Japanese journalist Shiori Ito’s “Black Box Diaries” opens with a call to victims. “I know there are countless numbers of you out there who have experienced sexual violence,” Ito writes to them, her elegant handwriting placed on top of footage of running water peppered with fallen cherry blossoms.
“Please be mindful of the triggers in this film. Close your eyes and take a deep breath if you need to. That has helped me many times.” And, in kinship, it feels as though Ito is holding out her hand to them as she asks, “Now let me tell you my story.”
It’s not an easy story to stomach, but in this staggering documentary playing in competition at Sundance, the journalist-turned-filmmaker crafts a stunning, effective tale of reclaiming victimhood and the fight for justice. “Black Box Diaries” follows Ito’s attempt to investigate her own sexual assault by a prominent Japanese journalist with whom she worked during her internship at Reuters. It’s a difficult road to embark on, but her strength and courage catapults the case into landmark status in Japan, where the country’s antiquated viewpoints and systems can be seen for what they truly are.
This project is the direct evolution of Ito’s work, which makes this film feel particularly special. First, she lived it, then she wrote it in her book “Black Box,” and now she’s reliving it all by showing it to us. It’s a brave film stemming from that notion alone. It’s almost a marvel she would release it at all, but that also shows us her personal evolution in action.
It’s impossible not to be changed by something like what Ito went through, but in this film her dedication and pure intent shows us that reclaiming her strength and power was always going to be a process, one that ideally would include tangible justice. Real life tends to be more complicated than our hopes, but ultimately Ito’s documented efforts are vital to the ongoing struggle against sexual violence. Knowing the weight of her own directorial eye, Ito forges ever forward as she writes her own story again within a visual medium.
The decision to make this film a true diary, to have Ito bare her soul to us via direct video testimony in frank yet monumental moments throughout this process is the most effective way this documentary could have handled the emotional core of a victim’s struggle for redemption and justice. Ito’s conversations with us, moments where she directly addresses the camera, are watershed moments in the film because we see her as no one else involved with this case sees her. She allows her viewers this privilege, and through it we are granted a glimpse of exactly how she has been broken and how she must rebuild.
Considering Ito wrote her book “Black Box” years prior, this film also uses a diary element in the more literal sense. It’s one thing to hear Ito speak some of these words aloud, but it’s another to see them written down in her delicate handwriting, purity so clearly tainted by an intolerable cruelty. It’s an immersive addition to the film’s framework that adds something to the emotional weight of the story rather than feeling like a distraction.
Ito’s book is crucial to her evolution as a survivor and it plays a significant part in the story she shapes on screen, but seeing her writings takes us a step closer to the realities of the crimes committed against her and how they’ve reshaped her. It’s a simple addition, but one that really pays off.
When distilling this film down to its bare core, “Black Box Diaries” is about Ito’s attempt to keep herself alive throughout an utterly brutal legal battle that could ultimately erode the foundation of her self-worth. In this way, her film is a noble work, a selfless gift meant to show other survivors that it is possible to not only rebuild your inner sanctuary, but to seek meaningful justice. Though the footage she shot was initially just a vehicle for catharsis, the filmmaker saw the meaning in giving this story over to the world as her own gift of catharsis to other survivors.
Knowing this makes the film’s beginning and ending that much more impactful. Both use Ito’s own handwriting, both call out to viewers and survivors in particular, to make a covenant of trust. In the final seconds of the film, the audience sees Ito taking in the realities of where this entire journey has led her, an expression on her face that doesn’t read joy or sadness but something unapproachable in between. In this vital interrogation of systemic injustice, Ito shows us all that it is possible to survive something that feels insurmountable, and we should be grateful for her towering example.
“Black Box Diaries” is a sales title at Sundance.
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