Yamagata 2017 – day 5 (finale)

October 10th

My last day in Yamagata. The festival will officially wrap up in a couple of days, but there are only a few screenings left and the main part of the festival ended de facto today. It would be a good idea if the organizers could spread the movies a bit more, as the festival is designed now, everything tends to be concentrated during the long week end (Friday to Monday) when film buffs from other part of Japan visit Yamagata.

In the morning I saw Genet in Shatila (1976) by Richard Dindo, long time ago I read the book the movie is based on (Four hours in Chatila) and it was a pleasure to rediscover its poetry and Jean Genet’s attachment to the Palestine cause. The second movie of the day was Here and Elsewhere by J.L. Godard and J.P. Gorin, a turning point in Godard’s career because it trailblazed and anticipated an approach towards the image and the use of it and many stylistic elements that would fully thrive and bloom in his next movies, culminating with Histoire(s) du Cinéma.

The last movie I saw at the festival was The Targeted Island: A Shield Against Storms by Mikami Chie. Although the movie is shot like a TV documentary and I have some other issues with it, it ends with the most powerful final scene I’ve seen in Yamagata this year, a very young female protester and a very young policeman facing each other in silence under the rain. Breathtaking.

I guess that’s all for this year in Yamagata, the festival is always a special experience, even though keeping the quality of the movies selected high is becoming every time more and more difficult.
I’d like to give special thanks to all the people (directors, critics, scholars, film lovers and volunteers) I met and I discussed with during these five days, it has been an enriching experience.


Yamagata 2017 – day 4

October 9th

Today I had to write an article for Il Manifesto about the Politics and Film: Palestine and Lebanon 70s–80, so I could not see as many movies as I’d have liked to. Anyway, the first work of the day was Tremorings of Hope by Agatsuma Kazuki, a movie depicting the struggles of thepeople of Hadenya, one small community in Miyagi prefecture, to rebuild their lives after the tsunami completely erased their town. It was as I expected, not a bad movie but nothing exceptional or new, definitely too long though.

The only other movie I had the time to see is Once Upon a Time in Beirut: The Story of a Star by Jocelyne Saab, a complex interweaving of history and history of Lebanese cinema through the personal and fictional gaze of the director. A mesmerizing, tragic and fun film composed in more than its half of images taken from Lebanese and not Lebanese movies of the first half of the 20th century. The icing on the cake was a Q & A with Saab herself via Skype.

Yamagata 2017 – day 3

October 8th

In the morning I attended the screening of my favorite documentaries by Satō Makoto, Self and Others and Memories of Agano, the latter just confirmed its powerful impact it has every time on me and its endless rewatchability. In the afternoon the panel with Mark Nornes and Akiyama Tamako, Satō Makoto Seen from Abroad, was very enriching from many different points of view and it cemented my belief that Satō, especially at the end of his career, was more in tune with the international context that the Japanese one.

I also had the chance to catch up with Ex Libris—The New York Public Library by Frederick Wiseman, not my favorite of his works perhaps, but still a compelling documentary masterfully constructed. I feel it’s a very American film, all his works are “very American” of course, but this one, just my opinion, can be appreciated more by people who live or have lived in the U.S.

The two night screenings were really different, both experimental, but one a complete let down (Hurrahh! by Jung Jae-hoon) and the other a small and unexpected jewel of a movie. Rubber Coated Steel by Lawrence Abu Hamdan mixes video art, documentary and a strong political stance like few other works have been able to do recently. Time permitting, I’ll write something in the near future.

Yamagata 2017 – day 2

October 7th

Yamagata is a special film event not only because is a filmfest devoted to documentary, but also because is a place where you can meet and talk with a variety of different people. One of the highlights of the first two days for me was the nice and eye-opening conversation I had with Matsumoto Masamichi, Athénée Français Cultural Center’s director, about Carmelo Bene, his cinema and his Terayama Shuji-like status in Italy and France.

For the morning screening of my second day at the festival, I chose In Memory of the Chinatown by Chen Chun-Tien, a movie that confirmed my convinction that the Taiwanese documentary scene is at the moment one of the most intriguing and alive in Asia, particularly for its tendency to hybridizing genres and experimenting with form.

My afternoon screening was Sennan Asbestos Disaster, the latest movie by Hara Kazuo and the first one he shot, for a theatrical released at least, in a very long time. The viewing experience was one of the best I had so far in Yamagata, because I was sitting among the people appearing in the film, those affected by the asbestos pollution. Their comments and laughing aloud during the screening made it a really touching experience.

The last screening of the day I attended was dedicated to the short experimental films made by the late Matsumoto Toshio. The selection included

Mona Lisa, Atman, Everything Visible Is Empty, White Hole, Relation and Sway. Seeing them on the big screen and in 16mm was amazing, especially Atman was a hallucinatory trip. The sceening was followed by a talk by Takashi Ito, who explain his relationship with Matsumoto and revealed some interesting and unknown fact about Atman (the diagram for shooting the movie designed by Matsumoto looked like a mandala, the person wearing the hannya mask was in fact a mannequin and the movie was shot using infrared film).

