Personal documentary, diary films, first-person cinema and “Self documentary” in Japan

Film buffs on the internet and specifically on social media are often times obsessed by lists. Although I’m not a big fan of them when used to rank movies (how dare you to rank art! I’m joking of course…), it is nonetheless unquestionable that lists are one of the greatest tool to discover new movies and explore novel cinematic landscapes.

In the past month I’ve asked on Twitter (by the way, if you’re not doing it already, please follow us ) to list some of the most significant personal documentaries made in Japan. Some friends were kind enough to reply and share some titles, some of which I wasn’t aware of.

With this feedback in mind, I started to collect my thoughts and compile a list of what I consider the most important personal documentaries made in Japan. I’ve also included some titles I have not seen yet, don’t kill me for this, but I’ve trusted what has been written and discussed by people I trust and respect.

Before starting to explore what the list has to offer, let me clarify what we mean when we talk about “personal documentary”. Keeping in mind that the definition is always vague, in flux and susceptible to change, and so is the term documentary, I think we can approach a sort of truthfulness by stating that personal documentaries are works often made, but not always, in the first person and about the life of the director/cameraman. For these reasons often they are also called, or more precisely they overlap with, diary films and first-person cinema.

In Japan the term often used to define this kind of works is “Self Documentary” セルフ ドキュメンタリー. Illuminating in this respect is this piece written by Hisashi Nada for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 2005. Also available on the YIDFF site, there’s an interview with Matsumoto Toshio conducted by Aaron Gerow, in it the theoretician and director criticized some trends in the Japanese self documentary scene of the 1990s, a take that, for what is worth, I agree with:

there are problems with an “I” which doesn’t doubt its “self” and the so-called “I-films” (watakushi eiga) share those: they never put their “I” in question. Since they don’t attempt to relativize themselves through a relationship with the external world, they gradually become self-complete–a pre-established harmony.

With this in mind, let’s start:

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (Hara Kazuo, 1974)

My favourite Hara Kazuo’s film by far, yes more than The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, this is more or less where and when the personal documentary started in Japan. Contrary to what many films made in the following decades did, Extreme Private Eros is a sublime embodiment of the famous motto of the 1960s and 1970s “the personal is political”.

Impressions of a Sunset (Suzuki Shiroyasu, 1975)

If Extreme Private Eros is where the Japanese personal documentary started, Impression of a Sunset is where the diary film à la Mekas emerged in Japan. Mostly unknown outside Japan, it’s in every way a diary composed by images where Suzuki, after buying a CineKodak 16 (a pre-war 16mm camera) at a second hand camera shop, starts filming his wife, his newborn baby and his workplace. With Impressions of a Sunset and other works such as 15 Days (1980), Suzuki is more a poet with a camera than a documentarist in the sense we give the term today.

Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994)

Probably the most known personal documentarist from Japan, Kawase started her career with short home movies about her search for the father who abandoned her as a child in Embracing, and about the strong bond with her grandmother, who became her adopted mother, in Katatsumori.

Memories of Agano (Satō Makoto, 2004)

I’ve written extensively about the movie and its hybrid and experimental qualities, clearly it’s much more than a personal documentary, but director Sato and his cameraman returning to the locations and the people filmed more than 10 years before in Niigata, make it a movie perfect for this list.

Dear Pyongyang (2006) and Sona, the Other Myself (2009) by Yang Yong-hi

A documentary by zainichi Korean director Yang Yong-hi about her own family. It was shot in Osaka Japan (Yang’s hometown) and Pyongyang, North Korea, In the 1970s, Yang’s father, an ardent communist and leader of the pro-North movement in Japan, sent his three sons from Japan to North Korea under a repatriation campaign sponsored by ethnic activist organisation and de facto North Korean embassy Chongryon; as the only daughter, Yang herself remained in Japan. However, as the economic situation in the North deteriorated, the brothers became increasingly dependent for survival on the care packages sent by their parents. The film shows Yang’s visits to her brothers in Pyongyang, as well as conversations with her father about his ideological faith and his regrets over breaking up his family.                                                                                        In Sona, the Other Myself the director continues the exploration of her family, Sona is the daughter of her brother who moved to North Korea from Japan in the early 1970s. Through her, the film shows the generation that migrated from Japan to North Korea and their offspring who were born and raised in North Korea. (from Letterboxd).

Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman (Sunada Mami, 2011)

Recently retired from a company after some 40 years of service, Sunada Tomoaki, father of filmmaker Sunada Mami, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and only has a few months left to live. True to his pragmatic core, Sunada sets out to accomplish a list of tasks before his final departure: playing with his grandchildren, planning his own funeral, saying “I love you” to his wife, among others. (from Letterboxd)

Everyday is Alzheimer’s (2012), Everyday Is Alzheimer’s 2 – The Filmmaker Goes to Britain (2014) Everyday Is Alzheimer’s the Final: Death Becomes Us (2018) by Sekiguchi Yūka

The director documents and depicts the daily life of her dementia-diagnosed mother.

Yongwanggung : Memories from Across the Water ( Kim Im-man, 2016)

Statement from the director: “Yongwangung was a Gutdang (shaman’s shrine) where first generation Korean women who crossed the seas from Jeju to Japan use to go before the Second World War. In 2009, I heard that the shrine was about to be demolished by the Osaka city government. My childhood memory of my mother praying in the kitchen came back when I was filming elderly women in Jeju. I felt the urge to have a shamanistic ritual for my mother who had been hospitalized.”

Home Sweet Home (Ise Shinichi, 2017)

This was one of the movies I was more eager to see last year, but unfortunately I couldn’t catch it. The film covers 35 years in the life of filmmaker Ise Shinichi’s family, documenting his disabled niece Nao since 1983.

Special mentions

Toward a Common Tenderness (Oda Kaori, 2017)

It’s one of my favourite viewings of the year, but it has just come out and I need to rewatch it, that’s why it’s not included in the list. The balance between the personal and the poetic is what makes it special.

Magino Village – A Tale (Ogawa Shinsuke, 1986)

As the mysterious object of Japanese documentary per excellence, Magino Village goes of course far beyond the realm of  personal films, but somehow this sprawling movie is, among other things, the result and the partial documentation of more than a decade spent in Yamagata by the Ogawa collective.


Anthropology and cinema: The Song of Akamata (Kitamura Minao, 1973)

I’m reposting something I wrote almost 4 years ago about Kitamura Minao and visual anthropology in Japan

Visual anthropology, ethnographic cinema, visual folklore and ethnographic film are all definitions floating around the same concept, a point of intersection between cinema, film or the visual arts on the one side and ethnology, anthropology or ethnographic field work on the other. Although all these definitions don’t exactly signify the same thing, I personally like the term “visual anthropology” the best, for no special reason.

