Home » Arts/Entertainment » Documentary about Bonsai, Japan’s Gift of Peace, in the Utopia Film Festival

Documentary about Bonsai, Japan’s Gift of Peace, in the Utopia Film Festival

Entrance to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in the National Arboretum in November of 2021

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum opened in 1976 with a gift of 53 priceless bonsai trees from Japan to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial. Some bonsai were several hundred years old and one had even survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Japan’s gesture harkens back to its donation of thousands of cherry trees for DC’s Tidal Basin back in 1912.

I learned from the history of the museum that “The American Bicentennial Celebration of Independence in 1976 ignited an international shower of gifts on the citizens of the United States,” so it’s not surprising that the Arboretum’s director at the time, Dr. John Creech, had the bright idea of asking Japan for the bonsai and working with the Nippon Bonsai Association to make that happen. He even persuaded the federal government to build a facility to display these fabulous trees, and then orchestrated their move with two governments on either side of the globe – no small feat, I’m sure.

How the Documentary Came to Be

This photo of American and Japanese girls posed with a bonsai was used to publicize Japan’s gift of the trees. Decades later, the American girl in the photo, Kathryn O’Sullivan, is a writer, screenwriter and professor. Upon finding this photo, she and her filmmaker husband Paul Awad decided to make a documentary about the gift of bonsai to the U.S. that she played a small part in. That role had come about thanks to her father’s job as a public information officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Arboretum, and he was tasked with promoting the event.

The documentary, called “Bicentennial Bonsai: Emissaries of Peace,” includes rare interviews and archival footage, and mentions wabi sabi, which I had to look up. It’s “a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in nature.” Sounds like an attitude we could all use.

Here’s the trailer.


Greenbelt Connections

I saw the film when it screened last month at Greenbelt’s own Utopia Film Festival, now in its 17th year. It was natural for the filmmakers to enter Greenbelt’s festival because Kathryn’s family lived here at the time of the bonsai gift – at 17F Ridge Road. The filmmakers returned to Greenbelt to attend the screening, along with Kathryn’s parents, and an audience member – Rebecca Waterworth – told us that her father had helped care for the trees when they were quarantined in Glenn Dale, before their final move to the Arboretum. A little bit of old home week!

Kathryn wrote to tell me that they love having their films screen at the Utopia Film Festival. “They always do a wonderful job and it’s fun coming back to Greenbelt.” She also said she and Paul now live in Reston, which they chose because of her positive experience with another planned community – ours – and Reston is near enough to Northern Virginia Community College, where she teaches.

One more quick local note: Dr. Richard Olsen, current director of the National  Arboretum, was interviewed several times in the documentary. He’s known to many Greenbelters for his family’s many years in their GHI home on Woodland Way

Kathryn O'Sullivan and Paul Awad with Frank Gervasi during Utopia Film Festival.

Shown above are filmmakers are Paul Awad and Kathryn O’Sullivan outside the Old Greenbelt Theatre where “Bicentennial Bonsai” was shown, and during Q&A led by Frank Gervasi. They told us they were accompanied on their trip to Japan for filming the documentary by a staffer at the Arboretum, who introduced them to bonsai people there. Nice!

The film was a hit with the audience and won the Festival’s Utopian Visions Award: “The best work in any category which reflects Utopia’s belief in the value of cinema to help create a better world.”

I’d like to provide a link so you can all watch the film but that’s not possible yet. It’s been submitted to PBS, so let’s hope they show it.

Fall color on bonsai trees in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

From a Recent Visit to the Museum

Here are more photos from my visit to the museum last month, catching the deciduous bonsais sporting their fall color. We typically think of bonsais as evergreens, don’t we?

The museum’s bonsai (from Japan) and penjing (from China) collection, plus pieces from North American bonsai masters, is now 300 specimens strong! And it’s an easy 20-minute drive from Greenbelt!

Fall color on bonsai trees in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.


Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *