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Michael Sparks warms his hands at the top of Mount Fuji (black and white photo).

Michael Sparks atop Mount Fuji. (all photos courtesy of Michael Sparks)

Watching the sunrise on Mount Fuji is among the memorable experiences in senior Michael Sparks award-winning film about his trip to Japan.

Michael Sparks ’21, a communication studies and computer science major, was recognized as one of three finalists in the International Education of Students Study Abroad Film Festival for his short film My Trip to Japan. We spoke to Sparks about his 2019 study abroad experience, his passion for filmmaking and his aspirations for travel once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

IES Abroad Study Abroad Film Festival Finalist poster for "My Trip to Japan," a film my Michael Sparks. Tokyo, Summer 2019 Customized Program, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.
A poster advertising Sparks’ film.

 Q: What made you choose to study abroad? Why Japan?

A: When I was looking for a class to fulfill my language requirement, several of my friends suggested the Asian languages department. I already loved Japanese culture and media, so I thought I’d immerse myself in a new language. In the second semester of class, my professor told us about a summer study abroad opportunity in Japan. The chance to visit the country that created my favorite shows, books and movies was too good to pass up.

Q: What did your study abroad program focus on, and why did you make a film about it?

A: Aside from language studies, the program facilitated several events around Tokyo and Southern Japan that let us experience the country’s culture in a way most tourists never can. We attended tea ceremonies, went on trips through ancient shrines and spoke the language rather than working through a translator. I knew I would film everything I saw while abroad, so when I heard about the festival after I got back to the United States, I had to enter it.

Q: What were the highlights of your time in Japan?

Michael Sparks poses with his host mother in Japan as they hold painting supplies.
Sparks with his host mother in Japan.

A: Spending time with my host family, learning how to cook rice properly and attending my host brother’s high school festival were all highlights, but my favorite memory was hiking Mount Fuji. When we got to our hut after a full day of hiking, I had both a terrible sunburn and awful elevation sickness. After tossing and turning for hours, we woke up at two in the morning to finish our climb. After what seemed like ages hiking through pitch blackness, we reached the summit. The winds were so strong it felt like we’d fly off. But none of that mattered. The sun was rising.

Q: How did you get started with filmmaking? What interests you about this medium?

A: In the 10th grade, my English teacher gave us a project with one direction: Make something. I took on the responsibility of filming a short and instantly immersed myself in dozens of YouTube videos and articles, anything that could make me a better filmmaker. From then on, I started making several videos a year, ranging from sketches to vlogs and wedding videos. I love film because it lets me blend my passions of music, storytelling and visuals to create something that channels emotion and captures a moment forever.

Q: What were the biggest challenges in making this film?

A: Honestly, the biggest challenge was stress. I carried my camera gear everywhere I went, so I was never able to relax. Around the halfway point of the trip, I decided to schedule filming more clearly. This revelation shifted my filming process. It made me think more intentionally about every shot and how it would fit into the final product.

Michael Sparks and friends hug a giant sculpture at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.
Sparks with friends at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.

Q: Once the pandemic is under control, where do you long to travel?

A: What I miss most is meeting and getting to know new people. When we’re able to travel again, I want to go back to Japan. I want to see all my friends and my host family. I applied to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for the fall to potentially work there, but whether that goes through or not, I know I’ll be going back eventually.

Interview by Lauren Mobley’22

Watch Michael Sparks’ film.

Published in the Spring 2021 issue | Tar Heels Up Close

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