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.


Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i, 2016) 

I’ve written at length, here and elsewhere, about 3 Islands, an experimental documentary by Taiwanese female filmmaker and artist Lin Hsin-i, one of my favorite nonfiction movies of last year. Yesterday I had the chance to watch another of her works, Letter #69, a short film (19 min) that was screened at this year Visions du Réel and in 2016 at the Women Make Waves Film Festival where it received the Excellence Award.

Here is the synopsis from Visions du Réel:

In the White Terror period in Taiwan, Shui-Huan SHI was imprisoned for hiding her brother, and was soon executed later. In the prison, she wrote 69 letters for her family. Simulating the life in the prison, this film silently criticizes the history. The “photographic film image” in the video, Letter #69, is an old photographic film from an abandoned old Taiwanese theater. After cleaning the film, Shi Shui-Huan’s letters were printed on it to construct a stop motion. The reproduction of old film serves as a response to the esoteric, dark history of Shi Shui-Huan and her brother Shi Zhi-Cheng in their last escape where they hid in the ceiling. It is also a response to the historical violence of Taiwan that cannot be cleared and is difficult to look back at.

In 1954 Shi Sui Huan was imprisoned for hiding her brother who was resisting the regime of Chiang Kai-shek. During the period spent in prison, she will eventually be executed, she wrote letters to her family and her last one, the letter number 69, was left blank.
The blankness of the last letter is the canvas from which the director starts her investigation into the so called White Terror, a period of purges when political dissidents who were protesting or resisting against the Kuomintang-led Republic of China government, were persecuted, incarcerated and killed. While the period started in 1947 and ended in 1987 when the martial law was officially lifted, I think the director is referring here to a more specific time and place, the first years of the White Terror and a corner of the Liuzhangli Cemetery in Taipei where Shi Sui Huan and other 201 people are buried. Most of them were leftist thinkers or activists but also, like Shi Sui herself, people who just protected their relatives. The graves were forgotten and basically untouched in fear of repercussions till the end of the martial law, when slowly the country started to breath again, a “rebirth” that is well reflected in cinema (the so called Taiwanese new wave of Hou Hsiao-hsien,  Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, etc.)

The absence of written words in the last letter embodies the impossibility of directly connecting with the tragic period and its remnants, yet the blankness also represents the white noise resulting from the accumulation of all the phantasmic memories that in one way or another, while denied for so many years, are still alive and present. Sowing together all these fragments of scattered memories in an heterogeneous piece of cinematic patchwork, Lin Hsin-i’s short movie is an attempt to discover and create images and sounds of a lost and tragic period. The letters of Shi Sui Huan are juxtaposed with the narration in the present (done by family members of the victims), and images of ruins are overlapped with performative actions that recreate some of the gestures that the prisoner might have done.
Not only Letter #69 brings to the surface an obliviated past and directs its gaze towards a crucial spot in Taiwanese history, but the filmmaking style that made 3 Islands so powerful and fascinating for me is here in full display again. Aesthetically Letter #69 is a fragmented and kaleidoscopic work that blends the beauty and clearness of the digital image with the grain and the roughness of overused celluloid film ー an old strip of film where the director printed the woman’s letters ー sound manipulation and voice distortion with reenactment, and read and written passages from letters with the constant sound of a running film projector.

I might be partial because my cinematic taste tends definitely towards hybrid documentaries, but 3 Islands and now this Letter #69 are so fascinating and challenging that make Lin Hsin-i one of the most interesting filmmakers working in experimental nonfiction today.

Fighting Soldiers 「戦ふ兵隊」(Kamei Fumio, 1939) 

Kamei Fumio's Fighting Soldiers is a defining work in the history of Japanese documentary, possibly one of the first works of non-fiction to possess a very distinctive authorial touch, to an extent that it is often called the "first Japanese documentary". 

In 1939 commissioned by Toho (PCL changed its name in Toho just 3 years before), Kamei with cameraman Miki Shigeru went to China to shoot a propaganda documentary, or more correctly a war record film, about the Japanese imperial troops deployed in the ongoing invasion of Manchuria. Kamei however made something very different from what the government and the army was expecting, thus the movie was instantly banned from release. What was especially criticized was the portrait of soldiers, but also the depiction of Chinese victims, as the the chief of the Japanese Metropolitan Police Board famously stated during an advance screening "These aren't fighting soldiers, they're tired soldiers!" .
I'll focus my attention here on the first 5 minutes of the movie, one of my favorite openings in Japanese cinema and a powerful example of Kamei's use of montage, a "method of philosophical expression" that the Japanese director so beautifully explained in his book Takakau eiga:

I think documentary film must be like haiku. If the viewer observes something with shot A, then shot B must produce the space for the viewers to freely develop their own creative possibilities. Shot B, therefore, demands a new observation by the viewer. Shot B is what i call the MA of documentary film.
(quote from "The Flash of Capital" Eric Cazdyn, pag. 64)

Kamei was obviously and directly influenced by Soviet cinema and Soviet montage theory in particular, a technique he was able to master when he was studying film in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the early 1930s.

You can watch the opening here:

All the following stills are taken from the first 5 minutes of Fighting Soldiers and are here displayed in chronological order:



After the opening credits the movie starts with an old man praying before a shrine, images of destroyed houses, shots of children staring towards the camera (1) and an impressive close-up of the same old man (2).





In the next scene, a group of people carrying all their belongins, walk away from the destroyed town (3) through a barren land (4), soon after, the movie cuts to a close-up of a small statue hands on its face, almost frozen in a scream of despair (5). Next we see the same statue from a different perspective with the expanse of dry land on its background (6).



In the following shot we see the departure (or arrival) of Japanese tanks (7) from the land they conquered and destroyed, these war vehicles are seen from a medium distance. Next, in what is one of the most stunning shot and cut in the history of documentary, the point of view shifts, and we are now on a tank moving among the ruins of the bombarded town. It's a brief tracking shot and it's also an amazing close-up of a Japanese flag attached on the tank and flapping, but what we see on the background of the flag is the village reduced to rubble(8).

Kamei as a filmmaker had the philosophical necessity, paradoxically even if he was making what is still considered a propaganda documentary, to bring in the foreground what is usually pushed in the background, the suffering, the grief, the destruction and the loss that every military conflict brings about. For this inner conflict/dichotomy Fighting Soldiers remains even today hated and loved by many viewers and critics, and the movie is considered by many critics and scholars at the same time a cinematic wonder and a riddle. To complicate the situation, in the following years Kamei himself frequently repeated and wrote that it was not an anti-war movie. 
Problematic movies more than perfect ones foster us to reflect and to engage with their themes, not offering easy and ready-made point of views or solutions, they continuosly resonate with us, view after view, challenging our vision. Fighting Soldiers is one of these movies, and one of the best to emerge from the world of non-fiction cinema. 

It is a real pity that the film is not so well known in the West and, besides a cheap Japanese DVD, we don't have a proper DVD or BD release.

Further readings:
Japanese Documentary Film – The Meiji Era Through Hiroshima, Abe Mark Nornes, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
The Flash of Capital, Eric Cazdyn, Duke University Press, 2002.
A Talk by Kamei Fumio
The typical genius of Kamei Fumio