On Paper Wings

As Ilana Sol’s new film about war and reconciliation, Samurai in the Oregon Sky, screens this week at Portland’s Northwest Film Center, a look back at the Portland filmmaker’s first documentary

Editor’s note: On Thursday, November 14, Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center presents the second film by Portland filmmaker Ilana Sol. Samurai in the Oregon Sky tells the story of Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita, the only pilot to bomb the U.S. mainland during World War II, his subsequent visit to the Oregon town the bomb struck, and the 35-year-long relationship between the Fujita family and the people of Brookings, which he came to call his “second home.” It previously screened at the East Oregon Film Festival, Astoria International Film Festival and others.

Sol’s acclaimed first film dealt with a similar subject — the Japanese balloon bomb that killed a group of Oregon picnickers during the War. On Paper Wings won several awards and was included in an episode of National Public Radio’s Radiolab. Here is the profile of Sol ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell published in Oregon Humanities magazine when it premiered.

Nobuo Fujita during World War II

The sunlight sparkled as it made its way through the forest on Gearhart Mountain, and the small party of schoolchildren and their minister from the nearby southern Oregon town of Bly laughed and chattered as the car pulled over to the side of the road. It was May 1945. The country was at war and just emerging from a long Depression, but it was a beautiful spring day, and the young minister, Archie Mitchell, had found a perfect spot for a picnic in the woods. As they spilled out of Mitchell’s car, one of the kids spotted something white lying on the ground. Followed by Mitchell’s pregnant wife, Elsye, they raced to see what it was. “Don’t touch it!” shouted Mitchell.

Almost sixty years later, as she thumbed through the card catalog at the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland, Ilana Sol was looking for a story to tell. Just a year out of college, the would-be filmmaker had recently moved to Portland from Los Angeles, and she wanted to learn more about her newly adopted state. She noticed a card titled “Japanese Balloon Bomb.” What was that? The thick file contained newspaper articles going back to World War II. Sol read that six civilians—five of them children—had been killed during the war, when they found and accidentally detonated a bomb that had landed on Gearhart Mountain outside of Bly.  

Americans killed on the mainland during World War II? Sol had never heard this story. Fascinated, she kept flipping through articles. She discovered that the Japanese had pressed schoolgirls to make mulberry or rice paper balloons that held aloft thousands of bombs intended to set Northwest forests alight and provoke panic. With their schools converted to weapons factories, hundreds of girls, supervised by military officers and told that they were working on a secret project that would protect their nation, patiently made barrels of glue, then cut, pasted, and dried the beautiful paper balloons that would carry their deadly cargo. Floating on the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean, borne on delicate paper wings, hundreds made it to the United States, but the southern Oregon bomb was the only one that proved fatal. 

To prevent public alarm, the U.S. government ordered the surviving family members and newspapers to withhold the story as a military secret. The Oregon survivors—including the young minister who led the picnic (his twenty-six-year-old wife was killed by the blast)—and their families were left to suffer their grief in silence. Eventually, the censorship was lifted, but the story was eclipsed by news of Germany’s surrender, then the blinding glare of the atomic bombs that ended the war.

Forty years later, a Japanese American university professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan named John Takeshita learned about the bombs from a childhood friend’s wife who’d worked on the balloons. Intrigued, he researched the story. While on a trip to Japan, Takeshita told a friend who had also worked on the balloons as a schoolgirl that one of the drifting bombs had killed American children in Oregon. Appalled, she told the other women who’d also worked on the balloons—none had known anything about the people who might have died as a result of their work. One of the newspaper stories Sol found described how some of those Japanese women went on to make a thousand colorful paper cranes, folding each one as painstakingly as they had made the paper balloons decades earlier. On a drizzly day in 1997, they came to Bly and they presented these traditional emblems of peace and prayers for forgiveness to the surviving friends and family of the Oregonians killed by the explosion. 

Japanese schoolgirls making balloon bombs during World War II

Sol put down the file. The news items moved her almost to tears. She wondered how these Oregonians had been able to forgive the people who bore responsibility for the deaths of their family members. And how were the Japanese women able to make peace with the Americans whose bombs had devastated their country at the end of the war? 

Even though the bomb had exploded more than half a century earlier, now, in November 2002, with America still reeling from the attacks of the previous year and a bellicose president threatening war on Iraq, the idea of strangers breaking through the barriers of war and history to find forgiveness for war’s wounds seemed especially meaningful. In the course of making her debut film, Sol—herself a stranger to Oregon, to this hidden history, and even to filmmaking itself—would find answers to her questions. 

