In a 2009 study published by the Center For Social Media at American University, the majority of the interviewed documentary filmmakers shared an approach to their subjects: “ ‘Do not harm’ and ‘Protect the vulnerable’ (6).” Kazuo Hara follows no such ethos. Known best for The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1988), a grueling film following war veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, Hara’s filmography is consistently bold––if ethically dubious––in theme and method. His debut feature, Goodbye CP (1972), presents disability without the cloud of sentimentality. Hara’s film, radical in its 1972 context, and arguably still so, doesn’t allow the non-disabled viewer to distance themselves. Here, disability is not about triumph over adversity, nor does the film center the ability of the disabled body. Here, you must listen and see the lives of men with cerebral palsy simply as they are.

Documentary is a constructed reality. The hand of the filmmaker, regardless of their interference in front of the camera, is perpetually present, and always powerful:

“In thinking about their subjects, filmmakers typically described a relationship in which the filmmaker had more social and sometimes economic power than the subject…‘I usually enter people’s lives at a time of crisis. If the tables were turned, God forbid,’ said Joe Berlinger, ‘I would never allow them to make a film about my tragedy. I am keenly aware of the hypocrisy of asking someone for access that I myself would probably not grant.’ (6-7).”

While the subjects (can) have a degree of authority in regards to what images are chosen for viewing, there is always an inherent power imbalance between them and their photographer. Hara’s vision of documentary recognizes this imbalance, yet still indulges in its voyeurism.

In The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, not only is the consent of those being filmed unclear, but the film’s main subject Okuzaki engages in physical violence––to which the film crew does not directly intervene (they call the police, but continue to film). This choice––to capture only the “objective”––directly influences reality. In other words, to think of documentary as objective, fundamentally misunderstands the filmic apparatus. Okuzaki’s and his film crew’s passivity is inseparable from the harm Okuzaki inflicts on others, and undoubtedly his internal emotional repercussions.

Goodbye CP is less morally dubious than his best-known film in that it is a collaboration––or perhaps more accurately, a business deal––with members of “Green Lawn Movement,” a group of men with cerebral palsy advocating for the disabled community. The film centers its attention on Hiroshi Yokota, following him and the group’s members on crowded streets, subway platforms, and in their homes. Hara combines audio recordings of the Green Lawn members with those of their family and of strangers who interact with the group’s fundraising efforts. In a particularly evocative scene, Hara films Green Lawn members as they speak to the public through a megaphone, collecting money for their organization.

“We might…be killed…tomorrow. We want…to live…freely…as human…beings.” Yokota’s voice echoes from where he sits on the ground, a swarm of bodies moving with ease around him. The camera begins to pay attention to the people––overwhelmingly children––who run over to drop donations. An array of voices explain their donation, phrases like “I just felt bad,” “My child felt sorry,” “I felt sorry. No special reason,” expressed with twinges of awkwardness. The donors drop their spare change and almost immediately recoil back––either to their parents, or into the anonymity of the nearby crowd––their eyes averting the gaze of the camera. Yokota states: “In my opinion, we’re the object of pity for them.”

Hara confronts his audience with a painful truth: that those without disability fundamentally regard disability as lack, and lack as less than. Pity expresses one’s self-regard––it’s rooted in a relational awareness of the self as possessing something that the other does not. So while pity might motivate their donations, it’s also pity that maintains their otherness. Kōichi Yokozuka, another Green Lawn member, articulates his complicated relationship with pity:

“When I hold a microphone… and talk to the crowd, I can’t help myself…from feeling that I’m miserable. How can I say it? I try to resist the idea…inside my head. But I always find myself asking for sympathy.”

Yokota, Yokozuka and other Green Lawn members talk candidly about their experiences: they talk about sex, marriage, children, and about the film itself. Goodbye CP denies passive viewing; Yokozuka directs his own camera at the audience and renders them––us––as subject.

Goodbye CP doesn’t entirely avoid the edge of voyeurism, but it does highlight the flaws of positivistic imagery. By centering his subjects’ experiences, showing them in the quotidien, and even exposing them at their most vulnerable––the film ends with a shot of Yokota sitting naked in the middle of an empty road––Hara’s film challenges a documentarian gaze that marks people with disabilities as object of pity. Yokozuka speaks:

“When I was with Hara, he always took pictures of me. Damn him. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I be the photographer?…So I started taking pictures myself. The reason why I take pictures…stems from the fact…that I have CP. But I don’t know how…that relationship has anything to do with problems of CP. I don’t really care. This is about my feelings.”

Goodbye CP cares about these feelings, and because of it, the film is an incredibly difficult watch. But it’s also entirely less exploitative for it: Hara’s camera stares back at the staree.

*Goodbye CP is available to stream for free on Vimeo.

Sources/Further Readings 

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987). Cinescope. August 9, 2013.

Aufderheide, Patrifcia, Jaszi, Peter and Mridu Chandra. “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” Center for Social Media, School of Communication, American University. September, 2009.–_Documentary_Filmmakers_on_Ethical_Challenges_in_Their_Work.pdf