Place: New York

The Stories We Are Bequeathed

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

Needless to say, World War II has left irreparable scars all over the planet. The survivors of those events have made efforts to heal, or at least, to make sure their stories are not forgotten. But now Word War II survivors are the dying generation. What ever will happen to those war experiences that need to be told in the new decade? Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Xiung’s first feature documentary “The Apology,” which will show at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 9 – 18), interweaves the personal stories of former comfort women who were forcibly captured and sexually exploited by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, and exposes the struggles of their imprisonment and the pain they have carried all this time.


Ms. Xiung follows three former comfort women, each now in her eighties and nineties: Grandma Gil in Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines. Although all three shared a similar fate, each of their experiences during the war and after is completely different. By demonstrating weekly in front of the Japanese Embassy for many years, Grandma Gil raises her voice as an activist to demand an official apology from the Japanese government. Grandma Cao lives alone in a remote village, and has long kept silent about her history. Grandma Adela attends a support group of fellow survivors in order to liberate herself from the past, but out of her guilt and shame, has not yet told her family. Even though their pasts are traumatic, a sense of blame is not burning in the film. What the film instead reveals is the desire for acceptance.


Born in Hiroshima in 1937, Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi says that, according to his life experience during World War II, we are now living in a “pre-war era.” A sense of impending war permeates our daily lives as democracy is fading away. If another world war emerges, our lives could lose the opportunity of choice, and we could be forced to do things we never wished, just as the comfort women during World War II, many of whom were kidnaped and sold. Because of the political dilemma between countries, the comfort women issue has yet to be solved, but while trying to find a solution, time is surely running out for these women. However, even as the entire World War II generation begins to disappear from the world, as long as the film exists, their stories can be handed down to new generations.



COOL spoke with Tiffany Xiung to discuss “The Apology.”


“The focus of our film was to create a human story about resilience, about strength, and how incredibly strong these women are”

First, why did you want to make a documentary film about comfort women?

It was something that I didn’t know much about growing up in high school. I was born and raised in Canada, and the subject matter was not taught. World War II in Asia in general was not covered. And so, when I went off to document a teacher learning about this across Asia, I started learning about it firsthand. When I started hearing the stories from various grandmothers, when they came in and testified to the teachers, I was very much impacted, and felt like I needed to help in any way possible. It’s something that hasn’t been documented. I felt like it was very important to be able to get to know them as people, and not just what they experienced during the war.


The political aspect of the comfort women issue, for example, the relationship between Korea and Japan, the relationship between China and Japan, is not a big focus in this film. What was the decision behind not focusing on the politics, even though the political aspect creates complications?

Because the politics is already shown in the news and the media. What isn’t shown, and what no one spends time with, is actually getting to know these women as people. The focus of our film was to create a human story about resilience, about strength, and how incredibly strong these women are. Despite everything that they’ve gone through, they still survive. They still try their best to live a life where they can raise a family. And for someone like Grandma Gil, after raising her son, the last years of her life she will be dedicating to finding a life of justice. These are things that people need to understand: the choices that these women have made in their life, why they do what they do, and where that comes from. Instead of looking at all of these women as just survivors, we need to also look at them as heroes for the next generation. We can learn so much from them, and we can really, truly change the way that we listen to other survivors of other atrocities around the world. What needs to change is how we listen and how we act upon hearing these stories.


Why did you choose those particular three subjects?

I met many grandmothers over the years, and particularly Grandma Gil, Grandma Cao, and Grandma Adela were women that I naturally connected with. I think we chose each other in many ways. It would be wonderful to put everybody that I met in the film, but for the audience to really get to know someone, they could only be able to focus on three. These three women really show us different aspects of what life was like after the war and how their life has been since then. Even though they might have experienced such similar things during World War II, how they overcome and how they continue to live their lives is very complex and very different. It allows audiences, people from around the world, to connect with each of these women in their own way, giving access to them.


Grandma Adela had never publicly spoken about being a comfort woman. How were you able to make her comfortable in order to talk about her past?

Grandma Adela

Grandma Adela had always talked about it, but only to a small group of people, the Lolas Kampanyeras, which is an organization in the Philippines. That’s how I met her and all the other grandmothers in the Philippines. When I met her and asked her what she wished, she told me that she wished one day to tell her kids. She never told her husband, and in fact, she had been keeping it secret from her own children all these years because of the fear of them rejecting her and being shamed by her. I didn’t know that she would feel comfortable to one day tell her kids, but she was always willing to talk to me about it. For many years she was spending so much energy keeping this a secret from her kids.


