Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003 Report

5 November 2003
picture: Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003 Report


If I told you that one of the most entrancing films I've seen in the past few months was a four-hour documentary about growing rice, you might think I was being flippant. However, the mesmeric Magino Village - A Tale (Sennen Kizami no Hidokei: Magino-mura Monogatari, 1987) is a perfect example of the all-consuming passion that goes into the very finest of documentary filmmaking. Representing less of a one-off project than an out-and-out alternate lifestyle choice, the film is the fruit of 13 years of experimentation into rice growing by a collective of like-minded filmmakers grouped together under the banner of Ogawa Productions.

Led by Shinsuke Ogawa, the team are best known for their string of counter-cultural documents focusing on the numerous political protest movements that raged throughout Japan in the 1960s, most notably those surrounding the construction of Tokyo's Narita Airport. In the mid-70s, they withdrew from direct-action politics and retreated to a small village in the north of Japan, which is how this film came to be made.

Magino Village opens with a scene of the camera being set up to catch the miraculous sight of a rice plant blooming. The resulting shot lasts a full 6-7 minutes as the flower unfurls and the stamen slowly appears, almost reaching to the top of the frame as it extends to its full length. The film then goes on to show us the filmmakers/farmers scrutinising their maps and charts with a thorough, almost scientific precision, as they outlay the problems currently being caused by bad drainage in their fields. These explanations are interspersed with long leisurely takes of the local landscape as the camera details the farmers lovingly going about the business of planting the young rice plants, checking the roots of the older plants for rot, and measuring the rate of growth in different parts of the paddies.

As the film charts the weather patterns throughout the four seasons, and how they influence the plants' growth, we are treated to a parade of startling shots: the microscopic capture of diffusing pollen and the rice grains actually forming within the plant; time-lapse photos of clouds; the water rippling with the wind. It comes as no major surprise to find out that the cameraman responsible for these beautiful images is Masaki Tamura, whose work on films such as Mitsuo Yanagimachi's Fire Festival (1985), Naomi Kawase's Suzaku (1997) and Shinji Aoyama's Eureka (2000) displays a similar consciousness of landscape and man's place within it. The film also integrates other elements into its structure, including stories from local folklore, one of them dramatised in a fictional sequence with characters played by Junko Miyashita and Renji Ishibashi.

pictures: scenes from 'Magino Village - A Tale'

Needless to say, this is not commercial filmmaking in the slightest. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to feel completely immersed, especially when seeing it on the big screen. It is the kind of film that you don't just watch. Whilst the lights are down and the theatre is dark, you totally exist inside it. Magino Village is an undeniable labour of love, and one has to marvel as to how films such as this ever get made. Amongst the works showcased at the eighth Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF), held October 10-16 however, this kind of devotion to the medium was the norm, rather than the exception.

The name of Magino Village's director Shinsuke Ogawa is well known to anyone with more than a passing interest in Japanese documentary. The second big name associated with documentary in Japan has to be Yamagata, the small city in the north picturesquely surrounded by mountains that every two years plays host to one of the most-highly respected film festivals in the nation. The connection between the two is that Magino village, where Ogawa lived the latter half of his life, is but a short drive from the city itself, and that Ogawa's films were the motivation for the festival's establishment in 1989.

Close to both the majestic Mt Zao and the scenic Yamadera Temple, whose beauty inspired Matsuo Basho's celebrated haiku poetry 300 years ago, it's an undeniably impressive location for a festival. More than this however, given the attention to selecting, scheduling, subtitling and screening of the numerous and diverse films that play there, Yamagata has to be one of the best put together movie events in Japan. Almost all the films were screened with English and Japanese subtitles, and those that weren't had a pre-recorded translation provided by headphone. Similarly all talk events and discussions were interpreted simultaneously into both languages.

