale.

“We flew in 800 pieces of props into Cuba because we couldn’t replace anything if something broke so everything came in directly with us, and the crew was made up of Quebec artists mostly, the actors were Canadian and Cuban […] It was quite amazing, it was seven days of filming, but we went back and forth two or three times to build the fence. It took a couple of months.”

Although most of the doc’s screenings had to be cancelled, Melki asserted that she will book new screenings once the pandemic is over.

“The film is fabulous on the big screen, the artists worked on the film for that level and it’s really wonderful,” she said. In particular, Melki mentioned the stunning Colour Grading done by Vickie-Lynn Roy and Claudine Sauvé (DOP).

“The props in the film are amazing, they’re literal recreations, and some of them are actual [originals]. The teddy bear is 100-years-old. Every detail is precise because we’re talking about revisionism so when you’re talking about revisionist history, I really try to go as close to reality as possible.”

The reality of war for Melki is that everybody suffered. 

“The trauma that all they came back with in Japan and in Canada, and all over the world. And Luba, that’s the point of the last shot of the film. She says, ‘I’m fine,’ but then she reaches into her handbag and she still sleeps with bread by her bed every night.” 

“The trauma is endless,” she added. “But that’s war. I think I want people to walk away with compassion. I never wanted people to walk away with hate. I think acknowledgment is very important and it’s one of my life goals in all my work.”

The documentary premieres Sunday, Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. on the Documentary Channel. For those who don't get the Documentary Channel, the documentary will be streamed for free on CBC GEM in February.

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