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.

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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.

From the archives: Kamei, Hani and Ogawa in two Italian publications (1967, 1970)

The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia (Experimental film centre) in Rome is one of the oldest cinema schools in the world and the oldest in Europe, founded in 1935 the centre nourished and helped establishing, in different degrees, the career of many important filmmakers, photographers and actors. Japanese director Masumura Yasuzō famously studied at the school for about two years at the beginning of the 1950s under luminaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, an experience that without doubt helped shaping his approach to cinema and his views as a filmmaker.
In 1937 the centre started to publish its own film journal, Bianco e Nero, a monthly magazine that is still been published to this day. A couple of years back I bought online a copy from 1967 (February) that has an article, penned by film critic Claudio Bertieri, on the documentaries of Hani Susumu and Kamei Fumio. In November of the previous year the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, an event dedicated to non-fiction still running today, presented a mini-retrospective on Japanese documentary, and Bertieri discusses in the short article, titled Susumu Hani, Fumio Kamei ed il documentario giapponese (Susumu Hani, Fumio Kamei and Japanese documentary), the movie he was able to see at the festival. He devotes most of the article on Hani, Yuki Matsuri (1953),  Children in the Classroom (1954), Children Who Draw (1955), Twins in the Class (1956) and Hōryū-ji (1958) are the documentaries here analysed, while the rest of the piece is spent examining Kamei’s It’s Good to Live (1956) and The World of Yukara (1964), a trilogy about Ainu’s traditions. Although written in 1967 — a period when Japanese documentaries certainly were not known or available to watch as they are today (well, they are not that discussed even today…) — and with few dated observations here and there, most of the analysis remain solid to this day. Documentary as opposed to mainstream cinema ‘the man in the street here [in Europe] has not seen Louisiana Story, in Japan he does not know Hani or Kamei’, Hani’s ability to capture moments of pure innocence in children, or Kamei sensibility when portraying human suffering are spot-on insights.

Even more interesting, but for different reasons, is Cinema: Giappone e Zengakuren (Cinema: Japan and Zengakuren) a short book published in 1970 by Samonà e Savelli, later Savelli – La Nuova Sinistra, a publisher established in 1963 and the first to directly represent the extra-parliamentary left-wing in the Italian publishing world. Over the next decade the books printed by Savelli – La Nuova Sinistra, also fueled by political and social unrest in the peninsula, would gain momentum and become a cultural reference point for left-wing groups such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua , and for the newspaper Il Manifesto.

The book is devoted to Ogawa Shinsuke’s The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Narita (1968), the first movie in the Narita/Sanrizuka Series. A brief introduction that outlines the Japanese political situation and the fierce resistance by the peasants and the students, is followed by a translation of some writings by members of Ogawa Production, just a couple of paragraphs nothing more, while the main part of the volume is a transcription of the dialogues spoken in the film. It was a period where the revolutionary cinema(s) of the globe were connecting to each other and were trying to build a common front against capitalism, the people in power and the establishment. The back cover is in this regard illuminating: Comitato di Cinema e Rivoluzione: Baldelli, Filippi, Ivens, Ogawa, Rocha, Solanas, Straub (Cinema and Revolution’s committee: Baldelli, Filippi, Ivens, Ogawa, Rocha, Solanas, Straub).

Reading these two publications after almost 50 years since they were originally printed was a very fascinating discovery, Ogawa and Kamei are two of the most important documentarists in the history of world cinema and essentially the reason this blog exists. Cinema: Japan and Zengakuren in particular is revelatory not as much for the information it contains, there are some mistakes of course — in the pre-internet age Japan was still a land far away and often misrepresented — but more as an artifact of an era long gone but still able to resonate with our present. An era when the arts were explicitly politicized, in a state of never-ending struggle and ready to change the world.

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Forgetting Vietnam ( Trinh T. Minh-ha, 2015)

Writing about Trinh T. Minh-ha, one of the most significant filmmakers, cultural theorists and artists active today, was something I meant to do for a long time, and the occasion finally came a couple of weeks ago when I had the chance to watch her newest movie, Forgetting Vietnam (2015).
For everyone interested in documentary also as a way of questioning the ontological status of cinema and the nature of filmic representation, Trinh T. Minh-ha is a familiar name. Born in Vietnam and raised in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, she migrated to the U.S. in 1970, where she now resides and is active as a filmmaker, writer, composer, and professor of rhetoric and of gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among her most important films are the seminal Reassemblage (1982), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and The Fourth Dimension (2001).