With so many films playing, not to mention the large number of seminars, discussion panels, live music events and opportunities for a quick drink or two taking place around the screenings, there was little chance of catching any more than a mere fraction of the films showing. Given the nature of this website, my focus naturally gravitated towards the more Japanese-oriented offerings, but there was plenty more on offer.

pictures: scenes from 'Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks', 'Stevie' and 'Hunting Down an Angel or Four Passions of the Soothsayer Poet'

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, from Chinese director Wang Bing was the unanimous pick of the bunch by the jury members from the International Competition Section, winning The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize. Charting the slow economic decay of the densely populated industrial area in the northeast of China, it traced the lives of over a hundred characters in an epic three instalments which clocked in at a total of around 9 hours, proving that the same dedication and devotion on the part of the filmmakers (not to mention the viewers!) manifested in Magino Village is still very much alive and well.

More accessible was Stevie, from Steve James, the US director of Hoop Dreams. Returning to Illinois to meet up with a boy from a deprived background he first became acquainted with through the "Big Brother" volunteer program, the director soon finds himself implicated in a serious crime committed by his ward. With its strong first-person narrative taking us into the heart of life within an average poor, white, suburban, middle-class American family, Stevie certainly had the most tongues wagging at the festival, and found itself awarded with the Mayor's Prize for Excellence.

Dotted around the other parts of the program there were such other select offerings as Andrey Osipov's Hunting Down an Angel or Four Passions of the Soothsayer Poet, which dramatically reconstructed the life of the Russian novelist/poet Andrey Belyi using contemporaneous footage (both fiction and documentary) shot in the 1910 and 20s (I was informed by the ever-reliable Darcy Paquet beforehand that Andrey Belyi wrote the Russian equivalent of James Joyce's "Ulysses", but I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that most of the viewers didn't have a clue who he was). Wang Chung-Hsiung's The Rhythm in Wulu Village focused on the gradual erosion of the culture and language of Taiwan's indigenous Bunun people and the efforts being made to preserve it. Lebanese director Akram Zaatari discovers a nude portrait of his grandmother taken in the 1950s in Her + Him Van Leo, and tracks down the original photographer in his studio in Cairo to discuss the changing approaches of photographic portraiture of women in Egypt over the decades. Shaheen Dill-Riaz's Sand and Water took a look at those semi-nomadic peoples living on the sandy islands in the middle of the Jamuna River in Bangladesh, who pack up their possessions and move from shoal to shoal when the various islands flood during the monsoon season or dry out in the summer to form an arid desert-like landscape. Japanese director Hitomi Kamanaka's Hibakusha - At the End of the World examined cases of leukaemia being contracted by Iraqi children due to the depleted uranium shells used in the first Gulf War, comparing them with those of American and Japanese citizens who have also suffered radiation poisoning from supposedly natural sources such as food and water. Rithy Panh's S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine reunites the persecutors and victims of the S21 concentration camp for Cambodia's political prisoners after 25 years. And Finland's Mika Kaurismaki's Sound of Brazil took the format of a road movie to trace back into the roots of Brazilian music.

pictures: scenes from 'Sand and Water', 'Hibakusha - At the End of the World' and 'Sound of Brazil'

Much of my time was spent skulking around outside of the selections comprising the International Competition and the New Asian Currents sections however. The two main threads running outside of these were Okinawa-Nexus of Borders: Ryukyu Reflections, and Yamagata Newsreel!

The former program was introduced during the opening ceremony to the infectious melodies of Misako Oshiro, an Okinawan singer who popped up at various points during the week with some of the catchiest tunes imaginable - weeks later I was still busy trying to shake them out of my head. The entire program proved a revelation, highlighting that Okinawa's history over the past hundred and fifty years or so is a lot more complex than one might first think.

pictures: Okinawan singer Misako Oshiro

The Okinawan Archipelago is comprised of the umbilicus of islands that runs from the foot of mainland Japan all the way down to Taiwan. It's currently part of Japan, all right, but not quite, as Okinawa boasts its very own culture, history and language. In the minds of most Japanese people though, Okinawa occupies the position somewhere between a tropical dream world on the nation's doorstep, and a balmy home-from-home as manifested in films as diverse as Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine or Yuji Nakae's Hotel Hibiscus.

