yamagata docu. film festival

Abe-Nornes amnornes
Fri Oct 24 23:11:34 EDT 1997

Here is the draft of a write-up on Yamagata for DOX magazine. I think it
answers some of Bridget's questions.

By the way, there were quite a few KineJapan folk at Yamagata, including
Anne MacKnight, Aaron Gerow, Michael Raine, Jeff Isaacs, Peter High, Kato
Mikiro, Darrell Davis.....I think I'm missing a few others....In any case,
it was nice to put faces on people!



The Space of Yamagata

Deep in the mountains of northern Japan, the Yamagata International
Documentary Film Festival held its fifth outing from October 6 to 13, 1997.
It was a great success on every front. Now a typical article recapping a
film festival would basically string together a list of the best work among
the 15 competition films, 4 jurors' films, 35 Japanese documentaries from
the 80s and 90s, 7 new Japanese docs, 6 special invitation films, 41 new
documentaries from every nook and cranny of Asia, and 67 films made in
Japan's colonies during WWII. However, it seems to me this hardly does an
event justice. Film festivals are, after all, *festivals* and reducing them
to the films on the screen hardly does justice to as rich an experience as
the one offered in Yamagata every other year. I like to think of film
festivals in spatial terms...

*Festivals are spaces for exchange* of one variety or another. Some
festivals make the exchange of money their dominating feature. While there
may be a touch of dealing for Japanese distribution at Yamagata, the real
riches lie elsewhere. A city-run festival, one of the initial reasons for
its establishment was the "internationalizing" of rural Yamagata. It has
grown to be much more, but the bringing together of people from around the
world for a week of watching film and talking film remains an important

*Festivals are spaces for fellowship.* Strangers meet and friends reunite
in a place once removed from everyday life. At Yamagata, after every day of
screenings the festival guests gathered at the Komian Club, a traditional
pickle factory where they hand you a bottle of sake at the door. Discussion
of the day's films starts there and, after its 2:00 closing, often moved to
hotel rooms. A bar just down from the street, Skip House, served as another
gathering spot. Here the Asia Program held more organized after-films
discussions, at least they started organized and naturally segued into a
collection of intimate groups. 

One of the most important functions of Yamagata *as an Asian film festival*
has been to provide a space for Asian filmmakers to meet each other, see
each other's work, share experiences, and go home energized to meet the
challenges of independence in the particular context of their own home
cinema. This was an alterior motive of the first Yamagata festival in 1989,
but back then there were hardly any independent Asian documentaries to
show. However, every festival since has evidenced a steady growth in the
numbers of films and maturity of that work. This year, the Asia Program ---
supplemented by the "Panorama" of new Japanese docs --- played to standing
room only crowds and was more exciting than ever. Coordinator of the Asian
Program, Fujioka Asako, also borrowed Skip House for formal discussions
among the Asian documentarists on problems of financing, distribution and
censorship. While Yamagata is probably known most in Europe and America for
its competition, in Asia it is known as the place independents meet. 

*Festivals are, of course, spaces for celebration.* And the best of the
fest are awarded handsome cash prizes, always welcome for the documentary
crowd. The Asian Program awards the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize (_____ yen), which
went to the mainland Chinese film *Out of Phoenix Bridge,* by Li Hong. The
film is about four young women who left rural areas for low-wage jobs in
Beijing. They live in an impossibly cramped room, working in pretty poor
conditions. However, much of the documentary features the girlish banter
exchanged as the four lie in bed before sleep; in these sleepy but lively
conversations, we discover that life in Beijing allows them a measure of
freedom unimaginable back at their villages. 

Back at the main competition, 15 films vied for the Flaherty Prize (3
million yen, or about US$30,000), including strong films by the likes of
Johan van der Keuken (*Amsterdam Global Village*), Erich Langjahr (*Alpine
Ballad*), Dusan Hanek (*Paper Heads*), and Barbara Hammer (*Tender
Fictions*). The Mayor's Prize (1 million yen) went to Frederick Wiseman,
ostensibly for *La Comedie Francaise,* but listening to jury spokesman
Robert Kramer's introduction to the award made it sound as if Wiseman won
primarily for being Wiseman. The winner of the Robert and Frances Flaherty
Prize was Ron Havilio for *Fragments Jerusalem.* I have to admit that while
the word on this film was excellent, I did not watch it because it demanded
a 6 hour investment! Yamagata does not shy from the long form --- quite a
few films were between 3 and 4 hours long --- and neither do the
spectators. The theaters were often full and few people ever walked. 

Outside of the competition, FIPRESCI prizes went to Yamazaki Mikio for a
fascinating fake documentary entitled *A Port in Vain.* Throughout this
quirky 8mm film, the director abruptly announces, "I'm lying. This is
fiction." Through this repetition embedded in documentary space, he
achieves an unusual layering of the fictive and the real. The FIPRESCI
critics also bowed to John Jost for *London Brief.* Anyone who has seen
Jost's work knows he's got a great eye, and here he turns to the new
digital video cameras to sketch a London summer. Jost makes the most of the
sharp image, the built-in special effects, and the economic freedom that
comes with the medium, capturing some scenes of stunning sublety.

