As the credits rolled in the darkened theater and music from the score faded into silence, quiet sobs from the audience became audible.
If films are supposed to inspire, uplift and stimulate, it didn’t take long for the Monadnock International Film Festival to make its mark. “Paper Lanterns,” an hour-long film shown Friday at The Colonial Theatre in Keene, left the morning matinee gathering of about 100 emotionally moved on many levels.
Tracy Messer of Hancock, fresh off his own performance playing President Calvin Coolidge Wednesday at the Historical Society of Cheshire County’s annual meeting, told director Barry Frechette during a question-and-answer session that it was the most powerful film he’s ever seen.
“Paper Lanterns” is a documentary about a Japanese man’s 40-year odyssey to track down information about 12 American prisoners of war who died as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States on Aug. 6, 1945. Ten died in the initial blast; POWs Ralph Neal and Normand Brissette survived by diving into a cesspool, only to succumb to radiation poisoning less than two weeks later.
Shigeaki Mori, referred to as Mr. Mori throughout the film in a nod of respect, was 8 years old when his city was destroyed and about 150,000 people were killed. He explains that he’s been driven for decades to find out more about the 12 Americans whose deaths have gone virtually unnoticed.
His compassion for them is the running theme — how one man cares so much even though those men fought for the country that unleashed the devastation.
Now 80, Mr. Mori ultimately meets the nephew and niece of Neal and Brissette, who was from Lowell, Mass. The film follows Ralph Neal of Kentucky, named after his uncle with the same name, and Susan Archinski of Dracut, Mass., as Mr. Mori retraces their uncles’ final days in the war.
Neal, a preacher who works the third shift at Walmart, and Archinski were strangers until Mr. Mori’s research and Frechette’s film united them through their uncles.
The scenes are full of emotion, and interviews with other survivors of the Hiroshima bombing add to the film’s layers. The U.S. didn’t even know that POWs were in Hiroshima when it dropped the bomb. The men were listed as missing in action after having parachuted into the area out of a stricken plane. All these details were dug up by Mr. Mori in his tireless research.
The film doesn’t linger on the day of the bombing itself. A handful of graphic black-and-white scenes of victims and photos of Hiroshima’s devastated landscape are powerful enough to depict the horror.
The penultimate scene shows Neal and Archinski releasing paper lanterns with messages to their uncles into the Motoyasu River. Their release is an annual tradition in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony held every Aug. 6, with as many as 10,000 lighted lanterns floating on water in the dark.
“It’ll be a small miracle if I don’t cry on stage here,” said Keene State College film professor Jo Dery, who introduced the film.
Frechette, the director, sat in the back of the theater Friday morning so he could gauge the audience’s reactions.
He has worked in the production and TV advertising industries, but this was his first film. Part of his motivation for making it was personal — his great uncle Eddie Chandonnet was Brissette’s best friend growing up prior to World War II. He was continually drawn to a family album about his uncle.
“I couldn’t let it go that that 19-year-old young man was in Hiroshima two years later,” Frechette said. And Mr. Mori was the common thread that kept coming up in his own initial Google research.
Word that the film was being made circulated quickly in Japan. Frechette and his crew were followed by a Japanese film crew that made a documentary of him making a documentary. “I think there’s much more interest in Japan than I think here,” he said of the story.
The film was originally supposed to end with Neal and Archinski’s floating paper lanterns. But on May 27, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since the bombing. With a strong push from then-Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, Mr. Mori sat in the front row for the formal ceremony.
The two men embraced, with Obama paying tribute to “the man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.”
Frechette fears these stories will soon be lost to time, that succeeding generations are losing touch. And ominously, 72 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, nuclear war rhetoric is rattling noisily around the world. Frechette says he thinks about it every day.
“And that’s just a small one,” he said of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, compared to the nuclear arsenals of today. “It’s frightening. I don’t want somebody in 70 years to have to do this again.”
The Monadnock International Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday night, continues today through Sunday afternoon, with a full roster of film screenings, panel discussions and parties. Information: https://www.moniff.org.