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.
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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
(1971).
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:

akamata

THE SONG OF AKAMATA:
LIFE HISTORIES OF THE ISLANDERS, IRIOMOTE, OKINAWA

KITAMURA Minao

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

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2017: Kinema Junpo Best 10 – documentary

Awaited every year with trepidation by cinephiles and the community of Japanese film-lovers, and a perfect occasion for discussing the state of the art in the archipelago and agree or disagree with it, last month the prestigious film magazine Kinema Junpo announced its 2017 Best Ten Lists . Launched in 1924 with only non-Japanese films, and from 1926 including Japanese movies as well, the poll includes, in its present form, four categories: Japanese movies, non-Japanese movies, bunka eiga and a section awarding individual prizes such as best director, best actor, best actress, best screenplay, etc.
You can check the results for all the categories here. Given the nature of this space, I want to focus my attention (with the slowness that characterizes this blog, apologies) on the bunka eiga list, that is to say, the best 10 Japanese documentaries released in 2017 according to Kinema Junpo (as far as I know only three have been released outside of Japan and thus have international titles):

1 人生フルーツ Life is Fruity

2 標的の島 風(かじ)かたか The Targeted Island: A Shield Against Storms

3 やさしくなあに 奈緒ちゃんと家族の35年

4 ウォーナーの謎のリスト

5 谺雄二 ハンセン病とともに生きる

6 沈黙 立ち上がる慰安婦 The Silence

7 米軍が最も恐れた男 その名は、カメジロー

8 笑う101歳×2 笹本恒子 むのたけじ

9 まなぶ 通信制中学 60年の空白を越えて

10 廻り神楽

With the term bunka eiga (cultural film), for a comprehensive analysis of the word and its usage in relation with other definitions, read here, the magazine awards non-fiction movies that explore social, cultural and political themes, often focusing more on the subjects tackled than on the formal aspects of the films themselves.
It is almost a fact that we’re living in a new golden age for documentaries, an era when every year, in theaters or on streaming platforms alike, there’s at least one film that push the boundaries of non-fiction cinema towards new territories. Unfortunately Japan, with all the exceptions of the case, seems to have stayed or have left behind. This is not the right place to discuss and deep dive into the reasons for this impasse, suffice to say that it is a problem affecting Japanese cinema in general and not only nonfiction movies.

That being said, it is nice to see at the top of the list Life is Fruity, a movie directed by Fushihara Kenshi and produced by Tokai TV, a production company based in Nagoya that in the last twenty years or so has been releasing a bunch of interesting and insightful documentaries. Again, all of them have quasi-TV aesthetics, nonetheless the topics explored and, in the best cases, the touch used, make them worth watching. Of the 21 documentaries produced by Tokai TV I’ve had the chance to watch five, among these my favorite is 青空どろぼう (Sky’s Thieves, 2010), a movie on the Yokkaichi Asthma, one of Japan’s four major diseases caused by pollution.
Life is Fruity tells the story of 90-years-old architect Shuichi Tsubata and his wife Hideko living in Aichi prefecture in a house surrounded by vegetables and fruits. Almost half a century ago Tsubata was asked to plan a new town in the area, but his idea of building houses that could coexist with woods and blend with the natural environment was rejected, and a project more in tune with the fast growing Japanese economy of the time was chosen. Tsubata left his job, purchased a piece of land and built his dream-house in a manner of his master,  Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond.

You can see an English subtitled trailer by clicking on the Vimeo button:

Number two in the list is A targeted Village, the second documentary directed by Mikami Chie about the ongoing protests and resistance of Okinawa people against the American military presence and expansion in the island.
In 1983 director Ise Shinichi started to record the daily life of his 8-year-old niece Nao, a girl with intellectual disability who also suffers epilepsy, and her interaction with her family and society. After 12 years of shooting he edited the material into Nao-chan, a movie released in theaters in 1995, followed by 「ぴぐれっと」in 2002 and ありがとう 『奈緒ちゃん』自立への25 in 2006. やさしくなあに 奈緒ちゃんと家族の35年, number 3 in the Kinema Junpo list, is the fourth installment in this ongoing series and documents the ups and downs in the daily life of Nao and his family. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it seems to perfectly continue the tradition of Japanese documentaries dealing with disability, from Tsuchimoto Noriaki to Yanagisawa Hisao (a retrospective of his works is happening now in Tokyo) and, in more recent years, Soda Kazuhiro with Mental.