Formerly known as Ryukyu, Okinawa only actually became part of Japan in 1879, shortly after the Meiji Restoration. It was the venue of some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific War, and afterwards became the stepping stone of the US into South East Asia, when it remained under American occupation until finally being returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Even now, 60 years after the war, scores of Japanese tourist resorts sit side-by-side with US military bases.

These crucial chapters in the archipelago's history were covered in the ten sections within the festival program. The first of these, Oriental Ryukyu: Showa Era Pre-war Perspectives on Okinawa showed several short films dating from between 1936 to 1942, representing even then the change in status that the islands were undergoing in the national consciousness. The footage in the earliest of these, entitled simply Okinawa, was a celebration of the islands' perceived exoticism (an impression that still persists today), giving us traditional crafts of pottery and cloth painting, and a look at the fishing and agricultural industries of sugar production in Japan's southernmost peak. In one of these films the narrator mentions the "brother-sister relationship regarding culture, geography, language and ethnicity" between Japan and Okinawa. As he goes on to talk about the crucial role of women in Okinawan society, he gently reminds us that their status is still somewhat less than their menfolk: "Good old Japanese traditions preserve", we are told. The final film in this section, People of the Sea: Okinawa Island Story, adopted a more ominous tone, a piece of pure propaganda railing against the "modern European invasion" of Okinawa, and in the manner of Leni Reifenstahl's wartime documentaries for the Nazi party, dwelled on the "powerful physique and strong spirit" of the islands' natives as they are seen boarding warships and sent off to war.

Though the sheer volume of material on Okinawa proved a little wearing, the program was certainly comprehensive, and also incredibly diverse, taking in Shinji Aoyama's latest, Song of Ajima, a concert film for the singer Tomoko Uehara, and a program of films by the Okinawan-based experimental filmmaker Go Takamine that included the three-hour Okinawan Dream Show (1974), and Untamagiru (1989) and Tsuru-Henry (1998).

The screening of Shinsuke Ogawa's legendary Three Day War in Narita (1968) at the opening ceremony heralded the introduction of the other major program at Yamagata this year, Yamagata Newsreel! Ogawa's film was part of a series of films made by Ogawa Productions centred around the construction of Tokyo's Narita Airport, as the government forcibly commandeered the land for the development from the local farmers who had worked it for generations. Shot in 16mm monochrome, the film provided the minimum of background context or editorialising, its basic handheld shooting style setting out the conflict in a simple but effective fashion as the two factions stood off against each other - the police with clubs and riot shields; the farmers, dressed in traditional costume, with bags of manure. The results were jarring and abrasive, and really succeeded in getting the audience riled up.

Ogawa's film perfectly captured the spirit of the turbulent 1960s in all its rawness. Meanwhile, a similar politically motivated filmmaking collective was at work in America named Newsreel. Led by Jonas Mekas and based in New York, the group was born from the direct-action protest movements that arose at the time of The Vietnam War, tackling such issues as sexual equality, student revolt and racial unease. Like Ogawa's Narita films, the group's work, in films such as Columbia Revolt, Boston Draft Resistance Group, Summer '68 and Black Panther - Off the Pig, were anti-establishment and deliberately anti-aesthetic, anti-narrative, and anti-entertainment, running against the grain to focus on political issues that were being ignored by the mainstream at the time. The resulting films were screened in public venues such as university campuses all over America, and indeed across the world, with the intention of working up viewers and forcing them to confront the issues of the day. Ogawa's films of the late 60s were not directly linked to those of Newsreel, but arose from the same feeling of discontent being felt by politically conscious students during the time. Ogawa Productions screened a number of Newsreel's films at the time with Japanese voice-overs.

pictures: scenes from 'Columbia Revolt', 'Summer '68' and 'Black Panther - Off the Pig'