Exploring Culture through Film

Ilana Sol had always loved movies. When she was growing up in San Jose in the 1980s, she and her mother regularly made weekend trips to the city’s four independent theaters to indulge their love of foreign and independent films. Movies helped Sol, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, connect with a culture that was in many ways foreign to her family. 

“I’ve always had an interest in how other people live, because growing up I definitely noticed differences between my friends’ homes versus my home,” she says. “I liked movies a lot as a kid because they helped me to understand the culture I lived in, and they allowed me to see how other cultures lived. They also gave me a common point of conversation to talk to other kids. I was sometimes able to talk with someone who I had absolutely nothing in common with, simply because we had both seen and liked the same movie. I think they just helped me relate to other people better.” 

In 1995 Sol moved to Los Angeles to attend Whittier College and, like so many movie lovers before her, to seek her fortune in the film business. She took a few film classes and wrote her thesis on American remakes of French films. After graduating, she found entry-level administrative jobs such as script reading. But—again, like many others—Sol quickly grew disillusioned by the reality of Hollywood’s star-making machinery. “After four years there,” she recalls, “I was miserable on every level. I was really unhappy with it, and it was killing my love for film.”

Portland filmmaker Ilana Sol

Sol knew she had to get out of L.A., but she didn’t want to give up on her dream of being a filmmaker. She wanted to stay on the West Coast. But San Francisco was too close to home; she craved a truly clean start. She’d heard about Portland’s nascent independent film community (in 2008, the city was named one the top ten American cities for independent film), and, despite never having visited and knowing no one, decided to give the city a chance.

After moving to Portland in June 2000, Sol headed straight for the Northwest Film Center, which already enjoyed a national reputation in cinema circles for nurturing independent filmmakers. She secured an internship at the center’s equipment room, began meeting other young filmmakers and wannabes, and, for the first time, took hands-on film classes, which helped her surmount her girlhood fear of gadgets. “As a girl growing up with a single mom, I never learned how to use mechanical things,” she recalls.

Sol plunged in at a propitious moment. Though she hadn’t been to film school, the advent of easy-to-learn digital technologies had dramatically lowered the financial and technological barriers to making films. The center’s supportive environment made it even easier. “I could ask a question and not be ashamed about how little I knew,” she recalls, “like, ‘What’s the difference between DV Cam and mini-DV tape?’”

Sol also found freelance production work around town, assisting on short films, training videos, and commercials. She learned the logistics of putting a film shoot together—and realized that she wanted to make documentaries. “I really enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories,” she explains. “And I’m finding more and more that truth really is stranger than fiction.” 

Tracking Down Oregon History

Sol realized that the balloon bomb story would give her the chance to learn about Oregon and also about how to make her own documentary. For the next few months, she read everything she could about the bombs, but little existed. No one had told the story Sol wanted to tell: Who were these people who had somehow managed to forgive their enemies and find reconciliation?

She knew she needed to talk to everyone who was still alive and who had played a part in the story. But as much as she loved doing archival research, Sol blanched at the next step—a young, unknown, would-be filmmaker calling the surviving family members out of the blue and asking them to revive some of their most searing memories—on camera.

 In June 2003, while driving down the coast on the way to a friend’s wedding in L.A., Sol stopped at the Klamath County Historical Museum to find out how to get to the Mitchell Monument that commemorated the victims of the bomb. One of the curators knew many of the family members of those killed by the explosion, and she put Sol in touch with them. Having someone the families knew open the door for the young filmmaker “was a huge step forward,” Sol recalls. 

Folded origami cranes from Japan stand at the base of the Mitchell Monument on Gearhart Mountain.

The interviews with the surviving family members and friends proved intensely moving; Sol’s sincere interest and warm personality helped the now-elderly women dredge up and confront long-buried emotions, and her camera captured the sometimes-tearful moments of recognition and remembrance. One of the women, Cora Conner, had been a switchboard operator during the war. She and her younger sister had been invited to go on the fatal picnic, but their mother wouldn’t allow them to, saying Conner’s sister had chores to do. Conner’s and other women’s recollections of her shock and long-simmering anger over her friends’ deaths would provide some of the film’s most compelling moments. Sol knew then that she cradled an unforgettable story in her hands. 