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ウォーナーの謎のリスト is a documentary about American archeologist Langdon Warner and his list of culturally valuable Japanese sites that, allegedly, saved the most important temples and monuments from destruction during the American bombing of Japan in World War II. 谺雄二 ハンセン病とともに生きる tells the story of poet, activist and writer Kodama Yōji, who suffered from leprosy and fought against isolation and discrimination during his entire life, while with The Silence, second generation Japanese-Korean Park Soonam, records the struggle carried on by the victims of sexual slavery during the invasion of Korea by imperial Japan. In 米軍が最も恐れた男 その名は、カメジロー, his debut behind the camera, newscaster Sako Tadahiko explores the life of Senaga Kamejirō, an outspoken politician and communist who fought the American occupation of Okinawa until his death in 2001.
The list does not represent Japanese documentary landscape in its variety and complexity of course, by design the more experimental works are ruled out, nonetheless besides few titles, the films here selected don’t seem to hold any particular appeal to an international audience, again at the risk of becoming trite, it’s not because of the themes explored, but more because of what to me appears to be the lack of a distinctive style and vision.

Le Moulin (Huang Ya-Li, 2016) out on Blu-ray and DVD

Just a quick post to share my excitement for a new home video release. I found out only a few days ago that from last June Le Moulin, one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years, is available for on DVD and Blu-ray. The movie, directed by Huang Ya-Li, is a complex and fascinating exploration of the first Taiwan’s modern poetry group, Le Moulin Poetry Society, active in the island during the 1930s, when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule. You can read my piece on the movie here.

Le Moulin was made available in Taiwan by Fisfisa Media, but it comes with English, Traditional Chinese and Japanese subtitles, for more details on the technical aspects of the DVD and Blu-ray, please check the YesAsia page, where you can also order the movie.

I haven’t had the chance to check the DVD/Blu-ray yet, but it is nice to see that it also comes with a booklet of essays written by relatives of the Le Moulin poets and literary figures.

I will update this post once I get the release.

Best documentaries of 2017

Although I saw fewer documentaries released in 2017 than I wanted, this was for me the year of the box-set (Wiseman, Rouch, etc.), there were a couple that really impacted and resonated with me for long time, and others that, for various reasons, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering.
It might sound tautological, but it is always better to clarify: this is the list of my favourite non-fiction movies, thus it reflects my taste in documentary and it’s very partial.

Outstanding works:

Also Know as Jihadi (Eric Baudelaire)
An homage to and partially a remake of Adachi Masao’s A.K.A. Serial Killer. Baudelaire’s finest work to date.

Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i)
My fascination with the works of this young Taiwanese artist continues. read more

Machines (Rahul Jain)
You can read my review here

Rubber Costed Steel (Lawrence Abu Hamdan)
Short but powerful, thematically and aesthetically.

Honorable mentions:

Sennan Asbestos Disaster (Hara Kazuo)
Hara is back after more than 10 years with a work about the legal battle between the Citizen Group for Sennan Asbestos Damage and the Japanese government.

Ex-Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
Not my favourite by the American legendary director, but Wiseman is Wiseman.

Donkeyote (Chico Pereira)

A Yangtze Landscape (Xu Xin)

Dislocation Blues (Sky Hopinka)

Turtle Rock (Xiao Xiao)
A soothing and beautifully shot documentary set in a remote village in China, the black and white photography reminded me of Lav Diaz.

Special (re)discoveries:

The Mad Masters (Jean Rouch, 1955)
Whatever it is, docufiction, ethnofiction, problematic documentary or theatrical exploitation, it’s a powerful and raw punch. Masterpiece.

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel, 2015)
Probably the best documentary I’ve seen in 2017.

A House in Ninh Hoa (Nguyễn Phương-Đan &. Philip Widmann, 2016)
You can read my review and interview with the director here.

Beirut Never More (Jocelyne Saab, 1976)
Jocelyne Saab was one of my cinematic discoveries of the year.

My favourite documentaries of 2016

2016 has been a busy year and unfortunately, and for various reasons (one of them being the place where I live, Japan), I haven’t had the chance to see as many new documentaries as I wanted to. On the other hand though, having had access to many documentaries produced in Taiwan through Taiwan Docs, for a couple of months I binge-watched the non-fiction movies produced in the island in 2016 (and 2015), and it was a revelation. Not only it allowed me to discover and explore the complex sociopolitical situation of the area and its recent history, but luckily I also stumbled upon a couple of formally challenging films.

That being said, I can’t really miss what recently has become a sort of yearly custom, so here is my list of the best documentaries I’ve seen in 2016, some of them are from 2015, but released internationally, or at least in Japan, only this year. At the end I’ve also compiled a short list of the best (re)discoveries of 2016. (disclaimer: best should here be understood as “favourite” of course)

8. Quemoy (Chiu Yu-nan)

quemoy_doc

“Quemoy, the islands adjacent to Mainland, used to be the frontier between Taiwan and China. However, it opens its border for the cross-strait exchanges. The film shows traces of Quemoy people in different generations and builds up a picture of complicated national identity in the boundary island.”
A relatively short movie (just 45′) whose main appealing point is its depiction of the complex geopolitical situation of the area.

7. Into the Inferno  (Werner Herzog)
6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)

“This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.”
Both movies are pure Herzog, for better or for worse, I personally adore the man, but the risk the great German director is running in his recent documentaries – especially now in an era when the social media is so pervasive and his persona in the mediascape is sort of overexposed – is that of becoming prisoner of the image forged in almost 50 years of incredible career.
Be that as it may, if you like Herzog, these two documentaries released in 2016 are very enjoyable, Lo and Behold is a better work in my opinion, or at least more appealing to me, and not necessarily for its subject, more for its rhythm and editing. Into the Inferno in some points wanders a bit too much, the segment set in North Korea for instance, albeit fascinating for the unique insights on the country, felt too much like a long digression.

5. Further Beyond

An interesting experiment in meta-documentary and a non banal reflection of what identity and its construction through images and storytelling is. The movie is maybe a bit excessive in its meandering here and there, but 
some passages are pure digital beauty.

4. A Room of Her Own: Rei Naito and Light (Yuko Nakamura)

a_room_of_her_own_rei_naito

Graced by outstanding sound design and soundtrack, the movie captures and beautifully embodies the sense of fragility and ephemerality of life seen through the art of Naito Rei. But A Room of her Own is interesting on many other different levels, partly experiment in non-fiction, partly personal documentary – what brought Nakamura to approach Naito was the severe illness of her mother – and partly a work that explores the intangibility of life, the movie is a very refreshing work of non-fiction, especially when considered in the context of Japanese contemporary documentary. I wish the last part, when four women are gathered on Teshima island, would have been longer. 
One last note on the photography, in tone with the themes explored by the movie, is really one of the most accomplished aspects of it.

3. 15 Corners of the World (Zuzanna Solakiewicz)

15_corners_of_the_world

I cheated, I know it’s a movie from 2014, but I watched it this year and it made a big impression on me, so I decided to include it in my list anyway.
15 Corners of the World is a mesmerizing and hypnotic documentary about the Polish electronic-music pioneer Eugeniusz Rudnik and, more importantly, about the visualisazion of sound and its materiality. An incredible visual and auditory experience.

2. Forgetting Vietnam

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The latest visual work from Trinh Minh-ha, I’ve written more about the movie here.

1. 3 Island (Lin Hsin-i)

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A work that creates a complex and experimental mapping of three distinct geographical Asian areas, interweaving poetry, abstract imagining, historical data and archival footage. If you want, you can read more here.

 

(re)discoveries (in no particular order)

 

Asia is One (NDU), read more here.

On the Road: A Document (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1964), read more here.