Present at Yamagata were three members of the original Newsreel group. Jon Jost's experimental non-narrative portrayal of love at the turn of the millennium, Oui Non, was also screening as part of the International Competition. The Shanghai-born Christine Choy, notable for being the only non-Caucasian, female filmmaker amongst the young, middle-class white intellectuals who made up Newsreel, was also there as one of the jurors for the International Competition. Who Killed Vincent Chin? also played at the festival, her unsettling 1988 exposé on the brutal murder in 1982 Detroit of a young Chinese automotive worker mistakenly believed to be Japanese, and the subsequent acquittal of the two local rednecks responsible for his death, set against the backdrop of a crippling recession in the motor trade believed to be caused by incursions from Japanese motor manufacturers. And last, but by certainly no means least, was Masanori Oe, a Japanese filmmaker who spent four years in New York during the 60s, associating with Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert as well as the Newsreel filmmakers.

This once-in-a-lifetime screening of two of Masanori Oe's works provided my second epiphany of the festival, after Makino Village. The first work, the 10-minute long Head Game depicted one of the massive LSD-fuelled 'Be Ins' that took place all over America as part of the growing protest movement over the Vietnam War. Full of vibrant colours and disembodied sounds, Head Game was heavily redolent of the spirit of the times, as it showed the passive protestors, their faces painted, chasing balloons and handing out flowers to bewildered passers-by in Washington park.

But this was nothing compared to Great Society, which Oe directed with Marvin Fishman. Screened using 6 projectors running simultaneously to create a dazzling multi-screen (two rows by three columns) extravaganza, the 17-minute visual experimentation of Great Society predates Mike Figgis's Timecode by over 30 years. Each screen was occupied by newsreel footage from the 60s, including such monumental moments as Kennedy's assassination, the moon landing, footage of US casualties from the Vietnam war, interpolated with scenes of the Haight Ashbury hippy movement and still shots such as that of a Vietnamese woman clutching the dead body of her baby. As the hypnotic images bubbled up like sequences from a long-repressed dream, it reminded me of a sort of visual equivalent to The KLF's Chill Out album. At the end of the performance, Oe outlined the philosophy behind the multi-windowed project, that "everyone was trying to create their own world in the 60s, just like this". The whole performance climaxed in a series of nuclear explosions that dissolved into Stan Brakhage-like abstraction.

After leaving New York, Oe went to India where he made a couple of documentaries, before leaving the film world far behind. Subsequently he has been responsible for, amongst many other things, the Japanese translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. For 35 years after it was first projected, Great Society remained unscreened, until it was unearthed shortly after September 11th. Yamagata is but one of a handful of screening events that have followed, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It has to be one of the most stunning experiences I have ever witnessed, and I only hope the opportunity arises for me to live it again.

The Yamagata Newsreel! Program was accompanied by a number of symposiums and talk events that drew attention to the changing ways in which film has acted in the service of democracy over the past few years. The films shot in 1968 in New York, in Tokyo and in other locations around the world such as Paris were a direct result of the increased accessibility of 16mm camera equipment. They were aimed at getting under the skin of the viewers, inciting them into political action. But how successful were they in the long run, and what value do films such as Paris in the Month of May still have for modern viewers? This seemed to be a slight subject of contention during the Newsreel Symposium. Christine Choy was the first to admit that the main failing of these films was their humourlessness, their sense of self-righteousness and their inability to reach to a broader audience (colour was initially eschewed as it was considered too cosmetic and commercial), but reacted violently when informed of an earlier comment by Jon Jost, that "Newsreel was a dismal failure". Aside from capturing the turbulent zeitgeist of the 60s, she maintained, Newsreels' films for the first time gave voices to minorities who were not being portrayed by mainstream news sources.