I came to be interested in visual anthropology through the works of Jean Rouch, author and co-author of some of the most outstanding works in the history of documentary (Chronicle of a Summer, Moi, un noir, etc.) who was also a very well respected anthropologist who spend most of his life working in the African continent. Driven by this interest a couple of years ago I started to look for something or someone similar in Japan, and by pure chance one morning at Nagoya Cinemaskhole, I came across and discovered the works of Kitamura Minao.
Kitamura is one of the most respected visual anthropologist (I don’t know if he’d agree to be called so) working today in Japan, the founder of Visual Folkrore Inc. and, besides his works for TV (mainly for NHK), he’s also the author of some very compelling and inspiring theatrical documentaries. For instance, Kitamura is the director of one of my favourite films of 2012, Hokaibito: Ina no Seigetsu about the life of Inoue Seigetsu, a poet and wanderer who lived the last part of his life (he died in 1887) shifting through the land of Ina, now located in Nagano prefecture, between the Edo and Meiji period, a time of dramatic changes that transformed and shaped Japan as a modern nation.
Hokaibito: Ina no Seigetsu is a very unique documentary constructed by merging poems, written by Seigetsu himself and visualized on screen by nice handwritten strokes, with reconstructions of the life of the poet, played here by the legendary dancer Tanaka Min.
I haven’t seen so many of Kitamura’s works, especially those comissioned by museums or NHK, but a couple of years ago at the Kobe Planet Film Archive I had the chance to see two of his works made around 30 years ago: The Horse of Kaberu (1969) and The Song Of Akamata:
Life Histories of the Islanders of Iriomote Okinawa
The former in particular impressed me for its compelling topic: the failed attempt to film a sacred festival in Komi (filming the rituals in the remote island remains a taboo) that nonetheless turned out into a meaningful portrait of the people living or returning to the small land, and a revealing study of their deep relationship with traditions and religion practices of the island.
What follows is an introduction to the movie by Kitamura himself, given on the occasion of a symposium, “Expanding the horizon of Area Studies through film presentation The New Generation of Anthropological Cinema” held in Kyoto in 2006:




There are two sacred festivals in the Okinawan Islands that, although they continue today, have not yet been filmed or documented: Uyagan-Sai of Ogami Island, Miyako; and Akamata of the Yaeyama Islands, which I attempted, on one notable occasion, to film with an Arriflex camera. The result is this rather peculiar work that did not actually achieve its main objective.
Once a year, during June of the lunar calendar, wearing a wild red wooden mask and covered in leaves and vines, Akamata appears from the sacred cave known as Nabindo. He visits the village founder’s house in Komi to bless the villagers and promise a good harvest for the coming season.
In July of 1972, I arrived at Komi with my filming crew, having traveled by Sabani, a kind of small fishing boat. Although 73 families had occupied the village in 1960, only 17 families remained. Most of the young people had left for Tokyo or Kawasaki, and each year an additional few families had also emigrated to Ishigaki Island or Naha. With such a small village population, I was doubtful that Akamata would be held.
At midnight of the first day of the festival, I was called outside, where I was surrounded by several young men with sickles. They returned to me a bottle of sake I had presented them with in honor of the festival, and then threatened me, shouting, “We never gonna let you shoot Akamata. Never! If you do, you’ll be found murdered.” Their parting shot, “If we ever allow your filming, it’s the end of the village,” made me even more curious about why Akamata made them so excited and energetic. What magnetic force made people come back to the island to join Akamata?
Due to these developments, instead of filming Akamata, I decided to document the life histories of the villagers and the ways of life of the people who had emigrated from Komi. I rallied my frightened crew and began a daytime visit to a family by asking them to let us take a souvenir photo. They liked our request, even though the camera was my 16mm Arriflex. We also voluntarily joined in the work of the village community, drank together, and sang together, with the camera and recorder turned on.
Before completing souvenir photos of all 17 families, I began to understand the fairly complicated relationships among the villagers. For instance, there were conflicts between native and newly introduced religions. After the photos had all been taken, we visited ex-islanders live in Ishigaki and Naha in order to ask why they had left their native island. I found that these ex-islanders living in the cities maintained the same values they had cherished in their native village. It seems that Akamata still lives in their minds.
The sacred masked Akamata, covered by leaves and vines, does not appear at all in “The Song of Akamata.” Nonetheless, this film succeeded in documenting and unmasking the real lives of the islanders.
Duration: 82 mins, Medium: DV, Year: 1973, 2006 (revised), Production: Yugyoki Location: Komi, Iriomote, Okinawa, Japan

Here the original

Slow Motion, Stop Motion スローモーション、ストップモーション (Kurihara Mie, 2018)

