The Vow from Hiroshima. Directed by Susan Strickler. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2020. 82 minutes.
Ziva: The Woman Who Edited Shoah. Directed by Catherine Hébert. New York: Grasshopper Film, 2018. 92 minutes.
The Vow is a poignant film that follows two stories centered on the consequences of the atomic bombings in World War II. The primary story focuses on the life of Hiroshima resident Setsuko Thurlow, who is a hibakusha, or a survivor of an atomic bombing. Setsuko openly shares and discusses the horrific experience in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. She has also continually spoken out against the use of nuclear weapons. The Vow showcases this dedication, recounting Setsuko’s participation in demonstrations and marches as well as in developing a United Nations ban on nuclear weapons. The companion story of The Vow centers Mitchie Takeuchi, a second-generation hibakusha. In contrast to Setsuko’s openness, Mitchie’s family never spoke of the experience or the aftermath of the bombing. As such, The Vow focuses on Mitchie’s exploration into the history and culture to learn about the hibakusha. Setsuko’s approach is not the norm for many hibakusha; yet it is the continued activism and willingness to speak that has fostered change.
Ziva highlights Ziva Postec and her importance in the development of the film Shoah (1985), a documentary focused on people who experienced the Holocaust death machine. Ziva worked tirelessly on the film, constantly debating the director Claude Lanzmann about the direction the film needed to take. Lanzmann filmed over 350 hours of interviews, and Ziva’s responsibility was to create a cohesive story. Feeling that the film needed to be completed because there was a power in listening to and hearing the interviewees, she engrossed herself in their stories, understanding that she had to be familiar with everything they contained. Her work and the editing process was instrumental in empowering the voices of these survivors.
Both films highlight this tension that seems to exist when discussing these types of atrocities. There is a need to speak out and understand what has happened, yet some desire to keep silent. For example, Japan’s culture of silence and shame around the hibakusha prevent families from discussing what happened, and most have tried to hide any connection with the atomic bombs. And Ziva’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, refused to speak about her experiences in Europe during that time. However, both films underscore the need to give survivors a place where they can openly remember and tell their stories.
Overall, educators will most likely find that The Vow is a stronger tool because it explores events more directly and in a way that is potentially easier to discuss within a classroom setting. For instance, Setsuko’s description of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb is visceral, hard to listen to, and goes against what is conventionally taught in most history classes. This selective representation is not unique to modern era or the education system, as the film notes that the American military occupation of Japan instigated a press censorship regarding any difficulties that the a-bomb survivors faced. The Atomic Bomb Suppressed by Monica Braw (1991) potentially complements The Vow as it covers this censorship and the US occupation more generally, whilst later chapters focus on the atomic bombs’ impact. Discussions and questions could focus on the potential harms of these censorship policies. What have the ramifications been? Are we still feeling their effects today?
Another point of use in the classroom is Setsuko’s continued activism. Setsuko is unapologetic, speaking boldly about the experiences from the atomic bomb and in the process helping to foster widespread change in policy via an international treaty banning nuclear weapons. The book Political Invisibility and Mobilization by Selina Gallo-Cruz (2021) can complement the focus on activism and change, showing how women around the world have used their position to help bring about peace. The comparison to Setsuko’s activism is not one to one; however, the book similarly showcases how change can be accomplished from positions of apparent weakness.
Braw, Monica. 1991. The Atomic Bomb Suppressed: American Censorship in Occupied Japan. New York: Routledge.
Gallo-Cruz, Selina. 2021. Political Invisibility and Mobilization: Women against State Violence in Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Liberia. London: Routledge.
Shoah. 1985. Directed by Claude Lanzmann. New York: New Yorker Films. 566 minutes.