Not long after Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, a church in Washington, D.C., sent school supplies to surviving children in the devastated Japanese city, which was struggling to rebuild.
Using the crayons, pencils and paints from All Souls Church Unitarian, the children sent back two portfolios of colorful drawings made with the supplies as thanks.
But it wasn’t until Shizumi Manale of Silver Spring saw the drawings in 2006 as the church was thinking about returning them to Hiroshima that the idea of a documentary took root.
“She was so moved by these pictures,” said filmmaker Bryan Reichhardt, also of Silver Spring, who had worked with Manale on a previous project.
The remarkable reconnection after 60 years between the church and Japan is chronicled in the documentary “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard,” screening on Sunday at the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel.
Reichhardt, who wrote and directed the 82-minute film, will be present at the event to answer questions from the audience.
The exhibit of drawings from the documentary will be on view at Montpelier to Dec. 1.
Born after the war, Manale grew up near Hiroshima and later emigrated to the United States, becoming a choreographer and performer of Japanese dance.
She first learned about the drawings and the church as a volunteer with the DC Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace Committee. Japanese visitors had heard about the All Souls connection and sometimes asked to visit.
Long interested in the interplay of cultures, Reichhardt agreed when Manale as producer approached him about doing a documentary.
“I’m also fascinated with living history — history that’s alive and well,” he said.
The two then began researching what had happened after the bombing in 1945.
Arthur Powell Davies, minister at All Souls, was outraged by a photo he saw in The Washington Post of Americans cutting a cake made with angel food puff balls representing the atomic mushrooom cloud.
Deeply offended, he wrote a sermon, “Lest the Living Forget,” which caught the eye of Howard Bell, an American adviser working with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s provisional government in Hiroshima.
Bell wrote Davies and suggested that if he really wanted to help, he could send school supplies to the city. Church volunteers collected supplies and sent them to Honkawa Elementary School, and two other institutions.
The concrete Honkawa School was within half a mile of the center of the blast. More than 400 children and a dozen teachers died there when the bomb blew up Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6.
Fires raged across what was left of the city, and the river grew thick with bodies of people trying to find relief, according to the film. The school was one of the few buildings left standing.
Not long after the blast, about 800 students who had been staying with relatives outside the city returned with their families who moved back to protect their properties and start over.
Officials had predicted nothing would grow for 75 years because of the radiation, but then a typhoon hit and water washed over the city.
“They thought it was a dead place, but then plants started to grow,” said Reichhardt. “They were going to stay and rebuild.”
The children resumed their lessons in what was left of the school despite the terrible conditions. Gangsters, who had moved in to fill the power vacuum, controlled the area, people continued to die from radiation sickness and there was little to eat.
“The children were living in squalor and going to school in a concrete shell open to the elements,” Reichhardt said.
When the school supplies arrived from All Souls in early 1948, the students were thrilled by the brightly colored glass marbles and the packets of colorful crayons, pencils and paints.
“They were so ecstatic when they got their gifts,” he said.
The children used the materials to make pictures of cherry blossoms, green trees, sunny skies and happy people, a sign of their optimism and hope for the future.
Decades later, it became Manale’s job to undertake the job of finding the adults who had drawn the pictures, which she did with the help of the Honkawa school that was still operating.
In 2010, a delegation from All Souls headed by present Pastor Robert Hardies brought 17 drawings to the school for display during the school’s Peace Week.
Before they had “just been pictures, and now they were people,” Hardies says in the film.
After documenting the trip, Reichhardt then started the job of editing the footage, but with little money to fund the work.
By sheer chance, he and his future wife, musician and singer Suzanne Brindamour, were having dinner at a restaurant in Virginia in the same dining room as members of the board of the United States-Japan Foundation, which promotes intercultural understanding.
“They asked me to pitch the film at their dinner — that kind of thing never happens,” said Reichhardt about the grant he later received from the group.
A rough cut of the film has already screened in Japan and at the University of California, Berkeley. Reichhardt also screened the film at the National Press Club in the District on Nov. 13 and at All Souls Church Unitarian on Nov. 17.
He said he hopes show the film at a theater in Washington, D.C., in December and screen it next year in New York and Los Angeles as part of a push for an Oscar nomination in 2014.
Although the bombing of Hiroshima happened more than 60 years ago, attempts at reconciliation continue today, and those efforts can also apply to other bitter conflicts, Reichhardt said.
“I’m very proud of it — I think it’s a great story,” he said.
“If people can connect after this horrendous event, anyone can connect,” said Reichhardt. “Peace is possible.”