Slow Motion, Stop Motion スローモーション、ストップモーション by Kurihara Mie was awarded with the Grand Prize and the Audience Award at the 32nd edition of the Image Forum Festival. Shot in Laos, Miyanmar and Thailand in the course of 4 years, as far as I know the director usually stays in the regions for at least a couple of months a year, the movie is a funny and poetic telling, through the mode of the personal documentary, of her experiences and encounters in those countries. On the surface thus Slow Motion, Stop Motion is a diary film and a record of her meetings and interactions with the people she meets and befriends, but on a different level it’s also a glimpse into their life and daily struggle to survive. Avoiding shots of turistic places, beautiful postcard-like landscapes, and disengaging completely from a moralistic and exploitative use of the poorest areas of the countries, the film excels in creating a vivid and vital potrait of the people Kurihara meets. The images captured by the Japanese, but often she gives the camera to children and other people to freely film whatever and however they want, feel thus very authentic. Moreover the home movie-quality that permeates the entire work is functional to what seems to be one of Kurihara goals, that is capturing glances of ordinary life in South East Asia.

An important element of the film is the narration. Done by Kurihara herself it’s infused with a dry sense of humor, the words spoke n not only are funny and represent a commentary a posteriori on what is depicted on screen, but they often reflect and indirectly criticize the act of filming itself and the fetishism towards technology that visual artists very often succumb to. In one of the funniest parts, the director buys a cheap version of a Go-pro and tries to film underwater scenes and pigeons, there were no seagulls on the beach, like in the beloved Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.

The humorous parts are intertwined with few poetic and melanconic scenes, when Kurihara reflects on the sad mood that permeated the day of her departure for instance, or in a long scene without comment or narration, almost ethnographic in style, where an old man kills, plucks, cleans and cooks a rooster for his family.

The film has neither the stylish and polished aesthetics so in demand in the current international festival circuit, nor the political and activistic approach that often drives people to documentaries. I really hope that despite the lack of these qualities the movie won’t fall under the radar, because as a hybrid experiment that uses the diary and personal documentary style as a point of departure, it subtly touches very crucial themes such as post-colonial representation and representation of marginal areas in contemporary visual culture.

Image Forum Festival 2018 イメージフォーラムフェスティバル 2018

The 32nd Image Forum Festival ended last Sunday in Tokyo. The nine-day-long event, hosted at two different locations in the Japanese capital, the Theatre Image Forum and the Spiral Hall, screened in total more than 80 films, including 23 in the East Asian Experimental Film Competition, the main section. Established in its present form in 1987, the festival succeeded and replaced an experimental film festival that was held, in various phases and different shapes, in the capital from 1973 to 1986.

To this day the festival continue to embody the mission and the legacy of its predecessors. Primarily dedicated to experimental cinema and video, the event provides a special opportunity for the viewers to experience on a big screen a mix of feature films, home cinema, documentary and experimental animation.
After Tokyo, the festival will move to Kyoto, Yokohama and Nagoya, with slightly different contents, there will be special sections dedicated to artists of each city. This is a right and welcomed decision, since too often Tokyo ends up cannibalizing the cultural and artistic events taking place in the archipelago.

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This year’s special retrospectives were dedicated to the provocative films of Christoph Schlingensief, German director who expanded his works beyond cinema to touch theater, television and public happenings, Kurt Kren, Austrian artist associated with Viennese Actionism, but also author of structural films, and the experiments on celluloid by Japanese photographer Yamazaki Hiroshi. I wasn’t aware of the films of Schlingensief, and I have to say that it was at the same time a discovery and a delusion. While I really liked 100 Years of Adolf Hitler (1989), claustrophobic and parodic reconstruction of the last hours of the dictator and comrades in his bunker, I couldn’t digest the other two movies of the so called German Trilogy. German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) and especially Terror 2000 (1992) are too much of a mess and stylistically all over the place , and probably too bound to the events of the time, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent unification of the two Germanies, for me to decipher them.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check the works of Yamazaki, but I’m planning to see them at the end of September, when the festival will come to Nagoya. As with his conceptual photos, the shorts made during his entire life explore the relationship between time and light, a topic I’m very attracted to.
I also missed the screening of Caniba (2017) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, about the “cannibal” Sagawa Issei, if I’m not wrong, this was the Japanese premiere of the film, and the special focus Experimenta India, a collection of visual art from the Asian country.
Interesting was to catch Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge, 2018), about the famous ex-refugee of Tamil origin, now a pop icon and singer, an artist I was completely unaware of. The documentary is based on more than 20 years of footage filmed by herself and her friends in Sr Lanka and London. While I didn’t connect with the first part of the movie, too self-indulgent for my taste, the film gets much better in the last 30-40 minutes when, albeit briefly, touches on complex and fascinating topics such as immigration and art, fame, and social awareness in the show business.

The East Asia Experimental competition was pretty solid, besides several short films coming from a variety of areas like South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and naturally Japan, two were the long documentaries screened. A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin, 2017), a visual exploration of the social and geographical landscape along the longest river in Asia (you can read my review here), and Slow Motion, Stop Motion (Kurihara Mie, 2018) a movie that positively surprised me and won both the Grand Prize and the Audience Award. A review is coming soon, stay tuned.

Asia is One アジアはひとつ (NDU, 1973) edited

I’m reposting an edited version of my piece on NDU’s Asia is One, an article I wrote two years ago (it was full of mistakes!)

NDU (Nihon Documentary Union) was a Japanese collective established in 1968 by a group of Waseda University students, who would eventually drop out, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. From 1968 to 1973, the year the group dismantled, this group of activists, they considered themselves first of all as a collective of activists,  made four documentaries, moving from the street of Tokyo – the first work was Onikko – A Record of the Struggle of Youth Laborers – to the far away islands in Micronesia passing through Okinawa, the archipelago where they shot two of the their most significant documentaries. Motoshinkakarannu (1971) was made and is about Okinawa before the reversion to Japan, the group went to the island in 1971 and captured on film a society in flux and in the middle of a shifting passage. The film show and focuses on the margins of society with illegal prostitution and life in the red districts, at the same time highlighting the historical and social fractures that were traversing the area: anti-establishment and anti-American riots, the Black Panthers visiting Okinawa, pollution of water and much more. I listed Motoshinkakarannu as one of my favorite Japanese documentaries in the poll I’ve organised a year ago, but today I want to shift my attention on the second movie made by the collective in Okinawa (and beyond): Asia is One アジアはひとつ (1973, 16mm, 96′) a work that I hadn’t seen at the time of the poll, and that would have certainly figured in my list, paired with Motoshinkakarannu.

Asia is One was screened on June 26th at Kyoto Kambaikan, as part of the AAS in Asia, and it was screen with English subtitles for the first time, the movie was shelved for many many years, forgotten, and was (re)discovered only in 2005 when was screened at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The screening in Kyoto was followed by a fascinating Q&A with the only surviving member of NDU, Inoue Osamu, Nunokawa Tetsurō, who after the dismantling of the collective made other interesting solo documentaries in Palestine and US, passed away in 2012. As described by Roland Domenig (1), with Asia is One

NDU further explored the margins of Okinawan society and continued to break through borders by focusing on the Taiwanese minority. The film portrays Taiwanese migrant workers on the main island of Okinawa who substitute the Okinawa laborers who in turn are employed as migrant workers on Japan’s main islands. It traces the history of Taiwanese coal miners on Iriomote Island, follows legal and illegal workers to the westernmost island of Yonaguni and finally lands in Taiwan in a village of he Atayal tribe of Taiwanese aborigines, where still the Japanese naval anthem is played every noon.

Formally the documentary is composed of  landscapes and interviews, all of them out of sync, possibly due to the equipment used or maybe the lack of it. The uncanny space created by this displacement, but also by the use of music from radio broadcasts and kids voices, thrown here and there during the movie, gives the work  a peculiar aesthetic tone, a type of non-fiction cinema that I like to call “chaos cinema”. (2)
To explain and understand the “chaotic” trait of Asia is One, and Motoshinkakarannu, we have to delve deeper in the philosophy that laid behind NDU. What the collective has tried to convey through their cinema is extremely fascinating, in their writings (3), mainly published in the magazine Eiga Hihyo, the group was explicitly pushing towards a cinema/activism of anonymity, trying to reach an “impersonal space” and rejecting even the term “work” (sakuhin) because it was seen as the product of a single person in command and as a result of a dominating power structure. In this regard famous was their criticism of Ogawa Production, a collective that bore the name of a single person and that was basically structured hierarchically (4). To this kind of collectivism NDU tried to oppose a more fluid idea of group activism, where the structure was a flat and horizontal one,  and in doing so promoting a cinema made by amateurs (5) and not by professionals. “Everybody can push the button and shoot with a 16mm camera” said Inoue, and this is even more true today since the advent of the digital revolution. Whether this approach was successful or not, and more importantly, whether this horizontal structure and “amateur cinema” is possible at all, are questions without answers that are haunting scholars to this day.
Going back to Asia is One, the part of the movie the resonates more with me is the last one, when the film moves to the Atayal village in Taiwan. There’s a quality in the close-ups of the tribe people, beautiful and ancient faces, that is very fascinating, also because it is in these scenes that the political discourse on identity, or the negation of it, reach its peak. From the 17th Century onward The Atayal people, like the rest of the tribes inhabiting the island,  were forced to face the colonization of the Dutch first, the Spanish and the Chinese later, and eventually that of the Japanese Empire (1895 – 1945), which called them “barbarians” and tried to assimilate and annihilate their culture (6). That being said, the words spoken by the member of the tribe provide more context and add layers of complexity to the situation. “Japan conquered us and abolished many of our ancient traditions and customs”, but at the same time “we were drafted and went to war with pride and ready to die” and also “luckily the Japanese abolished some of our ancestral traditions like beheading”. Asia is One ends with the militaristic song If I Go to Sea against an everyday scene with the aboriginal Taiwanese people isolated in the mountains singing “We want to go to war again.”

Of course there is oppression and violence, physical and cultural, in every colonization, but things here are deeper than what they seem. In the process of cultural and historical coring that the movie conveys with its images and words, from Okinawa to Taiwan, two significant elements emerge. The first is the crisis of the identity concept, often a forced cultural and national superstructure imposed by the stronger part on a “highly fluid space of human life” (6), as Inoue explained “identity was one of the most hated words inside the NDU, identity is a choking concept”. The second point that struck me is the recurrence of a power and social structure that exploits the margins, the outsiders and the weakest people. In mainland Okinawa the illegal prostitutes and worst jobs are done by people from Miyako island, and in Miyako and other small islands the lower part of society is occupied by Koreans, Taiwanese and aboriginal people. This perpetuating exploitation is possible only as long as a certain part of society is described as different and inferior, and only when and where the concept of border is a monolitic divide used to create the “other”, the “foreigner” and the “stranger”. NDU’s documentaries are an antidote against all this poisonous discourse, and an invitation to break through the borders, those in the world outside us, but also those inside ourselves.
A final note on the title, the movie as a product of a collective that was thriving towards anonymity, has not film credits, nor it had originally a title, Asia is One was attached to it only later, and it’s a kind of a joke because as Inoue himself said “we all know that Asia is not one!”


1 Faraway, yet so close by Roland Domenig, in The Legendary Filmmaking Collective NDU and Nunokawa Tetsurō ed. Yasui Yoshio, Tanaka Noriko, Kobe Documentary Film Festival Committee, 2012.

2 This might not be the best way to describe the movie, but aesthetically it reminded me, maybe because of the out of sync, of Imamura Shōhei’s documentaries shot in South East Asia during the 70s.

3 Some of the writings are translated in The Legendary Filmmaking Collective NDU and Nunokawa Tetsurō, op. cit.

4 You can find more in  Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary, Abé Markus Nornes, Visible Evidence 2007.