Times move on, and technology changes. Atsushi Kobayashi from the Tokyo based video activist group Video Act! was present to deliver a symposium on Things We Have Discovered through Webcasting, and Abé Mark Nornes followed it up with My Gulf War: Net Activism from the Left, the Right, and Every Other Direction, which provided a very welcome burst of humour from all the bawling and fist raising. The projection of the pained sincerity of the Bush/Blair Love Duet, part of the Read My Lips series of Quicktime video slips that floated around the web during this year's Iraq War had me in stitches, providing one of the few pleasures of the whole sorry business. The consensus seems to have been that a sense of humour is the best device of getting a message across to a broader audience, though the cynic in me wonders whether, for all the increases in technology, its accessibility and its permeation into the fabric of our daily lives, the situation has really changed, and that films such as these really do have the power to change and reach the people who make the decisions that influence our daily lives. I note with interest that my local MP (name and shame: Ms Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall) has neither a website nor an email address…

pictures: Yutaka Tsuchiya, Karin Amamiya and scene from 'Peep TV Show'

Whilst we're on the subject of Video Act!, both Yutaka Tsuchiya and "YIDFF's very own (self-proclaimed) star" Karin Amamiya (the label can be justified given that she was also the subject of The New God, which screened at Yamagata in 2001) made for a notable presence around the town throughout the week, as they promoted Tsuchiya's latest film Peep "TV" Show (partially scripted by Amamiya). Running with the tagline "It's not us, it's reality that's mest up", the new work saw him adopting a fictional, non-documentary format focused on the media overkill surrounding the 9/11 tragedy to take an acerbic swipe at the vicarious ways in which we consume news nowadays. A disturbed obsessive who found the images broadcast from 9/11 "beautiful", and broadcasts them along with sneak live images transmitted from webcams hidden in other people's apartments comes into contact with a spiritually dead "Gothic Lolita" girl searching for a meaning to her life. The end results are by turns thought-provoking, provocative, precocious, profane and at times more than a little precious. For all that, Peep "TV" Show is one of the most refreshingly interesting films I've seen from Japan this year.

Tsuchiya's new film screened as part of The Yamagata Kokumin Bunkasai (Citizen's Culture Festival), which was running simultaneously with the main festival (more Japanese documentaries were screened in the Other Screenings Section, including works from the three major documentary film schools, The Japan Academy of Moving Images, Cinema Juku, and Tohoku University of Art & Design). Whilst hardly a documentary, it was indicative of the trend that Japanese exercises in the form seem to be taking nowadays - introspective, intimate and sticking closely around the immediate world of the filmmaker, as opposed to, for example, the director traipsing off into the wilderness to chart the lifestyles of some unknown tribe, or exposing political or corporate corruption. Also screened were two works by Tetsuaki Matsue, who several years ago used the Korean background of his grandfather to explore the roots and sense of national identity of himself and his family in Anyong Kimchee. This year he gave us Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry, as three young single Tokyo women settle in for a night of loneliness and a homemade meal of that most staple of foods, curry rice. His second work was Summer Vacation With Naomi Kawase, an hour-long "making of" doc surrounding Kawase's last film, Shara, which to my mind at least, proved far more captivating than Kawase's film itself.

A long-term fixture at Yamagata, the festival where she was "discovered" when her Embracing (one of the most notable of these first person "I-documentaries") picked up a FIPRESCI special mention in 1995, Kawase was also in attendance as one of the jurors of the New Asian Currents section. Yamagata also screened her Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom, a two-way dialogue between her and respected critic and photographer Kazuo Nishii covering his final few days as he passed away with terminal cancer. The audience reaction was mixed, and I couldn't help but feel that there was something vaguely distasteful about the whole business.

The very word "documentary" may be enough to invoke yawns and groans from most people, but as Yamagata clearly demonstrates, the medium covers a whole spectrum of approaches, subjects and styles. There was something for everyone at this year's festival, and then some. With the opportunities as limited as they are for watching internationally-produced works such as these from a multitude filmmakers from diverse countries and backgrounds on the big screen, the need for an event such as this is unquestionable. It's just a crying shame that Yamagata only happens once every two years.