New film ensures slain Japanese doctor’s Afghan legacy lives on

    An independent English-language documentary on the extraordinary life and violent death of Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese doctor who worked for years to turn a desert in war-torn Afghanistan green, is set to introduce him to a new audience while honoring his humanitarian feats.

    Moved by Nakamura’s work, film director Kenji Yatsu filmed 1,000 hours of footage over 21 years starting in 1998, including Nakamura’s involvement in the digging of a canal while the Afghan war raged. He filmed until the months before the 73-year-old doctor was gunned down, along with five others by still-unidentified armed men, in Jalalabad on Dec. 4, 2019.

    “I think Dr. Nakamura’s way of life would encourage people living in a world of uncertainties,” such as the Ukraine-Russia war and the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, said Yatsu, 62, in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

    “At a time when many people are distressed by deadly conflicts, I always believed that what Dr. Nakamura has left us has the power to once again spark the sincerity and (sense of) common good in humanity,” he said.

    Nakamura’s work has often been featured on Japanese television and footage was made into a Japanese-language documentary, but Yatsu and his colleagues at TV production company Nihon Denpa News Co. now are creating an edit specifically aimed at a worldwide audience which they plan to submit to an international film festival in fiscal 2024. More than 9 million yen ($61,000) was collected through crowdfunding for the project.

    As a local representative of a Japanese aid group Peshawar-kai, Nakamura started providing medical aid near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s.

    But realizing that medicine is not the answer to malnourishment caused by chronic food shortages as well as lack of access to clean water due to drought, he decided to embark on well drilling and irrigation construction projects to address at least some of the root causes of Afghanistan’s health crisis.

    In line with his mantra that “one water channel serves the community more than 100 clinics,” Nakamura led efforts to turn the arid desert into farmland by starting the construction of a roughly 25-kilometer-long canal, named the Marwarid Canal, near Jalalabad in the country’s east in 2003 and completing it in 2010.

    By replicating a technique used in an ancient intake weir in Fukuoka, his native prefecture in southwestern Japan, the waterway was built to enable easy maintenance by locals and has since contributed to the revival of agricultural production and allowed tens of thousands of refugees to return to their homeland.

    The water from the irrigation systems now supports some 650,000 nearby residents, according to Peshawar-kai.

    Nakamura won the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed the Nobel Prize of Asia, and was given an honorary Afghan citizenship in October 2019 for his humanitarian work.

    Yatsu’s Japanese-language documentary “Koya ni Kibo no Hi wo Tomosu (Shining a Ray of Hope into a Desert),” which chronicles Nakamura’s 35 years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, hit screens in July 2022 and drew more than 70,000 viewers by November, with the film mostly promoted through word of mouth.

    Although the English-language film will use the same source footage and images as the Japanese version, it will not be a mere translation of narration and subtitles into English, Yatsu said.

    While the Japanese film tells the story of Nakamura using narration based on his own powerful words from his literary works, the new version needs to be “re-edited completely” so that viewers with no knowledge of Nakamura will be properly introduced, Yatsu said.

    “It would be something quite different,” Yatsu said. “I want to convey the depth of his way of life by including more interviews with Dr. Nakamura and footage showing his interactions with the local Afghan people.”

    The crowdfunding initiative to raise money for the English-language version started in July and quickly achieved its target of 5 million yen. By the end date in September, 9.61 million yen was collected.

    Using the money, the team plans to restore degraded videos, make scripts, insert narration, promote the film and submit it to an international film festival.

    “Dr. Nakamura always believed there is something precious about humans, regardless of ethnicity, language or nationality, and he has searched for it,” Yatsu said.

    He hopes that showing Nakamura’s way of life, including his pursuit of common human understanding while being cognizant of differences among people, may help people overcome the growing isolation and fragmentation currently plaguing the world.

    “Of course, not everyone can lead a life like Dr. Nakamura, but I think by learning his life story, anyone can try to make an effort to aim for it and be encouraged,” Yatsu said. “Knowing of something unwavering, a North Star, gives a sense of assurance.”

    Through the film, Yatsu said he wants the audience to feel what Nakamura aspired to restore in war-ravaged Afghanistan, recalling the time he spent time with him in the spring of 2019, in what turned out to be his final trip to the country before Nakamura’s murder.

    Yatsu said he had an epiphany while standing with Nakamura atop a hill overlooking the transformed desert. Together they heard the bustle of life — voices of children, mothers and workers accompanied by birds and livestock — sounds Nakamura said were “pleasant” to his ear.

    “At that moment, I understood exactly what Dr. Nakamura was working to restore,” Yatsu said.

    By KYODO