Documentaries at the London Korean Film Festival 2017

The London Korean Film Festival has opened its 12th edition last Thursday and will run in the capital for two weeks, from November 10th through the 19th the festival will then go on tour around the UK, touching Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Belfast.
In addition to showcasing a wide-range of titles produced in the Asian country, there will also be masterclasses, talks and collateral events, a special occasion for the British audience to get a glimpse of South Korean cinema and film culture in general. This year line-up includes not only UK and European premieres, animations, classics, shorts and indies, but also a fascinating focus on Korean Noir, “Illuminating the Dark Side of Society”, and, of particular interest for this blog, a program dedicated to documentary.

The first movie presented will be Two Doors (2012) directed by Kim Il-rhan and Hong Ji-you, a documentary investigating the the Yongsan Disaster, when in January of 2009 a sit-in rally in central Seoul resulted in the deaths of five protesters and one police officer. While Two Doors focuses more on the legal aspects of the tragedy, amassing documents against the violence used to prohibit the demonstration and the sit-in, The Remnants  (2017) is about the personal tribulations and the legal problems that some the people who took part in the demonstration had to go through in the seven years after the tragedy. The movie was directed by Lee Hyuk-sang, who was also creative director behind Two Doors, and the festival has organised a special conversation with the director on November 2.
Goodbye my Hero (2017) by Han Younghee, a movie addressing labour relations and workers’ rights in contemporary South Korea, and Park Kyung-hyun’s Dream of Iron (2017), a film essay about the development of the steel industry in the country during the 1960s, will complete the section.
The ‘Women’s Voices’ s section includes also a documentary, Candle Wave Feminists (2017) by Kangyu Garam, a movie that delves into the revolution that led to former prime minister Park’s impeachment and her spiritual mentor Choi Soon-Sil’s arrest.

All the documentaries will be screened this week starting from tomorrow, October 31st.

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Retrospective of Taiwanese documentary cinema at the Jihlava International Doc Film Fest

Since the discovery of Le Moulin two or so years ago, non-fiction cinema in contemporary Taiwan has been one of my main cinematic obsessions and a research interest that drove me to explore the flourishing documentary scene of the island. This year edition of the  Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival (October 24-29) is currently holding a retrospective on Taiwanese documentary from 1937 to 2014 titled Transparent Landscape: Taiwan, a program that presents 25 Taiwanese documentaries from the period, according to the festival “the historically most comprehensive showcase of Taiwanese documentary cinema ever”.  I won’t be able to attend it, but, it goes without saying, it’s an event I’m highly interested in and I hope a catalogue will be published, here the press release:

The section will include some of the most important works of Taiwanese independent filmmakers. Allowing a glimpse into Taiwan’s complicated historical-political development, these films offer significant insights into different periods of recent Taiwanese history.
The earliest Taiwanese documentaries are the 8mm ”home videos“, shot by photographer DENG Nan-guang in the 1930s. They realistically portray scenes of daily life under Japanese occupation, such as life and work along the Tamsui river and family outings. The recently restored short The Mountain by Richard Yao-chi CHEN (1967) will be presented outside of Taiwan for the first time. Other representative works from the1960s, are the films by renowned director BAI Jing-rui and photographer ZHUANG Ling. In this decade, only government-commissioned propaganda films could be produced, but with their creative ingenuity, those filmmakers still managed to convey the lives and thoughts of ordinary people.
The Green Team, the most important non-mainstream media in the period prior to and after the lifting of martial law in Taiwan (1987), will also be represented by two important productions. The Green Team documented many social movements and protests that took place on Taiwan’s road to democracy in the 80s, and their images eventually became weapons against the authoritarian state. There are obvious connections with the situation in Czech society in the late 80s before the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Apart from its focus on history, Transparent Landscape: Taiwan also pays tribute to the experimental spirit of Ji.hlava IDFF. By showcasing aesthetically experimental, creative films, traditional expectations on documentaries are challenged. The selection includes several masterpieces, such as works by internationally renowned artist CHEN Chieh-jen, photographer CHANG Chien-chi, the first Taiwanese to become a member of Magnum Photos, and YUAN Goang-ming, the pioneer of video art in Taiwan.
This comprehensive retrospective also includes early documentaries by the leading figures of Taiwanese cinema, such as CHUNG Mong-hong, WU Mi-sen, HUANG Ting-fu and others. Beginning from the 90s, they used experimental vocabulary to explore the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Even today, their films are regarded as avant-garde filmmaking, no matter if they deal with aesthetic conceptions or with human problems.

You can find the complete program here, and more information about documentary in Taiwan on the TaiwanDoc page.

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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.

 

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).