Hospital ( Frederick Wiseman, 1970)

Broadway by Light (William Klein, 19589

The Festival Pan-African of Algiers (William Klein, 1969)

Documentary in East and Southeast Asia, a list/database

Few months have passed since I’ve launched here on the blog, a project to create a list of the most significant East and Southeast documentaries, and, as I expected, the submissions did not come in big numbers — after all “documentary” and “East and Southeast Asia” are terms still part of a niche in the discourse about cinema around the world — but the quality of their content was very high. I think it’s about the right time to publish the list and have it circulated around the web.

The idea was to compile a list of the most significant and important works of non-fiction made in East and Southeast Asia, a database that could function as a guide for cinephiles and anybody else interested in documentary, but also as a sort of cartography to discover and explore non-fiction cinema, and its history and development in the region.
Cinema arrived at varying times in different areas of the continent, thus evolving in completely diverse ways, and this is even more true when considering documentary, a minority mode of cinema whose limits and definitions have been hazy and shifting since the dawn of the seventh art. Moreover, because many countries in the region have experienced, and tragically are still experiencing, colonization and dictatorship, in most of the area documentary was for a long period associated to propaganda, and it’s only in the last decades, with the impact of political change and the liberating advent of new and affordable technologies, that non-fiction cinema was able to free itself, rise and gain its status as a mode of free-expression and art, although unfortunately not yet in every country. For these reasons some national cinematographies (namely Japan) are more represented than others on the list, while others are sadly absent. Lack of access is also another problem that affected the making of the list, even today in the internet age and in a time where the net has become, or at least is trying to be, a different mode of distribution, access is a big and unresolved issue.
I’m sure there are many knowledgeable scholars out there in the world, who could give us more titles and insights to enrich the project. The list does not pretend to be all-inclusive, it’s not a dictionary or a documentary encyclopedia — although at certain stage in the future it might turn into one — but the aim is nonetheless to offer a database, a list and a sort of expanding work in progress. If you think there are works worth to be included, do please leave a comment or even better, reach me by email here, we can discuss about it.

Last but not least a big and special thank you to the bunch of scholars and film experts who submitted their titles, the project wouldn’t have seen the light without their vital contributions. Special credits go to Rowena Santos Aquino, film scholar and critic who specialises in documentary film history/theory and Asian cinemas/histories, Nadin Mai, independent researcher specialized in Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema, and curator of Tao films, and Frank Witkam were essential in broadening and deepening the scope of the list.

Works are listed in chronological order:

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Fighting Soldiers (Kamei Fumio, Japan 1939)
Although in the 20s and 30s Japan had Prokino, it can be said that Fighting Soldiers was the first true example of Japanese (Asian?) non-fiction cinema made with an authorial touch. You can read more here.

Children in the Classroom (Hani Susumu, Japan 1954), Children Who Draw (Hani Susumu, Japan 1955)
Capturing the daily routine of an elementary school class in the manner of  direct cinema and cinema vérité, but way before the terms were coined, these two films brought radical changes and opened up new possibilities in the world of Japanese non-fiction cinema.

The Weavers of Nishijin (Matsumoto Toshio, Japan 1961)
The process of manufacturing textile in a famous Kyoto’s district rendered through rhythm, montage and music in a beautiful and grainy B&W.

Record of a Marathon Runner (Kazuo Kuroki, Japan 1964)
Focusing on the young runner Kimihara Kenji and his preparation for Tokyo Olympics, Kuroki turns a PR sport movie into a fine piece of authorial expression.

Summer in Narita (Ogawa Pro, Japan 1968), Narita: Heta Village (Ogawa Pro, Japan 1973)
The two films here stand for the whole Sanrizuka/Narita series, but especially Heta Village deserves to be in this list, a milestone in world documentary and an extraordinary documentary about time and place“.

Okinawa Islands (Higashi Yoichi, Japan 1969)
From August to October 1968, a film crew from the Japanese mainland ventured into U.S.-controlled Okinawa. Student struggles entered a new phase from 1968, rejecting “values” in the broad sense of the word. Higashi strongly felt the need to be free from previously established values, choosing in this work to grapple with the theme of Okinawa. The Okinawan problems analyzed in this film remain unresolved today. (from YIDFF)

A.K.A. Serial Killer (Adachi Masao, Japan 1969)
The avant-garde Japanese documentary film par excellence, and the first embodiment of Landscape Theory, A.K.A. Serial Killer is a film solely composed of a series of locations where young Norio Nagayama lived and passed by before committing the crimes for which he was later arrested.

