Yamagata Doc Film Fest, report – day 1


From a rainy Yamagata, I wrote down some thoughts about yesterday, October 10th, my first day at this year festival. Good movies, some unexpected discoveries, lively discussions and as always, great atmosphere at Komiya, the place where almost everybody meets & drinks at night. 

My day started with a surprisingly good documentary, France Is Our Mother Country (2015), from Rithy Panh, the French-Cambodian filmmaker author of The Missing Picture and s21, works that focus on the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. France Is Our Mother is an archive documentary entirely made of footage from the former French colony of Indocina, but Panh uses these images in a creative and even ironic way, when not sarcastic, to express all the sense of superiority of the colonizers (France) towards the colonized. Without a single spoken word but rich in music, now minimalist, now almost noise-like, and with the use of ironic but thought-provoking intertitles, the movie reaches almost an hypnotic quality. After few minutes in it we already start to realise how the film is a history in images, but also and at the same time a history of images, besides the obvious but tragic elements of opression shown, what slowly sneaks into the viewers’ mind is a sense that basically everything can be demonstrated with images, after all wasn’t the footage shot by the colonizers themselves? At a certain point, this is my personal and extreme experience of it, I even started to doubt about the “reality” of the images, “couldn’t some of them just be fake?” I asked myself. The answer is: of course not, but this reaction made me realised how deceptive and open to interpretations images can be, and this is for me the best quality of France Is Our Mother Country. 
The second movie of the day was Millets Back Home (2013) by the Taiwanese Sayun Simung, a documentary about the small Tayal ethnic minority living in a mountain village in Taiwan, a tribe to which the young director herself belong to. A very interesting work for its topic – how to transmit and keep alive minor languages, traditions and customs in our present world- but less for its style, too journalistic and straightforward, at least for my taste.  Better was the talk after the screening when a member of the Tayal went onstage and sang a traditional chant. 


The first movie in the aftermoon was the highly anticipated The Pearl Button by Patricio Guzmán, a film that deserves all the praised it earned around the world. It stretches from the very distant – in time and space, the stars and the universe – to the very small of a button found at the bottom of the ocean. From the purity of a quarz and the almost celestial lightness of the sky and the water, to the gravity of death, torture and human beigns smashed in the cogs of History (the Chilean dictatorship). 
The 4th documentary of the day was Under the Cherry Tree (2015) by Tanaka Kei, a young Japanese director who followed the lives and struggles of 4 elderly people in a public housing complex in Kawasaki. Shot in low-tech and very simple in its style, no narration but intertitles to explain the background of these people and their problems, nonetheless Tanaka is very good at conveying through her camera the loneliness, the feeling of approcching death and the dreariness of their lives. 
The last one of the day wasn’t a novelty for me, I had watched Aragane (2015) by Oda Kaori a couple of months ago on a screener, but seeing it on the big screen and with the proper sound system just confirmed the quality of the movie and the boldness of Oda in making an experimental work in form of documentary. Shot in a mine in Sarajevo, Aragane is composed of long takes mainly in the underground darkness, the real protagonists of the movie are the machinery, the flashing lights and a ceaseless noise enveloping the images. Hypnotic in the way Oda conveys the materiality of time and the sense of duration, Aragane reminded me, with due distinctions, of some works made by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, I’m thinking especially of The Iron Ministry and Manakamana. 

That’s all for the first day in Yamagata, tomorrow or maybe after tomorrow for the next reports. 


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