Yamagata 2017 – day 1

October 6th

Arrived this morning in a gray, cloudy and a bit chilly, but not too much, Yamagata. My first day at the festival was welcomed by the screening of Funeral Parade of Roses, and it could not have been otherwise, this is the first edition of the festival without Toshio Matsumoto and attending the screening of a movie I’ve seen so many times, but never on the big screen, was almost a duty and my way of paying respect to the great director.

Funeral Parade of Roses was followed by Cats, Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi, the story of Dondon, a boy “trapped” in a rural area of the Philippines from one dead-end job to another. The movie is directed by Perry Dizon a member of Lav Diaz group, for which he often works as an actor.

For the afternoon/evening slot I’ve opted for the documentaries made by Jocelyne Saab during the 1970s about Lebanon and Beiruit instead of Ex Libris, the latest from Wiseman that I’ll catch the day after tomorrow, and the decision turned out to be a bliss. The early works by the Lebanese director and former journalist are a rarity, unfortunately Saab wasn’t able to attend the festival, some health issues kept her in Paris, but the movies were an absolute revelation. Part essay-films and part a personal view of the horrors perpetrated to Beirut and Lebanon between from the breaking of the civil war in 1975, the three movies, Beirut Never More (’76), Letter from Beirut (’78) and Beirut My City (’82) are also a deep reflection on identity, memory, and the meaning(less) of images in war. Saab, especially in the first and third documentaries, tries, I am here paraphrasing the words spoken in the last film, to capture the reality of war, its horror and tragedy, paradoxally before it could cristyllize in images, consequently becoming something different and detached. I’m still elaborating the impact that these works had, and are still having, on me; once the festival is finished, I’ll try to write something.

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2017

The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, one of the most awaited film-related events of the Japanese archipelago, will kick off its fifteenth edition next week on October 5th. For eight days the city of Yamagata will be the capital of documentary cinema, hosting not only an international competition with movies from all over the globe, but also a plethora of  more or less known documentaries presented in other sections, special screenings and retrospectives. For the cinephiles and the film lovers visiting the northern Japanese city, the festival will be an occasion to discover hidden gems of historical importance and an unmissable chance to meet directors, scholars and documentary-obsessed people.
Festival opens on the 5th with a special screening commemorating the passing of Matsumoto Toshio, one of the true giants of Japanese cinema. Two of his best known documentaries, Nishijin (1961) and Ginrin / Bicycle in Dreams (1955) will be presented for the occasion in their original format (35mm), while For My Crushed Right Eye (1968) will be screened as it was originally conceived, that is in 16mm and with 3 projectors. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and other experimental works made by Matsumoto during the 1970s and 1980s will also be shown during the festival, including one of my favourite, Atman (1975), a kaleidoscopic trip to the philosophical source of movement and image.
Among the titles presented in the International Competition a must-see for me is Ex Libris—The New York Public Library, the latest work by Frederick Wiseman, but I’m also looking forward to I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck and the long-awaited new work by Hara Kazuo, Sennan Asbestos Disaster, the first feature documentary the director of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On made in more than a decade. The movie follows the victims who suffered asbestos-related damages in the city of Sennan in Osaka, during their eight years fight for compensation.
Also in competition the beautiful Machines by Rahul Jain (I wrote about it here), Donkeyote, a subtle reflection on dreams and hopes through the eyes of a donkey and its ageing owner, directed by Chico Pereira, and Another Year by Zhu Shengze, a movie that has received much praise in the international festival circuit. Wake (Subic) by John Gianvito, about the pollution afflicting the residents of a former US naval base in Luzon Island, the Philippines, looks interesting and so does Tremoring of Hope, the difficult recovery of the people of Hadenya in Miyagi, six years after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Here the complete line-up.
A promising section that will probably sparkle heated post-screening debates is Politics and Film: Palestine and Lebanon 70s–80s, a selection of films made in Palestine and Lebanon during the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990) and in recent years, movies that show and reflect on the struggles and politics of the area. Among them the (in)famous Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War, filmed by Wakamatsu Koji and Adachi Masao in 1971, and Genet in Shatila (1999), about the French writer and his relation with the Palestinian revolution as he witnessed the aftermath of the Shatila’s massacre in September of 1982.

Introducing Asian documentary filmmakers, New Asian Currents is usually one of my favorite section for its scope and the variety of films shown, this year 21 works from the continent will be presented, giving us a glimpse of the life, difficulties and struggles the people inhabiting the huge and diversified area have to cope with in their daily life. A Yangtze Landscape by Xu Xin is an interesting movie (more here) that deserves to be seen on the big screen, exploring the geographical and social landscape surrounding the Yangtze River in its long course of more than thousands kilometers. While the works of Yamashiro Chikako are a rare example, rare in Japan at least, of how to tackle a series of thorny historical issues, Okinawa and its relation with mainland Japan and with its past, merging documentary with the experimental.
Here the section’s complete line-up.
I’m ashamed to admit, but I know almost nothing of African documentary. Africa Views will thus be my entrance gate to it, “a program that introduces over 20 films created since the year 2000—with a particular focus on the Sub-Saharan region—depicting a contemporary Africa that lets off a considerable racket as it creaks toward progress, and introducing us to the people who live there.” What caught my attention in Perspective Japan are the new films by Murakami Kenji and Onishi Kenji, two short experiments in 8mm whose screening promises to be, like two years ago, a real cinema-event.
The Festival will also hold a retrospective on Fredi M. Murer, a Swiss director that the program describes as “a leader of the internationally-acclaimed Swiss Nouveau Cinema movement that was active from the late 1960s through the 1980s, together with Daniel Schmid and Alain Tanner. (…) Depending on the period in which they were made, Murer’s works may be classified variously as experimental film, documentary, or narrative film.” The retrospective that interest me the most though is Ten Trips Around the Sun: Sato Makoto’s Documentary Horizon Today, a tribute to Sato Makoto on the 10th anniversary of his death, that will include screenings of his major works accompanied by discussions and panels.

