Omiwatari screening for World Water Day

Filmmaker Zeesy Powers was attending a Royal Canadian Institute for Science lecture where she first heard about Professor Sapna Sharma’s research on the Omiwatari.

Fast forward eight years and the documentary film on this unique climatic phenomenon will launch at York University.

Omiwatari, a Documentary Screening and Dialogue on the Cultural Losses of Climate Change, will take place on March 20 in conjunction with the 58th CENTRAL Canadian Symposium on Water Quality Research and One Water World Water Day Conference at York University.

Historically, when Lake Suwa, the largest lake in Nagano, Japan, froze over in winter, a rare phenomenon called Omiwatari, or God’s Crossing, would take place.

Dr Sharma, a professor of Biology whose research focuses on the impacts of climate change on freshwater lakes, has been researching the ice cover in Lake Suwa with the help of Mr. Kiyoshi Miyasaka, chief priest of the Tenaga Jinga shrine and its records, since 2012. The ice records began in 1443 and have been maintained by 15 generations of Shinto priests and are amongst the longest human observations of climate. These ice records began long before the start of the Industrial Revolution and have helped Professor Sharma and her team understand how climate is changing, even before the advent of meteorological stations.  

Zeesy’s documentary film, Omiwatari, depicts a recent year in which Lake Suwa, site of this millennia-old phenomenon, remained ice-free all winter. For Mr. Miyasaka, this was the first year in his lifetime that he had never seen ice on the lake. The post-industrial landscapes of Japan’s rust belt bear witness to the price we pay for progress and our remaining possibilities to adapt to those losses. Within the next 50 years, the gods of this lake, whose annual reunion across the ice brought good fortune and balance between humans and nature, will never meet again. We are the cause, she says, and it is up to us to find a way forward for ourselves. 

It took Zeesy almost three years to convince Dr Sharma that she was serious about making a documentary. After securing funding from the Canada Arts Council and the Sharma Lab, Zeesy travelled to Japan for one month of shooting in Nagano prefecture and the city of Kitakyushu. She arrived in the country in February 2020, a few days before the Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama.

“I was only in Japan for a month, and there was a slowly dawning sense that things were really going sideways. Masks, which are very common in Japan, started to disappear off store shelves, along with hand sanitizer and even bottles of rubbing alcohol. On the transit system, displays would encourage you to stay home and not take the train in English, Chinese and Japanese. There was a sense of unreality to it all, where everyone was afraid but daily life continued.”

Filming was a success, in large part to her co-workers, friends, and those who supported the project in Japan.

“The community was very supportive of this film, and it was through community members that we were introduced to many experts,” she says.

The most important of these was Mr. Miyasaka, who has been an important contributor to the Omiwatari climate research. He remains committed to supporting scientific research through this cultural heritage.

“His participation and support was crucial in making this documentary, and inspires me to do the best that I can to honour this story,” says Zeesy.

In addition to Mr. Miyasaka, the project was supported in Nagano by Takashi Komatsu, an archaeologist at the Idojiri Archaeological Museum, Moto Matsuki, whose traditional family business is at risk from climate change, and the City of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, particularly Kunihiro Kojima and Junichi Sono.

“We were so focused on this story that the pandemic was just an ominous background. It’s hard to feel like the present is of any significance when you’re holding a 20,000 year old sculpture in your hands while talking about the permanent end to winter in a single lifetime.”

She returned to Canada on 27 February 2020. Two years of applications and pitches to secure post-production funding followed before post-production.

For Zeesy, this project was a conscious effort to make something in a more traditional format—documentary.

“Omiwatari is absolutely a passion project for me. I have an experimental practice, and never really thought of myself as doing anything but making art. I like to experiment with formats and media to understand how they work. I’ve done a lot of performances, many participatory. My interactive work with virtual reality and artificial intelligence has been interested in having participants perform for themselves. I’m really just interested in understanding how systems work and how we change to fit the system.”

From her perspective, there are two choices: adapt our systems to accept the new reality, or fight over the little that will remain. The first choice is preferrable, but requires cooperation, patience, and compromise.

“Around Lake Suwa, many parents were comfortable talking about the past, their childhoods ice skating and experiencing winter. But they refused to talk about the future, and what their children would face. When I talked to community leaders, they were not optimistic. But they accepted reality and were already thinking towards the future, to what might happen. This was true for Mr. Miyasaka, thinking about how his traditions would continue even after the lake stopped freezing. It was true of Mr. Matsuki, considering how to keep people employed and continue producing his specialty goods once the climate no longer supported traditional production. And it was true of Takashi Komatsu, who saw that the people who survived millennia ago did so by adapting to their conditions, not by trying to control them. It is always possible to act, but it is better to start acting today.”

The film will be screened on the second floor of the Second Student Centre beginning at 16:00. All are welcome.

“The climate catastrophe is overwhelming and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of it, says Zeesy, a sentiment shared by Dr Sharma. “Presenting this tragedy highlights the immediacy of these losses, but also the hope that we are capable of adapting, we can adapt, all we need to do is try.”

“We hope by sharing this story and our scientific understanding from this almost 700-year long ice record, we are able to convey how fast climate is changing and the urgency in which action is required to collectively begin reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. Sharma adds.

The event is presented with the support of the Sharma Lab, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Lassonde School of Engineering, and the York Centre for Asian Research as part of and York University’s Climate Change Research Month.

The documentary will be screened later this month at Massey College and make its Japanese debut at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo this summer.

Poster for Omiwatari A Documentary on the Cultural Losses of Climate Change Part of World Water Day Conference 20 March 2023, 4pm Second floor, Second Student Centre, 15 Library Lanes, York University Discussion with Sapna Sharma, Department of Biology, York University; Zeesy Power, Filmmaker Reception to Follow Presented with the support of The York Centre for Asian Research The Sharam Lab, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, York University Lassonde School of Engineering

Omiwatari: Documentary Screening and Dialogue on the Cultural Losses of Climate Change
Monday, 20 March 2023 | 16:00 to 17:30 | Second Student Centre Convention Centre | York University

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