Motoshinkakarannu (NDU, Japan 1971), Asia is One (NDU, Japan 1973)
Promoting an anonymus cinema made by amateurs and not by professionals, the Nihon Documentary Union delves here into the margins of Okinawan and Taiwanese society, focusing their gaze on the minorities and on the historical fractures in the areas. More here.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Japan 1971), The Shiranui Sea (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Japan 1975)
Another monument in the history of world documentary, the Minamata series is an incredible and touching exploration of one of the biggest poisoning incident ever happened in Japan, and how it tragically affected people and their lives. You can read more here.

Extreme Private Eros 1974 Love Song (Hara Kazuo, Japan 1974)
A defining work for Japanese non-fiction cinema, exploring the personal sphere (the famous scene showing the birth of Hara’s child remains shocking even by today’s standards) in a period when it was “cool” to make politically engaged films, Hara was nonetheless able to avoid sealing himself and the movie off from the rest of the world in a sort of closed and solipsistic universe, more than ever the private is here the public and vice-versa.

God Speed You! Black Emperor (Yanagimachi Mitsuo, Japan 1976)
The camera follow a group of Japanese bikers, “The Black Emperors”, part of the so-called bōsōzoku movement, the motorcycling subculture that arose during the 70s in Japan.

The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (Haneda Sumiko, Japan 1976)
Shot in a small valley in Gifu prefecture, the movie is a reflection on the mortality and ephemerality of all things disguised as a documentary about a 1300-year-old cherry tree. More here.

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Turumba (Kidlat Tahimik, the Philippines 1981)
Turumba is a commissioned piece, which shows the work of a family making paper mâché figurines in preparation for the major “Turumba” festival in the area.

Oliver (Nick Deocampo, the Philippines 1983), Children of the Regime (Nick Deocampo, the Philippines 1985), Revolutions happen like refrains in a song (Nick Deocampo, the Philipines 1987)
These three films are all part of a trilogy of life under Marcos and Martial Law. Children is a documentary on child prostitution while Revolutions is a personal essay film in which Deocampo traces his own personal development and history against the backdrop of the People Power Revolution, which started in 1983 and later led to the ousting of president Marcos. Just like Oliver, a work that follows the life and work of a transvestite in the Philippines in the 1980s, it is shot on Super-8.

Magino Village: a Tale (Ogawa Production, Japan 1986)
Another masterpiece from Ogawa Pro, a stunning and epic movie that follows and tracks down the various histories traversing a village in Northern Japan, and at the same time a record of 15 years lived together by the collective.

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Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Wu Wenguang, China 1990)
Generally considered one of the films that heralded the advent of what Lu Xinyu terms the ‘New Chinese Documentary Film Movement,’ its subject is fittingly a group of Wu’s artist friends and their (marginal) lives in Beijing.

I Have Graduated (Wang Guangli, China 1992)
Series of interviews with university students graduating in 1992 in the post-Tiananmen Square protests/massacre, interspersed with performances of songs.

The Murmuring (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1995), Habitual Sadness (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1997), My Own Breathing (Byun Young-joo, South Korea 1999)
Byun’s ‘comfort women’/‘low voice’ trilogy is a monumental project that gives space for Korean survivors to give their testimony, protest for redress, and fight against the social stigma of their traumatic past, staunchly filmed in the observational, present tense of the everyday and with the women’s direct collaboration.

Quitting (Zhang Yang, China 2001)
Centered on the late actor Jia Hongsheng’s real battle with drug addiction, the film is a docudrama in which Jia, his actual parents and sister, and his doctors play themselves as they reenact events that occurred during his addiction in the 1990s.

DV China (Zheng Dasheng, China 2002)
With its subject of a state employee making amateur films in collaboration with the villagers of Jindezheng, with limited state funds and equipment, the film gives the lie that ‘independent,’ ‘amateur,’ and the state media are mutually exclusive terms.

