Absent Asians: Three Documentaries on Volcano Disasters ⭐️⭐️

Living on the circle of fire means earthquakes in Southern California, but in other areas, it also means volcano eruptions. Three documentaries take on the volcano eruptions that caused deaths and they are all plagued by a shining whiteness. Two of the documentaries (National Geographic’s “Fire of Love” and Werner Herzog’s “The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft”)  focus on the 1991 Mount Unzen (雲仙岳, Unzen-dake) eruption and one (The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari”) on the New Zealand eruption on a private island, the tourist attraction of Whakaari.

You’d think in Japan, you’d hear more about the Japanese, but the focus of “Fire of Love” and “The Fire Within” is on the two French volcanologists even though they were just two among the 43 who died.

“Fire of Love” is a critical look at volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft. We learn how they possibly met and how they worked together. The two come off as determined, but the husband Maurice seems to have tempted fate with his acid boat trip and dreams of kayaking down a lava flow. The documentary ends by showing that the work of the Kraffts did help save lives in the Philippines the very same year as their deaths.

Director Sara Dosa is a Peabody winner (“Audio & Daisy,” 2017) and has been nominated for an Emmy (“ReMastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black,” 2019).

“The Fire Within” looks at the Kraffts as scientists crafting themselves into media stars, but also shows how they began to look at their work as providing life-saving warnings. Herzog provides a context because we clearly see Japanese journalists covering both Unzen and the Kraffts.

Herzog previously followed volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer for his 2016 documentary “Into the Inferno.” In this film, he visited Indonesia and North Korea. The film used archival footage of the Kraffts (as well as William McIntosh). That film did include translator Han Myong II, geologist Yan Yong Gun, volcanologist Sri Sumatra and historian Kwon Sung An according to the credits in IMDb.

Online, you’d be hard pressed to even find the names of any of the Japanese who died at the Unzen 1991 eruption even though they were predominately journalists. The dead also included policemen and the taxi drivers waiting on the journalists. What’s notable is there were no Japanese volcanologists among the dead.

If you look at Wikipedia, there would seem to be no notable volcanologists in Japan, but there is a Volcanological Society of Japan (日本火山学界). According to A New Japan Volcanological Database, there are 111 active volcanoes in Japan. (There is a typo in the introductory paragraph and it should read that it is to run from 2016 to 2025). There are undoubtedly Japanese scientists in Japan studying volcanoes. Glicken contributed to papers written with Japanese scientists, one published after his death.

There’s a study about the Unzen eruption by a number of Japanese scientists available in English:

Harry Glicken’s body was identified by his colleagues from the Tokyo Metropolitan University. Yet in neither documentary do we hear from these people nor do we get a risk assessment from the Japanese volcanologists.  In the “Love of Fire,” Japan is merely a backdrop for a love story. Although the Philippines earthquake is mentioned, the controversy among the Japanese is not. Herzog, however, clearly addresses the accusation that the Japanese journalists were in their fatal positions because of the Kraffts, showing that the Japanese journalists (who are not identified) set up their positions before the Kraffts were on the scene.

The Kraffts, however, did bring on US volcanologist Harry Glicken who had not originally intended to be there because the coverage by the Japanese journalists had been so good. Glicken served as a guide, a translator and driver for the Kraffts. But had the Japanese been convinced by these volcano experts that there was nothing to worry about and stayed longer than was advisable? Some people have blamed the journalists for the deaths of the taxi drivers according to the daughter of one of the journalists who was killed.

Seeing both documentaries broadens one’s view of the Kraffts, but it doesn’t provide the Japanese view of the incident. There was a Japanese TV movie documentary, “Volcano Devils” (雲仙普賢岳) by French director Jérôme Cornuau (produced by BORÉALES and NHK). The Japanese title has nothing to do with “devils” but is the name of the peak Fugen-dake and Unzen or “Unzen Fugen-Dake”. I’ve only been able to find the trailer:

The trailer includes testimony from eyewitnesses as well as reenactments. Excluding such testimony in either of the Kraffts documentaries (“Love of Fire” and “Fire Within”) made it seem like Japan and the Japanese were little more than a background for the drama of White lives.

The documentary on the New Zealand eruption, “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari,”  is also troubling. The Netflix documentary retreads things you can find elsewhere. The focus is, with the exception of a Māori tour guide Tipene Maangi, on White people from New Zealand, the US and Australia.

I was surprised to learn that there were non-white people among the dead: Mayuri (Mary) Singh and Pratap (Paul) Singh. The Singhs were residents of Atlanta. They both died in the hospital, but they were survived by three children and the wife’s mother. In the official family statement, Bhupender “Vick” Singh wrote:

I visited Paul and Mary every day since Dec 10th while they were at the Middlemore hospital, the last 50 days of our family’s life were distressing, slow and agonizing painful. I seriously request and encourage volcano tourism in NZ and around the world to charter proper safety equipment including appropriate heat resistant gear/clothing, safety glasses, helmets and face masks. Proper safety equipment would have saved my family. Tours should not be operated without comprehensive disclosure of risks associated, and a complete assessment of geothermal and seismic activity.

According to The Guardian, one of the initial survivors was an unnamed Malaysian man who was a permanent resident of Australia. Two long-term Australian residents from China also survived: 26-year-old Annie Yongan Lu and her 56-year-old mother, Alice Xioman Zhang.

There are actually more people with Chinese names on one list. According to The Standard, two Hong Kong residents were among the missing.

