(31/07/07) – On the 6th of August 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The two explosions combined vaporised 210,000 people (temperatures reached 10,000 degrees Celsius around ground zero in each city). Those who survived were faced with permanent health problems because of the deforming effects of radiation and the prejudices that came with being hibakusha, the Japanese term for the people exposed to the bomb. There are 200,000 survivors living today.

As two of the biggest atrocities in the history of mankind, it is strange and alarming that these events have faded into relative obscurity compared with other WWII events. Younger generations, even in Japan, are not sharply aware of them, or at least do not remember them at the mention of those two fateful dates. "Many people are uncomfortable with the subject. People like to escape the reality of horror, they try to forget about that. I find it fascinating as a subject, the idea that everyone suddenly stops and realises what is going to happen in a united moment,’ says Steven Okazaki, the director of the HBO-financed documentary White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a moving and timely encounter with some of the survivors of the bombings interspersed with archive footage and photographs as well as interviews with some of the American officers involved in the operation.

Okazaki, who won an Oscar® for his documentary Short Subjects in 1990, says the idea for the project first germinated 25 years before it started to materialise. "Talks started in 2005 around the time of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war and there was not much being made. But it was a film I had wanted to make since 1980. Back then, my sister was doing her paper college on the subject, which in the end she didn’t finish. But through her I came to know a group of survivors in San Francisco and I started attending their meetings," says the director.

White Light/Black Rain opens with a sequence of vox-pop interviews with Japanese teenagers who, one by one, admit that they don’t know what the date presented to them refers to. This brief sequence paints a generalised picture of contemporary Japan: prosperous, modern, obsessed with pop culture. "The young Japanese forget about those events. But I didn’t choose those shots to illustrate a shallow side of Japan, but as a preparation for the seriousness of the subject," says Okazaki.

He says he’s met many survivors, but for his film he had to adopt some kind of criteria. "We chose people who were teenagers at the time because they tend to have sharper memories. Most people cannot describe the moment of explosion because they were knocked unconscious so the stories go in many different directions. Those who made it both physically and spiritually have a great appreciation of life; they went through hell and survived it."

After a very favourable reception at the last Sundance festival, where the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, the director says it became clear to him that the discussion about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is different after 9/11. "Before the focus was on whether the bombings were justified. Now the idea is that something similar can happen completely at random. It’s possible that nuclear weapons could be used by terrorists. So it’s really timely to talk about that – the discussion has gone from justification to ‘could it happen again’?"

The film shows that the most effective way to remind people of the atomic nightmare is to listen to the testimonies of the people who lived throught it. In fact, some of interviewees see their survival as a mission to tell their stories lest it doesn’t happen again, echoing Okasaki’s own intentions with his film. "My goal is simple," he says. "Put those arguments aside, look at the survivors and think about how it affects people".

The approach works. Listening to first-hand accounts gives the viewer a human, tangible experience of the atomic horror. In one of the most harrowing moments during the film, survivor Sakue Shimohira, whose sister couldn’t cope and killed herself in front of a speed train, sums it up like this: "I realised there are two kinds of courage – the courage to die and the courage to live." She then adds: "All this pain we carry in our hearts and in our bodies, it must end with us."

White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be broadcast by HBO on 06 August 2007. The film is released on DVD on 07 August.