The Big Durian  (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia 2003)
A soldier who in 1987 began to randomly fire his rifle in the streets of Kuala Lumpur is an entry point to exploring racism and racial politics that the incident triggered among the city’s diverse population.

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Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, China 2003)
Quite possibly one of the most startling documentary debuts in recent decades, one that painstakingly observes the gradual decline of state-run factories as well as livelihoods and community bonds in the Tiexi district.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, Cambodia-France 2003)
Arguably Panh’s most striking documentary on the Cambodian genocide, as it brings together survivors and torturers/executioners to the site of Tuol Sleng, now a museum but formerly a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime where tens of thousands were killed.

Memories of Agano (Satō Makoto, Japan 2004)
Ten years after the acclaimed film Living on the River Agano, the film crew returns to Niigata. Personal memories reflect upon remnants of those who passed away as the camera observes abandoned rice fields and hearths that have lost their masters.
More here

Singapore Rebel (Martyn See, Singapore 2004), Zahari’s 17 Years (Martyn See, Singapore 2006), Dr. Lim Hock Siew (Martyn See, Singapore 2010)
These three works represent oppositional voices/perspectives – opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan, ex-political detainee Said Zahari, and the second-longest held political prisoner the late Dr. Lim – which betray See’s commitment to political filmmaking and suppressed Singaporean histories.

Dear Pyongyang (2005,Yang Yong-hi Japan)
A second generation zainichi Korean director makes inquiries about the history of her activist father and mother. Over the years she records on video visits to her three brothers and their families, who migrated from Ikuno, Osaka to Pyongyang over thirty years ago, while reflecting on how she had been running away from the values her father forced upon her. (from YIDFF)

Oxhide I (Liu Jiayin, China 2005), Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, China 2009)
Novelistic in detail and scope and in pushing the notion of filming in real time and filming real life perhaps to an extreme, with a shot count of twenty-three and nine, respectively, Liu and her family reenact real-life events and pierce the multilayeredness of lived experience.

The Heavenly Kings (Daniel Wu, Hong Kong 2006)
Following the formation of the boy band Alive, of which Wu is a member, the film follows the band’s attempts to crack the music market and, in the process, delivers satirical jabs at the Cantopop industry and Hong Kong popular culture in general and reveals itself as a hoax.

24 City  (Jia Zhangke, China 2007)
One of Jia’s documentary contributions, with a bit of fictional play with the interview, which nevertheless does not take away from its sober examination of the demolition of a factory town and its transformation as ‘24 City’.

Investigation on the night that won’t forget (Lav Diaz, the Philippines 2009)
Perhaps Diaz most invisible and least accessible film. The films is a two-shot recording of Erwin Romulo speaking about the circumstances of the death of popular film critic Alexis Tioseco and the subsequent investigation.

Disorder (Huang Weikai, China 2009)
A black-and-white found-footage film assembled from 1,000+ hours of footage shot by amateur filmmakers of everyday scenes in the Guangzhou region, whose effect is assaulting and absorbing.

Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada 2009)
Canada-based Chinese filmmaker’s debut follows a couple who work in the city and annually make the long trek to their home village for Chinese New Year and becomes, in the long run, a frank portrait of one family’s diverging values/priorities.

The Actresses (E J-yong, South Korea 2009) Behind the Camera (E J-yong, South Korea 2012)
This mockumentary diptych takes the premise of a photo shoot and remote directing, starring top Korean stars, to address celebrity culture, the (absurd) nature of filmmaking, and the public/private divide.

Live Tape (Matsue Tetsuaki, Japan 2010)
On New Year’s Day in 2009, Musician Kenta Maeno strums his guitar and sings in a pilgrimage from Kichijoji Hachiman Shrine, packed with people paying respects, to Inokashira Park, where he joins his band on the outdoor stage. Live Tape is a miraculous live documentary capturing Maeno’s New Year’s Day nomadic guerrilla show in a single 74-minute take.

Arirang (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea 2011)
Kim’s sole documentary effort thus far followed a three-year hiatus from directing and is aptly a self-portrait of himself as a suffering (and at times, insufferable) artist – and perhaps even a parody of artistic self-portraits.

Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, France-Cambodia 2011)
With his lineage of being the grandson of famed (and disappeared) Cambodian producer of the 1960s/1970s Van Chann, Cambodian-French filmmaker searches for the oral history of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian cinema and cinephilia.

ex_press

Ex Press (Jet Leyco, the Philippines 2011)
A passenger train travels across the landscape of the Philippines, while a monologue description of the journey presents fragments of memory and fantasy that look back at the country’s past.

Theatre 1 and 2 (Soda Kazuhiro, Japan, USA, France 2012)
The most complex and broadest in scope of Soda’works. Following Oriza Hirata and the Seinendan Theatre Company, Theatre 1 and 2 form a deep analysis of the creative process, but at the same time touching topics such as politics, performance, economy, art, engagement.

No Man’s Zone (Fujiwara Toshi, Japan 2012)
One of the best works about the triple disaster that hit Japan in March 2011, No Man’s Zone reflects on the meaning of natural and man-made disasters for our age, but has also been defined Tarkovskian in its aesthetics.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymus, Norway-Denmark-UK, 2012), The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
Two successive works on the 1965-66 massacres of civilians in the name of Communist purges and the suppression of this past are set stubbornly in the present and made in collaboration with both perpetrators and survivors.

War is a tender thing (Adjani Arumpac, the Philippines 2013)
Arumpac is the child of a Christian mother and a Muslim father. She explores the second-longest running conflict in the world, the Mindanao War, through the lens of her parents’ divorce.

Storm Children, Book I (Lav Diaz, the Philippines 2014)
The film is supposed to be the first part of a two-part film, albeit Diaz never said when he would finish the second part of it. Storm Children follows the lives of children in the parts of the country hit hardest by typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Months later, the documentary shows that nothing has been done to alleviate the people’s struggle.

IMG_0170Aragane (Oda Kaori, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan 2015)
A breath of fresh air in the Japanese documentary world, Aragane, made by Oda at Bela Tarr’s school in Sarajevo, explores in the manner of structural cinema the time and dark spaces of a Bosnian coal mine. You can read more here.

Jade Miners (Midi Z, 2015), City of Jade (Midi Z, 2016)
This duology by the Taiwan-trained Burmese filmmaker was clandestinely shot in northern Myanmar to capture hundreds of labourers (one of which has been his brother, City of Jade’s focus) toiling the earth in jade mines, which are also part of a site of a civil war.

East and Southeast Asian documentaries, a list/database of the most significant works

 

updated September 14th 2016
In the past few days I was online looking for list(s) about East and Southeast Asian documentaries, lists that could give me an idea of what to watch if I wanted to explore the history non-fiction cinema in East and Southeast Asia, well….I couldn’t really find anything. So I told myself “why not making this list? a list that would also function as a sort of database for people interested in non-fiction” and then I realized that although I’m a kind of an expert in the history of Japanese documentary, I don’t really know that much about non-fiction cinema in the rest of Asia, besides of course Wang Bing, Rithy Panh and few others.


In most of these Asian countries cinema as a form of art is something pretty new and still in development, and often documentary is basically nothing more than state propaganda, fortunately things have slowly started to change few decades ago, when the new digital technologies allowed virtually everyone to become a documentary filmmaker and the social unrest set in motion the arts.
An interesting and useful resource on the topic, although it focuses more on the contemporary situation, is Asian Documentary Today, a book published by the Busan International Film Festival in 2012 and compiled and edited by AND (Asian Network of Documentary).

If anybody out there in the vastity of the internet is interested in helping me with this tiny project, a list/database of the most significant and important documentaries made in East and Southeast Asia, please feel free to get in touch with me: matteojpjp [at] gmail.com
Just a few “rules”:

– new works are accepted but don’t forget that the list is about “important and significant documentaries in the history of cinema”

– accepted are documentaries from these countries:  China, Hong Kong, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor, Brunei, Christmas Island, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam.

– if you’re kind enough to send me some suggestions or titles, it would be nice to have also few sentences contextualizing the documentary and briefly explaining what the movie is about.

the deadline is the end of September, once done and organised properly, I’ll publish it here on the blog and I’ll try to have it spread in the internet.

Thank you