When I first realized that there were people of Asian descent listed on the rescue and survivor lists, I thought perhaps the documentarians could not find these people or perhaps these people didn’t speak English. Yet it becomes readily apparent that the Singhs were active within the Atlanta community. They must have spoken English. The grandmother of the Māori tour guide Tipene Maangi was interviewed, but not the mother of the Asian Indian American Mayumi Singh.

I watched the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” The faces were all White. Not all of the faces were from New Zealand and Australia either–the two US citizens Matt and Lauren Urey of Chesterfield, Virginia, were interviewed.  Yet no one from the Atlanta-based Singh family.  And then, after more searching, I found a blog entry by Little Ms. Lu. On the one year anniversary of the White Island Eruption, she wrote an entry: White Island Eruption: Life From Then to A Year On..

This person seems to be literate in English and she notes that her mother had visited the island before with her father. She has a blog, Instagram and Facebook. I sent her an email and asked if she had been approached at all for either the “60 Minutes” report or the documentary and if she had seen the Netflix documentary. When I receive a response, I will update.

Director of “The Volcano, ” Rory Kennedy,  had previously directed the 2014 Oscar-nominated “Last Days of Vietnam” for PBS so she has displayed a sensitivity toward people of Asian descent.

I have several reasons for finding the exclusion of the people of Asian descent a matter of interest. As someone who has worked for a travel agency and has lived in a non-English speaking country, I wondered about the communication problems, something that I also considered for the Unzen documentaries. In the documentary about the New Zealand island, the English-speakers who were interviewed were troubled that the warning the island was at an Alert  Level 2 was not provided to them prior to landing on the island. It was apparently available on the website. If the website only provides English, then this might be a further communication barrier. If the non-English speakers did not clearly understand the warnings and the explanations or the alarm to “Run,” then this also becomes an issue of visitor safety.

Besides the issues of race, there are other issues to note in all three documentaries. While I have not visited an active volcano, I have worked with acids and torches, molten glass and molten metal. In such labs, we are warned to wear natural fibers and closed shoes. I find long pants and long sleeve shirts provide the best protection. I have seen someone burn their hand touching molten glass on metal (enamel). Further, I even rewatched a segment of the Netflix reality show “Blown Away” which is a contest between ten glassblowing masters for monetary prize money, to see how professionals approach the situation of fire and burning. The contestants generally wore long pants (some wore capri pants), closed toe shoes and those who did not wear long sleeves, often would add arm protection at certain points. They all wore what seemed to be cotton.

The issue of safety in the New Zealand case was something that visually struck me, especially after seeing the Herzog documentary. At one point in the Herzog documentary, we see people visiting an active volcano, before the Kraffts became media sensations. The Kraffts are casually dressed, but Herzog draws our attention woman in high heels and a bikini among the tourists.

For myself, I thought the lax clothing requirements for the visit to Whakaari or White Island were the first red flag. (The next was the landing/docking site.) The documentary on the New Zealand eruption notes that injuries were directly co-related to what people where wearing. Even then, full coverage might be detrimental if it was some type of synthetic material for things like leggings. If you have any doubt, you can check the study “Uniform Materials Affect Flight Attendants Safety and Ability to Help Passengers Evacuate Burning Aircraft” March-April 1999. Then look at what the tourists and tour guides were wearing on that fateful day on White Island/Whakaari in 2019. Compare that to the Kraffts who, on the last day of their lives, wore long sleeves and long pants. The summer rains of Japan are generally humid, not cold.

Oddly, those who gathered to place a memorial to the victims on White Island/Whakaari did not seem to have learned any lessons. I counted six people in sandals and the island is still at a Level 2. No hardhats or gas masks were in sight. People must believe that bad things happen to other people.

Diversity and Details

Still I find the lack of East Asian faces on all three documentaries troubling. It reminded me of recent documentary about the Chinese survivors of the Titanic (“The Six“). Sometimes history can be erased due to blatant or even subtle racism.

The exclusion of commentary from Japanese experts in Japan in documentaries about a Japanese volcano reminds me of the 2014 “Godzilla” that focused on a White man played by Bryan Cranston, his French wife, played by Juliette Binoche, and their son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Cranston and Binoche are supposed to be lead supervisors at a nuclear plant in Japan. Why so much Whiteness in Japan? Are all the experts in Japan non-Japanese? I would ask the same question about “Love of Fire” and “Fire Within”: Are all the experts on the Unzen eruption White?

In the trailer for “Volcano Devils” one Japanese man poignantly remembered of the Kraffts, “They both stood in the rain, next to their cameras. I remember their backs very clearly.” Another Japanese man said, “My handlebar wasn’t stable. I knew it was a pyroclastic flow.” I don’t remember seeing either of these Japanese men in “Love of Fire” or “Fire Within.”

In a time when East Asian and Central Asian faces need to be seen as part of the multi-cultural societies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US, the exclusion of these faces only serves to emphasize the “otherness,” the forever foreign status of non-White people and non-Black people. In a time when the world is getting smaller and we need to come together for solutions, the lack of Asian faces in Asia as voices of authority seems like remnants of imperialism and colonialism, essence of the White Man’s Burden.

“Fire of Love” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and also screened at South by Southwest and DOC NYC. It has been streaming since November 2022. The film won Best Documentary from the Chicago Film Critics Association. At the Sundance Film Festival, it won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award.

“The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft”  screens at Telluride Film Festival and DOC NYC. It won DOC LA Award for Best Producer and Best Film.

“The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari” began streaming on 16 December 2022 on Netflix.





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