North Korean missiles permitting, I’ll be in Yamagata from October 6 to 11, and, as I did two years ago, I will try to keep a diary of my viewings experiences, here or more likely on my Twitter account.

P.S. I’ve also created a list on Letterboxd with most of the movies that will be in Yamagata.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Machines (Rahul Jain, 2016)

Prompted by several online comments describing it as a cinematic experience close to the works by The Sensory Ethnography Lab or Aragane, I finally had the chance to watch Machines, the debut documentary directed by Rahul Jain and set in a textile factory in Gujarat, India.
It’s not a documentary made or about East or Southeast Asia, thus strictly speaking it is out of the areas usually covered in this blog, nonetheless I found it so compelling that I made an exception. Here the description of the movie from FestivalScope:

To the south of the Indian metropolis of Surat in Gujarat province lies a vast industrial zone that has been growing ever since the 1960s. Director Rahul Jain filmed the grueling daily routine in just one of the many textile factories there. In the factory, man and machine seem to have fused into one being. It is dark and dank, and barely any daylight penetrates the space. The labor is heavy and mind-numbing, and the work days seem endless. We are drawn into a gloomy world where the cacophonous beat of machinery sets the rhythm of toil. Jain is as interested in the mysterious connection between worker and product (the fabrics are treated mechanically, but also with love) as he is in the degrading conditions. Each shift lasts 12 hours, for adults and children alike, and wages are extremely low. Short interviews are interspersed throughout the observational sequences, some of which are captivating in their beauty while others are painful to watch – such as when we see a boy nodding violently in his struggle to stay awake.

Formally one of the focal points of the movie is the cacophonous sounds of the factory as experienced every day by the workers, here as in many contemporary documentaries similar in style and scope to Machines, works that stress the sensory experiences captured on video/film, the sound design plays a key role in the construction of the movie. The use of light and the color palette are also two aesthetic elements that stand out from the very first scenes. The neon lights inside the factory resonate with the cold tonality of the gray walls and the metallic machines, making the milky white of the textiles stand out as if ethereal rags. Particularly compelling is also the contrast between the warm and thick colors of some textiles, red, yellow and purple, and the darkness and coldness of the working environment,  formally one the best qualities of the documentary because it symbolizes the gulf between the beautiful and refined textile produced and the inhuman labour conditions inside the factory.


The reason the movie is one of the best non-fiction pics I’ve seen this year however is the shift from a documentary purely focused on the sensory and the visual, to a more socially charged work. It is around 20-25 minutes into the movie that we see some workers been interviewed, a man who made debts to travel to the factory and support his family, but who has almost accepted the fate of being poor, a young boy revealing how everyday at the gate he’s so exhausted he wants to go back, and another man more critical of the system and particularly of the absence and weakness of unions.
Towards to end, the movie introduces also the owner of the company, a figure speaking empty words and lamenting how the workers want more money just to spend it in tobacco, alcohol and leisure he comes out as the epitome of the capitalist.
Machines however does not offer a simple and Manichean picture of the exploited workers against the evil owners, but a problematized and more complex depiction of the situation. A worker for instance, candidly admits he likes his job even if it is very hard, “God gave us hands, so we have to work”, after all they are still workers proud of their manual skills, and others, while criticizing the harsh conditions, state how this is the destiny of the poor and something almost unavoidable. I’m not an expert on India, but this could be directly linked to the class division of society that still permeates and shapes the country, or more probably to the production of subjectivity that characterizes this late phase of capitalism, especially in the new emerging superpowers. While these could be honest statements, and they probably are, we shouldn’t forget that the workers know this is a movie that eventually will be seen by the owners, thus forcing them to hold back part of the truth. To add a further layer of complexity, towards the end the documentary has an interesting meta-filmic shift when a large group of workers addresses directly the camera and Rahul Jain behind it, essentially criticizing him for exploiting them by making a movie and not helping them improving their working conditions instead.
One final not on the title. The machines of the title are of course those seen and heard during the whole movie, and the workers reduced to the status of a machine. The machine however is also the bigger picture and the given state of affairs, the capitalistic machinery that permeates society and shapes its people. As Deleuze wrote, I’m paraphrasing, you cannot escape the machine, out of the factory/office, the machine is everywhere, in the school, in the family, in everyday relations, in yourself, everywhere.