Review: ‘Ryuichi Hirokawa: Human Battlefield’

Hot Docs 2017

3 mins read

Ryuichi Hirokawa: Human Battlefield
Japan, 99 minutes
Dir. Saburo Hasegawa
Programme: Made in Japan, (Canadian Premiere.)


From Palestinian refugee camps, to the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, veteran Japanese photojournalist Ryuchi Hirokawa has produced images carried by news-services around the world, putting the human face on catastrophe. Now in his seventies, with health problems, he maintains a busy travel schedule, working for children’s charities and photographing for an eminent magazine, Days, which he established.

Director Saburo Hasegawa’s opening scene sees Hirokawa arriving in a West Bank village to join the press corps covering the site of a protest against Israeli settlements. The protest is over almost before it starts, dispersed by tear gas canisters from Israeli troops. Hirokawa, his long-lens hanging around his neck, shuffles away from the skirmish, coughing, until he finally manages to put a gas mask over his face.

Hirokawa first came to the Mideast in the 1960s as a young political activist, to live on a Israeli kibbutz, then considered a model of socialism. When a friend showed him a map of the Palestinian village that previously occupied the site, he began a lifelong mission of documenting the disappeared communities and chronicling the occupation from the Palestinian side.

He tells of a harrowing night during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon war, when he forced himself go to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where Christian militia, under the guard of Israeli troops, had massacred hundreds of civilians. Further scenes, mixing original and archival footage that cover career milestones, take him back to Chernobyl, where he has maintained friendships with now-adult children who are victims of radiation sickness.

Hirokawa’s obligation to children is whole-hearted (he personally funds a camp for children exposed to the Fukishima nuclear accident) though in one scene with his adult daughter during a brief family visit, she tactfully suggests he has always belonged more to the world than his own family.

In this effective if conventional inspirational profile, one memorable takeaway is Hirokawa’s modest conviction that journalists cannot pretend to be mere witnesses to history. They must accept their responsibility to thwart abuse when possible and plead on the side of its victims.

Ryuichi Hirokawa: Human Battlefield screens:
-Wednesday, May 3 at Scotiabank Theatre 7 at 8:45 p.m.
-Friday, May 5 at Scotiabank Theatre 7 at 6:15 p.m.



Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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