Forgetting Vietnam was screened at this year Cinéma du Réel in Paris and at various sites throughout U.S., here the movie’s description:

Vietnam in ancient times was named đất nứớc vạn xuân – the land of ten thousand springs. One of the myths surrounding the creation of Vietnam involves a fight between two dragons whose intertwined bodies fell into the South China Sea and formed Vietnam’s curving ‘S’ shaped coastline. Legend also has it that Vietnam’s ancestors were born from the union of a Dragon King, Lạc Long Quân and a fairy, Âu Cơ. Âu Cơ was a mythical bird that swallowed a handful of earthly soil and consequently lost the power to return to the 36th Heaven. Her tears formed Vietnam’s myriad rivers and the country’s recurring floods are the land’s way of remembering her. In her geo-political situation, Vietnam thrives on a fragile equilibrium between land and water management. A life-sustaining power, water is evoked in every aspect of the culture.
Shot in Hi-8 video in 1995 and in HD and SD in 2012, the images unfold spatially as a dialogue between the two elements—land and water—that underlie the formation of the term “country” (đất nứớc). Carrying the histories of both visual technology and Vietnam’s political reality, these images are also meant to feature the encounter between the ancient as related to the solid earth, and the new as related to the liquid changes in a time of rapid globalization. In conversation with these two parts is a third space, that of historical and cultural re-memory – or what local inhabitants, immigrants and veterans remember of yesterday’s stories to comment on today’s events. Through the insights of these witnesses to one of America’s most divisive wars, Vietnam’s specter and her contributions to world history remain both present and all too easy to forget. Touching on a trauma of international scale, Forgetting Vietnam is made in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and of its survivors.

“The image, a singular experience of blindness”

With Forgetting Vietnam Minh-ha revisits her native land forty years after the war, an event that touched her personally, and depicts the Vietnamese landscape and its evolving culture – exploring the daily life of women and the importance of the binary interplay between water and land in Vietnamese history – but at the same time the movie is a deconstruction of the documentary as a direct mode of representation and subtle exposure of the constraining power of the image.
Minh-ha is trying to break, or at least to weaken, the spell of the image and the univocity through which it’s usually perceived and consumed, as she writes “The question is not so much to produce a new image as to provoke, to facilitate, and to solicit a new seeing” (The Digital Film Event, Routledge, 2005). To sparkle a new seeing Minh-ha is placing hurdles and barriers to complicate the simple fruition of images and the easy formation of meanings. Written words, quotes, poetic lines, superimposition, screen wipes, music and montage are used to create a fluid, disorienting and ever-escaping cinematic experience, a work whose speed and continuous progressing don’t allow us to get too much attached to the images and stories we are fed. There’s no time and space for the viewer to reflect or engage on what she or he sees on screen, although the hinted events are of the largest scale such as the infamous Huế Massacre, the “forgetting” in the title is thus not only the oblivion of the tragedies the country and its people had to endure, but also a way of experiencing the movie as an impermanent event, or, as someone has beautifully pointed out “the diaspora of the film is thus not only cultural, but formal, in the sense that we never find any sort of grounding here. We are always on the move, always distanced from the images of Vietnam, never given time to sit with any given frame.”


“The bigger the grain, the better the politics?”*

An important subtext present throughout the movie is the dialectic between Hi-8 video and SD/HD, a dichotomy that sparkled from a purely coincidental and fortuitous event, Minh-ha started filming in the mid 90s, but had to stop for lack of funding and went on shooting again only in 2012, when the digital techonology had already made a huge leap forward. A difference that on the one hand highlights the the particular quality of the image in HD, a quality of tangibility and immediacy making the places and the people in it very present, “real”, while on the other hand the image in super Hi-8 seems to pose a distance with the viewer, a temporal but also aesthetic gap with the “present”, a sense of history and of things past captured on film,”a difference of memory systems” as  written on screen in one scene of the movie. This formal discrepancy is also reflected, amplified and complicated in the polyphony of voices used to tell the big and small stories that compose Vietnam, historical facts are interwoven on the same plane with comments from bus drivers, popular songs and much more with an almost Pynchonean touch.
Forgetting Vietnam is a work conceived by Minh-ha as a maze, a smooth place (in the sense used by Deleuze and Guattari) where the viewer can wander, think and ask herself questions. As stated by the artist in a recent interview “How to open onto infinity within the finite has always been at the core of my work motivation. This then means that there’s also room to wander and err in my films, since they offer more than one entry or one exit, and the viewers who miss one could always catch another entry as they stay on with the work.”

