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.

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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!”

notes:

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.

A House in Ninh Hoa

Recently I’ve been trying to catch up with some of the movies I missed at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, it’s basically impossible to see all the works screened, and so two weeks ago or so I had the chance to watch A House in Ninh Hoa by Philip Widmann and Nguyễn Phương-Đan, a documentary shot in Vietnam and described as follows on the movie’s official page:

The old paternal house of the Le family, set in a rural scenery at the fringes of the small town of Ninh Hoa, close to the southern coast of Vietnam: A household dominated by women, neither rich nor poor, with chicken behind the kitchen and ‘rice paddies bordering the plot.
Through the everyday life of the inhabitants of the house, the constellation of the extended family becomes visible. A constellation that is fundamentally marked by the course that history took in the second half of the 20th century, and that has made Germany a substantial reference point in the life of the Le family.
One part of the family has been living close to the former West German capital of Bonn for more than 40 years while the other part still resides in Ninh Hoa. The community of the Les includes both relatives that are present and absent, and extends into the realm of the spirit world.
Three brothers embody the trajectories that history has taken: One brother was assigned as a diplomat to the embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in Bonn in the early 1970s. He took his wife and children with him. At the end of the war in 1975, the nation that had employed him ceased to exist, and they stayed in West Germany. Another brother who was a soldier disappeared in the last days of the war. His remains have never been found. The third one was sent into a re-education camp after the end of the war. Today, he is the only male family member left in the house in Ninh Hoa.

A House in Ninh Hoa is the kind of documentary I can easily connect with and relate to, challenging in its form, the movie questions the limits and the ontological foundation of the “genre”, even if it might look just as an “ordinary” documentary, at first glance.
Composed only by static shots, as far as I know there are no camera movements (no even one!), everything in the movie is told in tableaux, sort of Ozu-esque pillow shots, that reveal, fragment after fragment, the family story and the landscape where the movie takes place, and the movie is, to some extent, the very landscapes it depicts. The slow pace of the movie and its insistence on these spaces, domestic and external, build a very specific sense of duration, a cinematic tide that eventually envelopes the viewer in its own rhythm and its own time. This is achieved primarily through the editing, the shot compositions and the use of natural light, all stylistic elements that enhance the digital image, used here its full potential.
The title appears on screen only after 20 minutes or so and while the first fragments of the family stories are hinted here and there, it is only after an hour into the movie that everything becomes clearer, and the complete story of the family is explained in the last scene of the movie, when we see the only male family member left in the house reading from a piece of paper. Widmann and Phương-Đan thus construct the movie by removing information and data, and focusing instead on those elements usually considered secondary or peripheral such as anodyne landscapes and daily activities, presenting the family stories through an elliptical and fragmented narrative.
The afterlife, the connection with the departed and the spiritual world, in particular the brother never found at the end of the Vietnam war, is one of the central elements around which everything evolves for the family and consequently for the movie itself. Not only is the documentary imbued with an ethereal and contemplative aesthetic, but also everyone in the family speaks and moves around like they are themselves ghostly presences hovering around the house, thus evoking in the movie a sense of distance and absence, a metaphysical absence, and becoming in the end a reflection of the ephemerality of life.

Another point of interest of the movie, a major and more problematic one for me, is the position of the camera and the director/cameraman in relation to the people seen in the documentary. In the whole movie the camera is always an absent gaze, that is to say, there is never a look at the camera by the family members and never the person behind it is addressed directly by them. This raises a few questions, while there are no doubts that the story told in the documentary is true (Nguyễn Phương-Đan is a member of the family), A House in Ninh Hoa gives the idea of being composed also of reenacted and staged scenes. Exploring what the documentary form is and how much truth is conveyable through a certain cinematic style and approach, A House in Ninh Hoa is not only an eye pleasing piece of work — the stillness and beauty of the locations, and the shot compositions are outstanding — but also a fascinating dive into the limits of representation and the meaning of “truth” in relation to moving images. A beautiful and thought-provoking film that goes hand in hand with some of my favourite non-fiction works and that reminded me of a line spoken in Jocelyn Saab’s Beirut, My City (1982), a movie and a filmmaker I’ve also discovered in Yamagata. Reacting to a bombed landscape after buildings have been erased and reduced to ruins, the narrator/voice says that, I’m paraphrasing, a filmmaker/artist should try to capture reality, paradoxically, before it crystallizes into an image. A House in Ninh Hoa inhabits this paradox.

Director Philip Widmann was kind enough to reply to some of my questions and observations about the movie, and allowed me to use some of his words in the article.

P.S. The review of the movie was written before we exchanged our opinions and I decided not to modify it.

