Like many journalism students, Louis Dai (TC 2007) started out with a passion for telling stories that needed to be told. However, Louis and his friends David Elliot-Jones (TC 2007) and Lachlan McLeod (TC 2007), would never have guessed that one day they would become documentary filmmakers.
Trinity College caught up with Louis to discuss his career, previous projects and his most recent documentary, Hakamada: A Life on Death Row.
It all began while at university, where Louis, David and Lachlan heard many first-hand stories from international students who were being exploited by the education system in Australia. They saw a story that needed telling, and after a trip to India, they eventually put together a trailer, which they sent to SBS.
This decision, and the need to secure funding, subsequently led to the creation of Walking Fish Productions in 2012, and a partnership with SBS to produce Convenient Education, which was launched online in August 2012 and broadcast in July 2013.
Since then, Louis and his friends have worked as documentary filmmakers, exploring social and political stories from across the globe.
Despite the financial burden that goes with being an independent filmmaker, Louis regards himself as lucky to be pursuing his passion.
‘We’ve all got part-time jobs in order to pay for rent, food and those kinds of things, but I think that’s just the reality of being an independent filmmaker, you’ve just got to hustle and do what you can, because if you’re passionate about what you do, it’s worth it,’ says Louis.
In 2013, the three young men along with their girlfriends moved to Tokyo, Japan, to explore the idea of fame through another documentary Big In Japan.
Big In Japan takes a rather tongue-in-cheek approach to exploring the concept of fame, with David playing both the presenter of the film as well as one of the stars.
‘We instantly approached Dave because we had experiences of travelling with him where people, foreigners, were just drawn to him because he had an interesting look about him,’ says Louis.
However, the project also has a more serious element of exploring the psychology of fame. It addresses the obsession of individuals trying to become famous and the serious psychological consequences this can have.
Louis questions, ‘Why does our society have this ridiculous obsession with wanting to become famous? Why do we want to get as many likes as possible on Facebook?’
Hakamada: A Life on Death Row
It was while working on Big in Japan and teaching English in Tokyo that Louis stumbled upon the story of Iwao Hakamada, a man who had been incarcerated for over 40 years for the murder of his boss’s family.
In 2007, one of the original trial judges, Norimichi Kumamoto, fronted the media and revealed that he had had serious concerns about the evidence used to convict Hakamada in 1968. He had pleaded with the other two judges, but to no avail.
In 2013, a retrial was held after the emergence of new DNA evidence. According to his defence attorneys, the new evidence exonerated Hakamada.
Part of the problem, Louis argues, is that the Japanese criminal justice system disproportionately favours prosecutors. The sheer magnitude of this imbalance of power is demonstrated by the fact that 99.9% of cases that go to trial end up in a conviction.
‘Japanese prosecutors are able to interrogate suspects for up to 23 days. Defence lawyers aren’t allowed to be present during interrogations, there are no electronic recordings and prosecutors are allowed to submit their own re-worded composition of the interrogation as evidence.’
During the 1990s, there was a push to abolish the death penalty in Japan after four death penalty cases were overturned over a short period. However, when a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway station organised by a Japanese cult killed 13 people and left more than 6,000 sick or injured, the movement to abolish the death penalty collapsed.
Since then, under the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and a wave of strong support by the Japanese people for the death penalty, it would appear the death penalty is set to continue unabated in Japan.
‘Now, Japan’s public support for the death penalty is always up around 80-90%. Obviously, there is no public or political will to get rid of the death penalty.’
In 2014, Hakamada was awarded a retrial and released from prison. Sadly, after having been imprisoned for so long, he has become psychologically unwell and is unable to recognise himself or others. Furthermore, prosecutors have appealed the decision for a retrial and want him back on death row.
Nevertheless, Louis will continue to fight for his freedom and for Hakamada’s suffering to be acknowledged by the Japanese government and judicial system.
‘The fight is far from over, and I hope the documentary will serve to bring greater awareness about Hakamada’s case and drive local and international interest in helping him and his family out’.
If you would like to support the documentary you can, by donating via the link.