Counting down the years: a film of Hakamada Iwao's 45 years on death row

When I was at school, back in the seventies (gulp), the most unusual after-school thing I ever did was to take part in a geography exercise to “map” the shopping precinct of my local town. As far as I remember, it involved walking around with one of those “measuring wheel” things, noting down the lengths of the buildings. Back at school we then tried to make a scale model of some of the shops.

Hmm. Not exactly “fun” and not, as it turned out, much of a success. It never got finished and I recall there was dwindling interest from the pupils and even the teacher running the project. I stuck it out to the end (going back to do more measurements on my own on Sundays!), but ... well, it never got finished.

OK, contrast and compare! Lately I heard about a film that students at Birmingham’s King Edward’s School have made on the death penalty. Yes, the death penalty. It’s on the notorious Hakamada Iwao case from Japan, a man officially acknowledged by the Guinness Book Of Records to be the world’s longest-serving death row prisoner. I’ve blogged on his case before. You may remember that Hakamada has been sitting in his condemned-prisoner cell for a mind-boggling 45 years. 45 YEARS! There are serious doubts about the safety of his conviction (read more and consider taking action here) and, not surprisingly, the long years spent awaiting death by hanging have led to Hakamada developing a serious mental illness.

The King Edward’s film rather brilliantly deals with Hakamada’s case by focusing on what the passage of 45 years “feels like”, as captured by the anecdotes of teachers and pupils speaking about notable events in their lives during the years 1968-2012. One of the teachers remembers working in a toyshop “by candlelight” during the 1973 three-day week and national power cuts. Another teacher recalls his son’s birth in 1987. Britain’s currency decimalisation, the moon landings, the collapse of the Soviet Union, personal sporting achievements - all these are mentioned in the film’s year-by-year “passage of time” narrative.

Last week I spoke to Rohan Jain and Tom Haynes, the two pupils who made the film. They did it in their lunch-hours and after school. They were inspired, said Rohan, by watching a short Jeremy Irons film about the death penalty (art imitating art imitating life, or something). They wanted to take the underlying idea of the passage of time and create a sense of that, which is exactly the way the film works. Rohan also mentioned the fact that when he went to people at the school to get them to take part in the project they’d often say “So how long has this guy been on death row then?” When he and Tom told them it was 45 years they were often visibly shocked. Rohan commented that he now wishes he’d been able to film these reactions as well.

The King Edward’s Hakamada film has already had hundreds of viewings on Vimeo and I hope it gets hundreds - thousands - more. I reckon it’s something to be genuinely proud of. It beats mapping town centres and it beats doing “Three As” after-school athletics (an obscure Wall's ice cream-sponsored track and field thing I remember doing in about 1975 but that almost no-one else in the world - including all of Google - seems to).

Looking back, with school stuff I reckon it’s the extra-curricular activities that stay with you for longest. Never mind Pythagorus’ theorem or the freezing point of nitrogen, my guess is that Rohan and Tom’s death penalty film will still be talked about in their lives for years to come. Maybe even in 45 years’ time.

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