At the homes of many of the people she interviewed, Sol found a book of drawings by Reiko Okada, a Japanese woman who’d worked on the bombs as a girl. These drawings would become a compelling part of Sol’s film. The Bly Ranger Station also had a fine collection of historical material available to the public, and at Bly’s elementary school, Sol found scores of the paper cranes that had been presented as peace offerings by the Japanese women.

The Klamath County Historical Museum connected Sol with Mary Ellen Rodgers of Eugene, who’d just successfully nominated the monument for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and had plenty of information at hand—including letters from many of those involved. Rodgers also connected Sol with Robert Mikesh, the author of the first American book about the balloon bombs. Like Sol, Rodgers and Mikesh recognized the story’s significance and wanted to help her tell it.

Such luck and support blessed the budding filmmaker’s research at several crucial junctures over the next three years. Squirreling away money from a variety of day jobs (including a “horrible one in market research”), she made trips to interview sources in places as near as California and as far away as North Carolina. Sol was able to use some equipment from the Northwest Film Center, where she continued her internship, but swallowed hard and bought her own camera. Still, she had no money to pay assistants to handle the light and sound while she was conducting interviews, and so she wound up doing much of the production work entirely on her own. In 2004, Sol flew to Maryland, the home of the National Archives, where she hoped some vintage film might be stored. Sol’s mother now lived in Baltimore, and was happy to have her daughter at home with her for two weeks. Each morning, Sol would drop her mother off at work, then drive her car over to the nearby archives. While poring through the government’s trove of historical motion picture and photo material, Sol found a listing for “motion picture footage of Japanese paper balloons.” 

Japanese balloon bomb

Her heart beat faster as she opened the old metal canister and loaded the half-century-old, 16-mm film onto the table-sized viewer. She turned on the projector, and onto the screen sprang a pristine, black-and-white image of a giant white balloon floating through the sky. Sol gasped. After two years of reading and hearing about the balloon bombs, this was the first time she’d actually seen one. 

It turned out to be a training film shot by the U.S. Navy in 1944–45, instructing authorities on how to defuse the Japanese balloon bombs. Sol immediately realized how vital such otherwise unavailable historical footage would be in her film. “I was so excited—I had to keep myself from screaming,” she remembers. Seeing the strangely beautiful yet murderous device in flight made it all real.

From History to Screen

By the end of 2004, Sol had thirty hours of footage—it was time to craft it into a film. “I tried a few times to sit down and edit it, but I realized that I just couldn’t,” she says. “It was too big.” 

Also, she needed money. Sol saw huge expenses looming; she’d talked to the Americans who’d received the peace offering—but not the Japanese women who’d made it. She couldn’t afford to fly to Japan, but how could she make a movie about reconciliation and talk to only one side?

There was one hope. Through friends in Portland’s film community, Sol had learned about Film Action Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that fosters independent filmmaking in the state via grants, education programs, fund-raising assistance, screenings at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, and by extending its nonprofit status to qualified independent filmmakers—enabling them to apply for other grants and tax-deductible donations. She’d applied for a grant at the project’s outset, but had had no footage and no clear idea of what she was doing at that point. Now, however, armed with a concise proposal (including a budget and timeline), months of research, hours of completed footage, strong references from the Portland film community, and an eight-minute trailer, she applied again. 

Everyone at FAO was impressed by Sol’s proposal, recalls executive director Ellen Bergstone Beer. “She came to us with this wonderful story that needed to be told,” Beer says. “People who knew her could vouch for her integrity and passion.” Beer recognized Sol’s natural assets. “She’s very thorough and conscientious,” she says. “And her humility serves her so well. People get the sense that she’s making the film not for herself but to tell the story.”

In March, FAO offered Sol its support. “We told her: ‘You’ve got to go to Japan,’” Beer says. “She needed that push—someone to say, ‘Of course you’re going, and we’re here to help you any way we can.’” FAO encouraged Sol—not an assertive type herself—to ask for money and other support, and gave her advice on how to find it. One source turned out to be the Oregon Council for the Humanities, which awarded Sol a crucial grant that enabled her to continue her work. 

Sol flew to Japan in September 2005 and, with help from a translator, brought back compelling interviews with several women who’d worked on the balloons as schoolgirls and later created the beautiful peace offering that so moved Sol and the Oregonians who received it.

As she talked with the Japanese women, Sol began to understand why they had reached out to these Oregonians they’d never met. When the women first learned about the casualties caused by the balloon bomb, all they knew was a number—six. It was tiny compared to the millions killed in Japan by American bombs. Then John Takeshita sent them the names, ages, and identities of the Oregon victims—innocent people, innocent children, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like so many of the Japanese civilians killed in the firebombings and nuclear attacks.  