What is really great about this film is that you captured each woman’s personal story. If it focused instead on the position of an organization, the stories of individuals would be lost. Were you aware of that?

Yeah, being able to spend time with individuals is incredibly important. It was very important for me to have had years and years of relationship with not only the grandmother, but also the people around them. Getting to know the grandmother’s family, and the level of how much this has affected their family members, for me, I could relate to that. I could relate to how traumatizing it is to be able to tell your own family what has happened to you, and for the family members to be shocked and not want to hear about something so horrible that happened to their own mother. It is something that I think we don’t hear much about. Being able to focus on the personal stories allows us that “other side” for this to be a universal connection for so many people.


I think, unfortunately, the world has long been in a state where women cannot talk about their pain, I’m talking about not only the comfort women, but other abuses as well. Perhaps the situation is getting better, but what is your opinion on that?

Well, as a woman who has known many women in my life here in Canada that still experience sexual violence, there are still many people around this world on whom rape is still used as a weapon of war, and other countries that are still not supporting the women that have gone through this. Here, in our own backyard, it’s still an ongoing challenge. With stories like “The Apology” and things that are happening on the news where people are talking about it more and more, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that our community, our global community, is listening more. We can do a better job at not only listening, but also looking at sexual violence against women, rape used as a weapon of war, as not just isolated, individual situations, but looking at this whole thing on a bigger scope. It will help us achieve justice and to end this.



“Time was very urgent to be able to capture their stories”

By adding what young Japanese women think about the issue, I got the feeling that you didn’t want to generalize the positions of a country. What was your intention behind including that scene?

Grandma Gil

To be honest with you, I got to meet so many amazing Japanese allies that have been supporting the grandmothers for over twenty-five years. These women that I connected with in Japan, not just the university students that I was very moved emotionally by, but just regular, everyday citizens that dedicated themselves by putting up their own resources just to support these women, I was so moved and impacted by them that, even after filming, I would get to know them and connect to them as just humans. We’re just humans. Everybody who hears this story and is able to get this information, when they’re impacted and feel impassioned to support them, that to me is the most important thing.


When you see the girls in the university reacting to Grandma Gil’s story, at the end of the day, let’s just put politics aside—we’re just humans, and we need to connect together on that human level so that atrocities like this don’t happen again. And that justice can be served. You know, justice comes from that knowledge. What’s justice without us knowing about the truth, and knowing about these things? We have so many friends and allies in Japan who are looking forward to watching this film, so I’m hoping that it can make its way to Japan as well.


While filming, did you have any sense of what could be the solution to this issue?

Getting to know these grandmothers for seven years of my life—from the very beginning, and getting to know a lot of their earlier life, as well as what they’re going through today—I support what the grandmothers have been asking for. I want full reparations for these women in accordance with the International Human Rights Standards. It’s the bare minimum of what they deserve.


The hardest thing in my meeting so many grandmothers is seeing that there are so many women that still aren’t able to talk about it. They’re like eighty, ninety years old, and they tell me that they can’t talk about it because what it might look like for their family, or what it might look like for their community. They need to be able to speak about this freely, to be able to talk about this in their own communities by having justice served. We need to start listening to the grandmothers and to what they’ve been asking for for over twenty-five years now, and that means full acknowledgement of the military sexual slavery that was implemented by the Imperial Army from 1932 to 1945. There are so many things that have happened in our history, in our world, that have been investigated and have been rectified, and I hope everyday that this can be one as well.


Really, the crux of it is education. The key thing for me is providing context and being able to make that accessible, being able to talk about it. So as a filmmaker, it’s very important to be able to provide access and education, and to be able to pass that on to the next generation.


The women from that generation are now dying, as you show in the film. Could you talk about your urgent feeling to capture their disappearing voices?

Grandma Cao

When I started in 2009, time was of the essence. A lot of them were already very old, so I felt that time was very urgent to be able to capture their stories. However what was also very important was to take the time as well to get to know each other beyond just trying to capture the atrocities. It was really the rule: spending time to get to know them as people. And that urgency to film them was always the biggest challenge for me. There have been other documentations that were able to record the grandmothers, starting back in the 1990s, and we must record these things, I feel very passionate about that. And now that this film is out there, and has been making such amazing impact around the world, I’m very proud that the grandmothers’ voices are being shared.



Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Photo courtesy of Icarus Films


Human Rights Watch Film Festival begins June 9 through 18.