In 2003, Masako Sakata lost her husband less than a month after he was diagnosed with liver cancer thought to be linked to his exposure to Agent Orange as a G.I. in Vietnam. A devoted wife for 33 years, Sakata grappled with how to productively move forward.
“I went to Maine to spread his ashes in one of the lakes where we used to spend summers,” she recalls. “I happened to find out there was a film workshop in that small community. I had not even touched a professional camera before.” It was there that she was inspired to heal herself by telling the story of the many people touched by Agent Orange in Vietnam.
So with a camera and a plane ticket to Vietnam, Sakata embarked on an uncertain, open-ended journey that culminated in the 2007 documentary Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem, which captures the tragedy of Agent Orange through the prism of the affected Vietnamese, her late husband and her own search for answers. The film has gained international acclaim, and has been shown in Vietnam, Japan, the United States, France, India, Cuba and Bosnia.
For Sakata, this was just the beginning of her journey championing the cause. Deeply moved by the reactions she was getting at film screenings around the world, she moved to Hanoi in 2008 to study Vietnamese and begin work on a second film.
“I became closer to the people, the culture and the issue,” Sakata recalls. “I had opportunities to visit many victims in remote areas in Vietnam.”
The film, Living in the Silent Spring, is inspired by the victims of Agent Orange and Rachel Carson’s early warning on the dangers posed by pesticides and herbicides. It will be released in Tokyo on September 24, 2011.
In the meantime, Sakata has also launched a scholarship program in partnership with the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) to provide education and vocational training for disabled people in Vietnam. Aptly named Seeds of Hope, the scholarship pools donations from about 50 donors in Japan to provide a three year scholarship for 20 children affected by Agent Orange.
“Most of those who were exposed to the toxic chemical during wartime have been living in poverty, but their handicapped children possess great potential,” Sakata says. “A little help can change a person’s life and bring a smile to their face.”