“It suddenly wasn’t just six people killed,” Sol says. “These became five children, most of whom were Boy Scouts and enjoyed fishing, and a pregnant woman who was looking forward to starting a family with her husband. The women in Japan suddenly saw these casualties as people who were not so different from themselves.” After half a century, some of the anger had cooled, and these women who’d seen war’s horror close-up wanted to help heal the divisions that caused wars in the first place. They held meetings in Japan at which they talked about the war and Japan’s role in it, and about what they could do to help prevent such horrors from happening again. The same women who had been conscripted to make vehicles for killing were now making offerings of peace.

When the Japanese women created the paper cranes and told their stories, the Oregonians, Sol realized, the Oregonians also could empathize with their former enemies, who were about the same age as they were when the bomb exploded. At the presentation of the cranes, the survivors participated in a ritual of forgiveness with the Japanese women.

The group of Japanese women visit Bly in 1996

Now Sol, who had always seen movies as a way to understand other people and other cultures, understood why she’d been moved to tears when she’d first encountered the story at the Oregon Historical Society’s archive. Here was living proof that learning about and understanding others could transcend fear, hatred, the searing craving for vengeance. Here was evidence that telling those stories—as a documentary filmmaker could do—might actually help bring people together. 

Beer had recognized another missing element in Sol’s rough cut of On Paper Wings: perspective. It was, after all, Sol’s first feature-length project, and she was trying to do it all by herself. It’s a common problem in filmmaking today, Beer explains. “Because this stuff is so accessible now, because you can get a decent camera for $3,000 or $4,000, a decent editing system for a couple thousand, you can do a lot of it more cheaply,” she says. “I don’t think Ilana, as a young woman filmmaker, would have been allowed to do this if we were still using film. But when film became a populist medium, this assumption developed that you can do it well without really trying, without having to collaborate as you used to. But film is still very much a collaborative art. I think when people don’t collaborate, it shows. And it hurts.”

So in February 2006 Sol enlisted the help of local film editor Kate Schoninger, whose added perspective proved invaluable. But the two faced a grueling task over the next year—turning hours of raw footage into a compelling story. Sol had a lot to learn about how to deal with complex narratives and other pitfalls. She had to present multiple perspectives, recount historical detail, explain how the balloon bombs worked – yet keep the focus on the  people whose story she really wanted to tell. As the months of tedious editing passed, Sol drew inspiration from the Japanese women in her film, remembering their painstaking folding of thousands of paper cranes. She and Schoninger added newly shot, recurring scenes of women’s hands folding paper, which hauntingly evoked both the creation of the lethal balloons and the peace offerings that gave the film its title. 

The result is a quietly compelling, at times poetic, yet never sentimentalized story of hope emerging from war. “The sense of healing is so strong,” Beer says. “A film like this shows that even in war, healing can happen.”

Beer sees a bright horizon ahead for Sol. “People gravitate toward her because she’s so earnest and sincere about what she does,” she says. “The fact that she has made such a terrific film at the beginning of her personal journey in this medium sets the bar high for whatever she does next.”

At the October 2007 public screening of the nearly finished version of On Paper Wings, more than one hundred guests applauded long and loud, lavishing praise on the young filmmaker and—more important to Sol—peppering her with questions. The film had succeeded in sparking its viewers’ interest in lost history. As the credits rolled, an older woman approached Sol with tears in her eyes. It was Cora Conner, the switchboard operator whose memories play a crucial role in the film and who, after a lifetime of grief, had found a kind of peace in telling her story. She had driven up from Southern Oregon to see the film for the first time. “It brought back a lot of memories for me,” Conner told Sol. “A lot of sad memories. That was a hard day.” She embraced Sol. “It was beautiful,” she said. 

Lynn Redgrave (r) awards Best Documentary prize to filmmaker Ilana Sol for ‘On Paper Wings’ at the 2008 Kent Film Festival

For the first-time filmmaker, On Paper Wings was about more than making a beautiful film. “I firmly believe that a major step towards peace is just getting to know more about the other people we share this earth with,” Sol says. “And in a very small way, I hope my film is accomplishing a bit of this.”

Ilana Sol’s second film, Samurai in the Oregon Sky, screens at 7 pm Thursday, November 14 at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum. Tickets and info online. The DVD of ‘On Paper Wings’ is available to purchase from the filmmaker here.

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