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My grandfather was something of a beachcomber. Every morning, he walked the stretch of sand below his house in Colwood, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He displayed the things he found—shells, flowerstone rocks, and Japanese fishing floats made of blue-green glass—in the basement next to the pool table and my grandmother’s snooker trophies. The innocence of this hobby seems far away, belonging to a place and time when debris cast out of the ocean was simply that—objects of curiosity, provenance unknown, embedded with the random patina of wind and water. This changed when the Tōhoku earthquake struck the east coast of Japan just before 3:00 p.m. on Friday, March 11, 2011. The undersea thrust generated tsunami waves as high as a three-story building and killed close to 16,000 people.
The tsunami washed more than a million tonnes of debris into the ocean, some of which landed an ocean away on North America’s west coast. Two films take this idea as point of origin—John Choi and Nicolina Lanni’s Lost & Found and John Bolton’s Debris. The Victoria Film Festival will show Lost & Found on February 13. Debris continues on the film-festival circuit this year and the National Film Board of Canada plans on airing the documentary in March to commemorate the tragedy.
Lost & Found follows a number of people who discover objects washed up on beaches and take it upon themselves to return these items to their rightful owners. This sets the stage for a number of cross-cultural encounters, including that of a pair of beachcombers, John Anderson from Forks, Washington, and Pete Clarkson from Tofino, British Columbia, who travel to Japan to look for the owner of a volleyball. Clarkson also shows up in Debris telling his own story. When Clarkson discovered tsunami debris on one of his local beaches, he incorporated it into his artwork. The culmination of his collecting is a large-scale project entitled Swept Away, which is installed in the Tofino Botanical Gardens.
Despite sharing some common elements, tonally the two films are very different. While Lost & Found confines itself to a redemptive, sentimental approach, Debris takes a turn for the darker side, using sound to create another layer of meaning. When orchestral keening emerges, falling away in successive waves of sound, like people being sucked out to sea, the postcard-pretty shots of sand and sky take on a more ominous timbre. Composer Scott Morgan’s score is all the more powerful for its restraint, avoiding a common mistake of so many documentary filmmakers: dumping music over the narration. In this, Debris is an elegant film, all the more so for letting this uneasiness arrive slowly, coiling in like mist off the water.
The essential quest of each film is how to make sense of tragedy of such enormous proportions. Art seems a paltry tool to express the horror that clings to a scene of unmoored housing timbers, ripped and broken like matchsticks; all that remains to tell the history of children and parents, husbands and wives are these humble, small objects. The profound sadness of this is almost too much. It is Clarkson, in Debris, who gives voice to this terrible fragility when he talks about how our sense of safety and security can vanish in an instant.
I thought about this when a minor quake struck off the coast of Vancouver Island just after Christmas. It woke me from a sound sleep. My first thought was that a giant animal was loose and running through the house. My second thought was, where is my son? The entire episode took place in about five seconds, but afterward, I lay in the darkness, waiting. The ocean is close, but suddenly it felt too close.
Watch the Lost & Found trailer
Watch the Debris trailer