With "Our Sounds," a sound-only documentary film about a group of foreign students that confronts audiences with a black screen, Japanese director Hiroshi Habu wants to show people how to see in a new way.
The 55-minute film is structured around a multilingual group of foreigners studying Japanese in the city of Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture as they collaborate on writing a song about their experiences of living in Japan.
Shot in segments over around 15 days in 2021, it is a patchwork of unscripted interactions among the students, whom Habu was teaching Japanese. Some of the dialogue is in the students' native tongues, but enough Japanese is spoken for audiences to understand what is taking place.
The director, who is also a musician and community activist in the western Japan city, hopes audiences will end up paying more attention to the film's subjects than they would if they also had something to see with their eyes.
With no visual aids, they must rely on their ability to listen carefully to grasp where the story will lead them. Everyone's interpretation is different, he says.
"It's a movie where if you don't listen intently, it doesn't make sense," Habu said of the film, which was completed in 2022.
Habu likens the experience he hopes audiences will have to meditation.
"If you look at things with your eyes only, you're probably not seeing it," Habu said.
The unseen group of 10 class members are mostly Vietnamese technical interns, but they also include an American and a French student.
Habu also hopes that by getting the audience to make a concerted effort to understand the people in the film, they will place themselves in their shoes and thus overcome preconceived notions they might hold about foreigners living in Japan.
"The story is not the focus, but the focus is the participants' lives," Habu said. "It is a simple and positive film."
The film opens with Habu and Vietnamese students trying to understand each other during an online Japanese class where they have difficulty catching each other's words.
Habu says the song the students compose emerged "organically," with everyone offering input, from the tune to the lyrics.
"It is about being away from your country and working people's lives in Japan," Nguyen Thi Xuyen, 27, who works at a machinery parts plant in the city, told Kyodo News.
While coping with isolation -- many miss their families and friends back home -- the group members also discover joy by connecting with other people and finding solace in the natural surroundings of the mountainous region.
Nguyen, who said she "sang her heart out," joined the production in the early stages after arriving in Japan. "Japanese culture and words are different so it was confusing at first, but the more I understand Japanese, the more I came to like it."
An American participant, Seana Magee, said the film showed the importance of curiosity and wanted people in rural cities like Takahashi to understand that foreigners also contribute to their communities.
"I would hope that people would see more of the connection rather than the disconnection and also realize what it is like to step, even for ten minutes, into our shoes," added Magee, who teaches English in Takahashi. "(Our Japanese) language is not perfect, but try to understand, try to communicate with us," she said.
The director also wants Japan to be more welcoming to foreign residents, and says that while the government touts the slogan of "multicultural community building," many people just pay lip service to "diversity and inclusion" as mere concepts.
Saying he felt embarrassed that not one of his students had been invited to a Japanese home in Takahashi, which has a population of roughly 30,000 people, he said he hopes that his film will be like a "seed," helping communication between Japanese and foreigners.
"Everyone will take away a different message from the film," Habu said. "I hope people will talk about their thoughts among themselves and create new communities."
The director also plans to show the film across Japan, possibly at mini-theaters and cafes, and overseas. He said that a small showing in February at a Boston church in the United States received some praise. The screening included a translation for the audience since the "base" language is Japanese.
Habu hopes to return to the United States for his next project and make a similar film as an Asian living in a predominately white country.