What is happening on the screen is maybe not entirely true but it is truthful, and personally I consider this more important. Truthfulness unites non-fiction and fiction as both need their inner logic, and unless you deal with public (historical) knowledge, it doesn’t matter if what you speak about is true as long as it is truthful. For the family members of course their truth is more important. But for the viewers of the film it isn’t.

The film is a staging of elements of the family’s everyday life that are punctuated by several discourses (biographical, historical, relating to identity, community, partnership etc.). In the eyes of the writers of the film these discourses are virulent but are rarely played out in the family life. Through the script we tried to infuse traces of these discourses into the scenes of the film. In order to work together, we explained the scenes and their supposed meaning to the family and discussed them. This exchange created a transparency that together with the static camera work relatively clearly delineated what would be part of the film and what wouldn’t, both in terms of framing and in terms of dialogue. Compared to forms that give preference to a mobile camera that follows people around and a way of speaking through interviews, this gave both the people in front and behind the camera a stronger sense of understanding and control.

 

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

forgetting_vietnam

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

1. 3 Island (Lin Hsin-i)

img_2531

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)

Wansei Painter – Tetsuomi Tateishi

 

After Le Moulin, and partly Asia is One, my personal exploration of the period when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895 – 1945) continues today with Wansei Painter – Tetsuomi Tateishi (2015), a documentary directed by Kuo Liang-yin and Fujita Shuhei, and presented at the last Taiwan International Documentary Festival, where it received the Audience Award.
Here the synopsis:

Tateshi Tetsuomi was born in Taiwan in 1905. He returned to his birthplace to find painting subjects and then he had been attracted by the landscape and local cultures of Taiwan. During his stay in Taiwan, he made oil paints, illustrations and wood engravings for the magazine Minzoku Taiwan (Taiwanese Folklore). He was regarded as a promising painter, but his achievements were to be forgotten when he was repatriated to Japan at the end of WWII and lost most of his paintings. He earned a living as an illustrator for children’s books, but finally achieved unique expressions in his last years. This film reveals his ambition and struggle, and reflects the dramatic political, cultural and social change in Taiwan.”

The word Wansei refers to the Japanese individuals born in Taiwan during the colonial occupation of the island, people who were forced to leave Taiwan, and de facto deported, in the years following the end of the Pacific War (1945). The movie, exploring the life of one of these people and a very special one, is indeed a biopic, but at the same time and on a more subtle level, it’s a depiction of what it means to belong and to live in two different cultures in times of shifting historical changes.

Tateishi was born and lived part of his life in Taiwan, a place and a culture that played a great part in his development as an artist and human being, when he returned there from Japan during the 1930s, the colors and landscape absorbed in his daily experiences would remain forever with him and would be very recognisable in his future paintings. As he writes in his memoir “I have always peferred strong colors and bold lines. Taiwan’s landscapes suited my personality perfectly”.
Things started to dramatically change in the sociopolitical environment at the beginning of the 40s, when the “divide began to emerge between Japanese and Taiwanese in areas such as painting, literature, and theater. The government was promoting Japanesation, Taiwanese culture was considered vulgar and barbaric”. In such a period, when the imperialistic and fascistic oppression promoted by Japan was at its peak and the propaganda machine was in full swing, Teteishi extensively wrote for Folklore Taiwan, a magazine (in Japanese) exploring and reviving the traditional arts and custom of the island. This (re)discovery of Taiwanese cultural heritage was so important that is still praised nowadays among Taiwanese scholars.
At the age of 39 in 1944 Tateishi was drafted and sent to the war front, and after the conflict ended his family stayed in Taiwan, part of those people called “overseas Japanese” in a land now under Chinese administration. In 1949 they were forced to leave the country and go back to Japan, where he continued to paint and eventually became a well-known illustrator for encyclopedias and scientific publications, many of his illustrations can be found in Japanese children’s books and covers of the 1960s and 70s. As for his painting, after the war his style changed considerably, becoming more surrealistic and abstract “military and post-war experiences in Taiwan cast a shadow over my heart, I searched for new styles of painting, yet I could not make up my mind on a particular style.”

From a purely cinematic point of view, the documentary is mainly composed by still photos, paintings, archival images and interviews with Tateishi’s relatives, his wife and his two sons, and Taiwanese arts scholars. The narration is heterogeneous, the main voice, the one from his granddaughter, is intertwined with short pieces read from his memoir and the voices of his wife and children. There are also few scenes of modern Taiwan and Japan, a school where he used to teach or places where he used to go, and everything is held together by a minimal and unobtrusive music, a sound design that gives the movie its almost contemplative mood.

