In this age of women’s activism, it’s impossible to go a day without seeing articles, videos, tweets, shows, and memes about feminist movements. Enter The Apology, a film by Tiffany Hsiung that explores the lives of former “comfort women”—the more than 200,000 girls forced into sexual slavery during World War II fighting for reconciliation and justice to this very day. What emerges is as difficult as it is empowering.
The writer-director Hsiung saw there was a lack of documentation, understanding, and representation for these past victims and survivors of rape and violence. The Apology is their redemption. A contemporary journey about secrets, shame, and resilience, told through the lives of three grandmothers—Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines—who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial army. Fused with toughness, after decades of silence, we now hear their voices.
Hsiung’s meticulously crafted work, matched with the sincere stories of the grandmothers, stirs emotions and presents the survivors as complex characters, scarred but strong, damaged but compassionate. I spoke with Tiffany while she was promoting her film about its making and the empowerment she hopes to provide to others.
Congratulations on The Apology! Watching your film was a rollercoaster ride. How did it all come about?
It all started in the summer of 2009 when I was hired to document Asian teachers learning about the sexual slavery organized by the Japanese Imperial Army for the first time. The objective was to preserve the Asian history of World War II for use as part of the curriculum. While I was documenting the teachers’ process, I met all the grandmothers. That’s when everything changed for me and I decided to stay behind after the tour.
What prompted you to take the plunge and work solo?
I really wanted to hear the stories first-hand from the grandmothers. Not just about the past, but to also understand what the six decades after the war looked like for them. A few organizations were open to me visiting the grandmothers and I started with the Philippines, in Roxas where I met Grandma Adela. After the Philippines I returned to China to meet Grandma Cao, then Grandma Gil in Korea. Witnessing where they all live, the environment, community it was all so different.
What was the experience like after filming?
When I came back to Toronto with all this footage I was surprised that not many people knew about the “comfort women.” It was quite infuriating. After all, over 200,000 girls went through a system of organized rape. For me, that was the real start. I hadn’t done much research prior, which shaped the format of the film.
You didn’t know much about sexual slavery during WWII before filming?
No, I only read The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang prior to my trip. I was not involved with any groups in this movement before filming. I think that’s why the film ended up being so strongly about the grandmothers’ perspectives, not anybody else’s.
How can viewers help? Say someone like me, who’s also just learned more about sexual slavery in WWII.
There are several ways, not just on WWII sexual slavery but more broadly. It’s important to connect with the issues, because we can’t forget about past issues that haven’t been resolved yet. I took the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and focused it on the grandmothers’ experiences. The grandmothers are still very much living the consequences of those events today. They’re still waiting for the official apology that they deserve, one that actually recognizes the roles of the Japanese Imperial Army.
I can think of five ways to help.
- first, the hundred million signature campaign.
- second, sharing reliable links about the events.
- third, sharing the grandmothers’ stories with as many people as possible, to start a conversation about how we as a society silence others so that we can start creating spaces for women to talk about their experiences with sexual violence.
- fourth, personally hosting screenings in their communities spreads the word.
- fifth, donating to the grandmothers or other places helping survivors of sexual violence around the world.
These are all practical steps to create a better world now, rather than waiting for a time when women no longer experience sexual violence, no longer fear sharing their stories
Have you had men reach out to? What was the response?
There are plenty of male allies and they connect with the issue of wartime sexual slavery because they all have mothers and grandmothers. That said, I think it’s really hard for men to connect with issues of sexual violence when they often feel like they are the perpetrators. There’s this discomfort of “I can’t talk about this,” and “there’s no place for me to bring this up,” because they feel that being male makes them threatening when they talk about violence.
The men who watched the film and came out with their own connections and asking questions, those represent the bridge we need to build.
Have you always been this political?
My craft is filmmaking and I used what I enjoyed doing, which is telling stories, to explore something that I didn’t know. I’m excited that the voices of people of color are now taking up more space because representing them is so very crucial for other people. Someday you and I are going to be grandmothers, and I hope that we leave behind a legacy that our children’s children will be able to build of off. That’s our responsibility.
What do you hope people, particularly Asian women, survivors, and activists will take away from the film?
I hope years from now these the war-time sexual slavery is a thing from the past that’s been rectified. And that maybe they can learn from the things that we’ve done to spark a change. All of this matters. I want to remind everyone that there are no excuses for us to be reserved. To wait for other people to do this work. We don’t have to wait to be represented on the screen.
Before we conclude, what was your relationships with the grandmas like?
I’m closest to Grandma Adela mainly because she didn’t have her immediate family around and it was easier for us to hang out and just get along. In the movie, where you see the two of us sitting in her bedroom, that moment was special for me. We’re just two people and it’s a very transcendent moment. She’s not 80 and I’m not 26. We’re just two women who have both experienced sexual violence and the idea of shame and silence. It really resonated with me my entire life. I was very close with Lola Adela, so her path was incredibly difficult for me. I wanted to quit making this movie upon finding out that she had passed when I was just two days away from seeing her at the hospital. That was incredibly difficult.
With Grandma Cao, she’s very well represented by my family. Grandma Cao and her daughter are a mirror reflection of my own mother and my grandmother, which is why I think my relationship with them as a whole is different. How I got along with them was very much symbolic. How love is shown through screaming and duty and honor, versus saying the words I love you. It’s a very special relationship because there’s so much nuance and understanding between mother and daughter, specifically in East Asian culture. I wanted to share with people and better understand why it’s so hard to talk about the past for us. Not wanting to burden your children. That kind of relationship is very particular with Grandma Cao.
Grandma Gil is one of the strongest women I know. I was in of this 84-year-old woman from the moment I first met her demonstrating at the front lines. Doing what she does and following her from country to country I really wanted to make sure that people were able to understand the life of an activist, the life of an octogenarian activist, and understand the reason behind what she does. But also her life outside of the spotlight, outside of demonstrating. I actually just saw her a couple weeks ago in Korea. Sometimes you really don’t need the English language to be able to communicate and to know that there is love and care even though she doesn’t remember who I was over the years anymore.
To wrap up, do you think there will ever be a society where women can be safe from any form of violence?
Oh boy, I wish there were a world without violence against women, but I think that violence will unfortunately always be present in our society. Whether we just talk about violence as a whole or specifically against women, the only way I can see it just evaporating form the face of this Earth, is actually completely reshaping the patriarchal system and erasing everything. And I don’t know if that’s possible. I don’t know how do you erase centuries upon centuries where violence against women is okay and is fine and is socially accepted around the world.
The way that women have been represented in the past creates this violence and belief that they are a lesser kind of human. I think if you were to erase all the historical baggage of how women were treated and reconstruct it for today, if you change the ways young children are raised, because it really starts from a young age.
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