*quote from the film

On the Road: A Document ドキュメント 路上(Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1964)

One of the towering figures in Japanese documentary, Tsuchimoto Noriaki began his career as a documentarist, like many of his generation, at Iwanami Production in 1956. Tsuchimoto was since his university years a very active student, involved in the establishment of Zengakuren, member of the Japanese Communist Party and eventually expelled from Waseda University in 1953 for political activities. Mostly known in Japan and in the rest of the world, and rightly so, for his life-long series on Minamata and the mercury poisoning caused by Chisso Corporation, a total of 15 films in more than 40 years, Tsuchimoto in his long career tackled with his movies many different issues. Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 and Traces: the Kabul Museum 1988, two movies set and about Afghanistan in a crucial time for the country, Nuclear Scrapbook (1982) on the danger of Japan’s nuclear policies, and On the Road: A Document, are some of his best non-Minamata works. It’s on this last one that I’d like to focus my attention today.
At the Beginning of the 60s Tokyo, and Japan in general, was in turmoil and experiencing huge changes, on the one hand the country was trying to leave behind and “forget” the tragedies of war, the consequent American occupation and more than 20 years of militarization and nationalism, on the other hand Japan was projecting itself and its people at maximum speed towards the future and a new phase. This “double” movement implied, among other things, starting a series of infrastructure projects that would completely alter the landscape of urban and suburban areas of the country, especially in preparation for the big international showcase of 1964, the Tokyo Olympics: streets, highways, the launch of the Shinkansen (the famous bullet train), and the devil’s pact with atomic energy. All changes that would shape, for better or for worse, the country’s future and made it what it is today.
On the Road was made in this whirl of structural, social and political changes, let’s not forget the huge demonstrations against the ANPO treaty in 1960 and those that would shake the country in the following years, a period of turmoil that is reflected in the film’s production history, as Zakka Films site puts it:

On the Road was originally commissioned as a traffic safety film with the Metropolitan Police as one of the sponsors. But it actually had a double existence: in reality Tsuchimoto was also working with the drivers’ union. When a police official finally saw the film, he dismissed it as “useless—the plaything of a cinephile,” and so it was never used for its original purpose. While winning numerous awards abroad, including at Venice, it was shelved in Japan for nearly 40 years.

The production is also a strong statement of Tsuchimoto’s artistic independence and creativity as a filmmaker, “The film was conceived as an experimental dramatized documentary” and “Tsuchimoto had amateur actors play the principal roles and, because the sound and image were recorder separately, asked drivers to reenact their duties, meeting and conversations”*. For all these reasons On the Road turned into a formally and highly creative documentary and a very different one, in style and concept, from those of the Minamata series that would follow in five years. Alienating music, fast editing and a cacophonic cityscape rendered through a jazz-like rhythm bring to mind the city symphony movies of the beginning of the 20th century, reimagined for and in the 60s. A snap-shot of an era of change for Japanese society framing a mutating urbanscape with a free-style touch that makes it highly watchable and fresh even for today’s viewers.

While it’s important to praise and introduce all the movies of the Minamata series to the broadest audience possible, it’s also vital not to overlook some of Tsuchimoto’s works made outside of his life-long series and by doing so affirming his importance and role in the history of Japanese documentary.

On the Road: A Document is available on DVD (with English subtitles) at Zakka Films, of course!

* from the DVD booklet

East and Southeast Asian documentary. And beyond 


Today just a quick note to announce a small topic shift I’d like to give to my blog. I will still primarily write about Japanese documentaries, but in the past months I realised just how limiting it is to keep the focus only on the works coming out of Japan and by doing so missing the chance to explore the rich and vibrant non-fiction scene of East and Southeast Asian countries. To be honest, I don’t know where this decision will bring the blog and even if there will be real changes in my blogging at all. Reviews of Asian documentaries? news about a new DVD/Blu-ray or an interesting movie from China, Taiwan, South Korea or the Philippines? More about film festivals in the region? I have no idea, stay tuned.