When we have setbacks in life, become forlorn, or face emotional obstacles, many of us have family and friends on whom we lean on for support. However, there are those who don’t have anyone to guide them through the dense fog of depression. The Departure, a new documentary from Emmy award-winning director Lana Wilson, follows a selfless monk as he becomes the ear and shoulder which bears the sorrows of others. But while the sufferers endure unimaginable grief, how much anguish falls on their makeshift counselor? Moreover, how does assuming such agony affect this man’s life?
A parent, sibling, friend, and mental health professional can go a long way to help alleviate the discomfort felt by those tortured by depression. Yet, as previously stated, not everybody in the world is lucky enough to take advantage of such luxuries. Therefore, in Japan a Buddhist monk has dedicated his life to guiding suicidal individuals from the dark places their minds drift toward.
The film opens with the picture’s subject, Ittetsu Nemoto, holding a special retreat at his temple for those with suicidal tendencies. The objective of this gathering: to teach those involved the worth of life and what it means to die through a series of interactive demonstrations, such as listing one’s most beloved possessions on small scraps of paper before slowly discarding them until nothing remains, and lying in total darkness beneath a shroud. This is a striking way to begin The Departure, showcasing the harrowing nature of this man’s work. But Nemoto’s efforts aren’t solely confined to this retreat. We shadow him as he meets clients at restaurants, receives phone call after phone call, and even visits those in need at home. It seems as if he is akin to a doctor on call. He gets little rest and the constant flow of sorrow begins to alter Nemoto negatively. We steadily discover that Nemoto has his own health issues and must choose to either put himself and his family first, or those he advises.
As viewers, we are taken on a visual ride through the life of a one-of-a-kind individual. We experience the woes and fears of those who seek this man’s guidance, learn that his past was not quite as righteous as his present, and discover what led him down the road of redemption.
Through this incredible portrait of an equally incredible man, I found myself transported to Japan. The sights and sounds of this historically rich country serving as the backdrop for a story unlike any other. Despite this feature being a documentary, the cinematography is no less artistically designed. The screen is, at times, filled with vibrant greens and multicolored rainbow lights. The mood is sometimes ethereal and sometimes grounded in cold, hard reality— nevertheless it is always an emotionally moving escape in which we can all be inspired.
Spring Creek Sun (SCS): “Could you talk about how you discovered this amazing story?”
Lana Wilson (LW): “I read an article in The New Yorker magazine about Nemoto-san and I was totally fascinated by him as a person. I immediately wondered what you would say to someone who is counselling a person who is considering suicide? How do you convince someone to keep living? I realized I wanted to be in the room for those conversations. The article also described this workshop he does, where he does a death simulation. People come and imagine their own deaths. They write down important objects, memories, dreams they have, and they crumble and throw them away and lie under a white cloth. Immediately I thought that’s something I could capture in a cinematic way and make it a participatory experience for the audience so that they could have the chance to ask themselves the same questions.”
SCS: “It was very striking. Throughout the film there is a theme of learning. Did you learn anything while filming it?”
LW: Definitely. I think I came into this with a lot of big questions about life, the same existential questions we all have, and you quickly find that those questions often just lead to more questions. They don’t have answers but the questions are partially fulfilled by the richness and complexity of exploring them. It’s not just about the answers, it’s the journey. Making this film really taught me that.”
Photos by Dean Moses