*Festivals enrich the larger space of local film culture.* In addition to
these competitions were the best of the newest get shown, Yamagata has
always been known for its sidebars. Over the years, they have been
organized around a variety of themes, and drawn on the largest of scales.
This year featured two excellent events on very different slices of
Japanese documentary film history. 

First, Monma Takashi programmed "Imperial Japan at the Movies." Conceived
as a continuation of the 1991 festival's "Media Wars" commemorating wartime
filmmaking for the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, this year's program
gathered feature films, animation and documentaries made under the Japanese
during colonial times, often contrasting them with anti-Japanese films made
in the same region after the war. A few of the works were by well known
directors like Joris Ivens, Li Minwei (China), Shimizu Hiroshi (Japan) and
Geraldo de Leon (Philippines); however, most were extremely unusual films
which probably haven't been seen since they were shown as propaganda across
Japan's empire. A program of Indonesian films made during the Japanese
occupation was particularly fascinating, and it was followed by a symposium
with Peter High (a film historian), Hosokawa Shuhei (a music scholar) and
yours truly. 

At a nearby theater Yasui Yoshio, the curator of Planet Film Library in
Osaka, showed Japanese documentaries from the 1980s and 90s in "The Pursuit
of Japanese Documentary." This was (probably?) the final installment of his
ambitious history of the documentary form in Japan. Starting with the
prewar period at the 1989 YIDFF, Yasui has charted the development of
nonfiction film in Japan with follow-ups at every festival. It has been an
invaluable chance for many to reevaluate their history by seeing films that
have long been shelved. Bringing us up to the present day, this year's
event turned from a historical perspective to an investigation into the
here and now. 

This was most striking at the event's symposia. One night the dean of
Japanese documentary, Tsuchimoto Noriaki (the director of the Minamata
Series), spoke at length about his work and the present situation. The next
day, a full house with people listening from the lobby gathered for a
symposium with directors Ise Shin'ichi (documentarist), Kanai Katsu
(experimental filmmaker), Iizuka Toshio (former member of Ogawa
Productions), and Kawase Naomi (a young, experimental filmmaker whose first
feature won this year's Camera D'Or at Cannes). These very different
filmmakers offered up a fascinating struggle of self-definition. Moderator
Yamane Sadao offered the strong narrative of current Japanese documentary:
filmmaking of the past emphasized collectivity and a concerted effort to
organize documentary around the concerns of the people being filmed;
filmmaking of the present is an entirely personal documentary. Put another
way, after the end of the student movement and the loss of enemies (like
America) and master narratives (like Marxism), documentary filmmakers
turned the self into their object in an *otaku*-like socio-political
vacuum. Unfortunately, the potential fireworks between Iizuka and Kawase,
representing either end of the generational spectrum, were muted by
politeness. While this explanation has a certain elegance, Kanai and Ise
continually found themselves slipping through the cracks. Their work simply
doesn't fit. With closing comments by Tsuchimoto and former Ogawa
Productions member Fukuda Katsuhiko (who also served as juror for the Asia
Program), the symposium ended without a resolution of the debate. However,
the fascinating event certainly provided filmmakers and critics an
opportunity to feel out the present state of documentary in Japan. 

Finally, *festivals are spaces for resistance.* Amidst the celebration,
there was controversy (Yamagata would not be complete without it). This
year it came from the government in the specter of censorship. The
censorship system in Japan is in disarray, with customs, local police and
an industry board administering the infamous "no pubic hair" rule. One
would think the law would be superfluous, seeing as most men's magazines
completely ignore it by publishing "hair nude" photo sections. However,
just days before its scheduled screening, the Dutch doc *Mother Dao the
Turtlelike* was held hostage by customs. Unless the festival cut 12 seconds
of some Chinese prisoners taking a shower, the film would not be released.
Anyone who has seen this stunning compilation film of archival footage from
Dutch colonial times will be surprised at this ruling, especially since
there are plenty of other scenes that should have been cut by the same
standards. Such arbitrary censorship suggests retribution is the motive,
for Yamagata has circumvented the censorship system on every outing. The
censorship issue also took on an international dimension, as protests
pointed out the recent suppression of Korea's first Queer Film and Video
Festival as well as the Human Rights Film Festival. The actions infuriated
filmmakers and spectators alike, and their angry response was covered in
all the papers in Japan; whether the bureaucrats care is another matter...

And my pick for the best film of the festival? It would have to be Sergey
Dvortsevoy's punchy little Kazakhstan short in the Asia program; ironically
entitled *Paradise,* let's just say it does amazing things with

More information about the KineJapan mailing list