When the story moves to Japan after the war, the documentary loses, for me, its appeal, it’s still a well crafted work, but the risk of becoming an hagiography is very strong. Fortunately balancing up this tendency are the artist’s beautiful and diverse paintings filling up the screen with their colors, shapes and mystery. Another problem I have with the movie is that the period of colonization, to my eyes at least, is depicted with some indulgence, of course the aim of the work wasn’t to deeply explore the violence of the occupation, but still, watching the documentary it seems like the period was after all a positive phase in Taiwan history, especially when opposed to the post-war Chinese administration. I am maybe reading too much into it, and again I’m not an expert on the subject, so I could be wrong and it may well be that amid all the violence and oppression, important cultural and artistic achievement were obtained, but at what price?  
If raising doubts about a subject is one of the best achievements a movie can obtain, willingly or not, Wansei Painter – Tatsuomi Tateishi for what I’ve written above is certainly a compelling work and a must-watch for anyone interested in how the life of an individual interweaves and is shaped by the events of a very intricate historical period.

The next installment in my personal series about Japan/Taiwan will be, time permitting, 3 Islands by Lin Hsin-i, you can now read my review here.

NDU and Asia is One (アジアはひとつ)

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),  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,  had to face the colonization of the Dutch, the Spanish, the Chinese and later of the Japanese (1895 – 1945). Calling them “barbarians” the Japanese Empire tried to assimilate and annihilate their culture (6), the words from the tribe people in the movie 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 “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 very layered. It seems to me that in this process of cultural and historical coring that the movie conveys, from Okinawa to Taiwan, two very significant points 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 and the outsiders, in mainland Okinawa the illegal prostitutes and worst jobs are done from people from Miyako island, and in Miyako and other small islands the lower part of society is occupied by Koreans, Taiwanese and aboriginal people.
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!”

notes:

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.

Some thoughts on Le Moulin (Huang Ya-Li, 2015)

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Le Moulin is one of the most challenging and interesting documentaries I’ve had the chance to watch during the past year, thought-provoking in its formal construction and revealing in its themes, the cultural and poetic movements that stirred Taiwan in the last part of the Japanese colonial period. The movie is directed, scripted and photographed by Huang Ya-Li, a young independent experimental Taiwanese filmmaker. His video poetry The Unnamed in 2010 was nominated by the 33th Golden Harvest Awards for Outstanding Short Films (Best Experimental Short Film) in Taiwan and was presented in many countries around the world.

Here the description of the movie:

Taiwan had already been under Japanese rule for forty years, and was in a stable period of cultural assimilation, when the country’s first modern art group – ‘Le Moulin’ – arose in the 1930s in a poetic protest against the colonial power’s cultural superiority. The name reflected the small group’s orientation towards the West and especially France, with the surrealists as their absolute role models. In an uncompromising and aesthetically sophisticated reconstruction of the group’s underground activities, the young filmmaker Huang Ya-Li has created a delicate and evocative feature film debut about a historical period that paved the way for a new freedom and self-awareness. A film where tableaux and beautifully calligraphed texts surround the ‘Moulin’ members, and where you sense an echo of their fellow Taiwanese writer Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s epic and elliptical period dramas.

Because of its “headless” structure it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to write a “normal” review, mirroring the construction of the film itself, I’ve tried to randomly accumulate a series of reflections instead.


Stylistically the movie is a deluge of poetic words & images from a variety of sources: painting, movies, poetry, photos, reenactment and radio programs.

Photos of the French surrealists themselves, lots and lots of their works, Dali, Breton, Cocteau, etc. everything is shown accompanied by spoken poetry written in Japanese by the Moulin group members themselves.

A sort of collage of photos, at least in the first part, a la mode of the Surrealist, but also the dadaists and their Japanese counterpart: fascination with machines, trains & speed, fragmentation of perception through objects.

Footage of Tokyo during the 30s, footage of the Maso festival

The fascination and admiration of the Taiwanese poets with Jean Cocteau and his works is one of the pivotal moment of the movie, he visited Japan for 3 days in May of 1936 where he had the chance to watch a kabuki play and was very impressed by it.

In the enacted sequences, never the faces of the people are shown, but most of the time we see hands, writing, turning pages, lighting cigarettes and holding books or photos. A choice in style that encapsulate the mood of the movie, anti-narrative, non-linear, accumulative and elliptical. Although it proceeds somehow chronologically, from the early 20th century to the total mobilization of the end of the 30′ and Pearl Harbor in 1941, a change in mood and attitude is reflected in the texture of the movie after the deteriorating relationship between Taiwanese and Japanese poets in the late part of the decade, the Allied bombing of Taiwan and, after the surrender, the arrival of “fatherland China” and its sour aftermath.

All in all, the movie functions like a huge and complex poem constructed with digital images, footage, written and spoken poetry, and minimalist music, a cubistic landscape of an era and of the poetic instances traversing the period and the place, occupied Taiwan.

The Moulin is in no way an easy watch, but nonetheless a very rewarding experience able to trail blaze uncharted cinematic territories.

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