5 Some interesting insights on amateurism in cinema can be found in The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, Eric Cazdyn, Duke University Press 2002.

6 In 1930 the village was the site of an anti-Japanese uprising, the so called Musha Incident, an event portrayed in Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Wei Te-Sheng, 2011)

7 Nunokawa Tetsurō in YIDFF 2005 Special Program, Borders Within – What it means to live in Japan.

“Contemporary documentary in Taiwan: memory, identity, flux”

I’m very pleased to announce that a paper I’ve been working on in the past several months, has finally been published. It’s been included in the latest number of Cinergie (2018, n. 13), an open-access, peer-reviewed journal about cinema and cinema related studies.

Titled “Contemporary documentary in Taiwan: Memory, Identity, Flux“, the article is an expansion and re-elaboration of some of the short takes on documentary in contemporary Taiwan I’ve been posting on this blog in the past two years.

The movies I’ve wrote about are: Le Moulin (Huang Ya-li, 2015), Wansei Painter – Tetsuomi Tateishi (Kuo Liang-yin and Fujita Shūhei,2016), Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i, 2016) and 3 Islands (Lin Hsin-i, 2015).

You can read the paper here

P.S. Another movie that would have fit perfecty in the discourse I’ve tried to articulate in the essay is MATA-The island’s Gaze (2017, Cheng Li-Ming), but unfortunately I watched too late.

MATA-The island’s Gaze (2017, Cheng Li-Ming)

Taiwan experimental-documentary scene, whatever meaning you want to attach to the term, is one of the most intriguing and vibrant in contemporary cinema, particularly when the themes tackled are going deep into colonialism, identity and the complex history of the island. I’ve written on the subject here, here and here, and a longer and deeper analysis is coming soon.

In MATA-The island’s Gaze, directed by Cheng Li-Ming, the focus of attention is the gaze of Scottish photographer John Thomson, who visited Taiwan in 1871 , and his relationship with some members of the Siraya tribe – one of the several that inhabited Taiwan before the arrival of the Dutch and the Han – originally settled in the southern part of the island, near Tainan. Here the synopsis:

Scottish photographer John Thomson’s trip to Taiwan in 1871 is an important historical event. In this film we selected a hunter photo to re-interpret that event and visit the Siraya tribe to find an Elder, who talks and sings well, bringing us back to the past through his plucking of strings.

Then we saw the vigorous hunters holding their breath, staying very still in front of that weird machine for a long time, with a boy and a dog squatted at their feet. The director grabbed the view of this moment and invites the audience to watch with curious eyes.

On both sides of the river of time, he repeatedly speculates and watches the past, the future, and the influence of images on this island.

In its elliptical form, the work is centered around the concept of gaze, the mechanical gaze of the camera of the outsider/colonizer on the one hand, and that of the two Siraya people captured in a photo by the Scottish himself on the other. As the director himself explains “I created a pair of characters out of a photo with a boy and a dog squatted at the corner, through their curious stare at the vigorous tribal hunters and their encounter with the ‘image hunter’, witnessing a duel of old and new world”.

Words of a descendant of the Siraya and his reflections on language and the importance of words in creating history and reality are intertwined with an imaginative reconstruction of the encounter between the photographer and the two hunters. Here again the director’s own words:

This film is a sequel to “Looking for Siraya”, and this time starts with a photo of hunters holding shotguns to continue the act of taking back our souls. The stereo camera that John Thomson carried happened to inspire me creating a stereo composition. Through dramatic imitation of John Thomson’s journey as well as recording of Siraya who stays beautifully in primary image in photos yet actually is fading at present, we try to imagine how our Formosa’s “Mata(s)” treat this “mechanical eye” that intruded into the island.

You can watch MATA-The island’s Gaze on Vimeo:

MATA-The island’s Gaze from Li-Ming Cheng on Vimeo.