[KineJapan] YIDFF 2019

Markus Nornes nornes at umich.edu
Sat Oct 19 20:51:59 EDT 2019

The Yamagata festival ended a couple days ago. During the festival, I kept
some notes and I through I would collect them here to describe how it went.
This was the 30th anniversary of the festival, and there were some
retrospective events. Fewer and lower key than I expected, but I’ll save
that for the end.

The overall takeaway: Yamagata remains the most exciting film event in
Japan. I’m partial, of course, but it’s a fact. Surrounding the competition
and Asia Program are unique (sort of…more on that later) retrospectives
that show both canonical and rare films. The quality of projection is very
high, and the festival has proven committed to projecting films *on film;*
as usual, even venues that are nothing more than museum meeting rooms had
16mm and 35mm projectors showing archival prints.

And one thing that becomes more palpable with every festival is the
rejection of a market or pitching forum. Thank god. And thanks to this, the
festival stands out as a true celebration of cinema. Finally, it’s as
friendly and as welcoming as ever. Komian Club, the pickles restaurant that
the festival takes over every night, remains—as Oda Kaori put it at a
30th anniversary
event—“non-discriminatory” (*musabetsu*); the entire festival gathers and
celebrates together into the morning every evening. It’s great. What a
great festival.

Attending any film festival involves the usual hard decisions about what to
see and what to miss, and the feverish running from venue to venue. I’ll
make that dash around the festival below. These are rather scattershot…..

International Competition: The foreign filmmakers and programmers are
always scratching their heads over the selection. I don’t know if the
festival even realizes how strange the slate looks year after year. But the
festival has remained committed to a democratic selection process that
involves a wide mix of citizens and professional film people, and no top
curator making final decisions. So, naturally, strange films rise to the
top and it’s somewhat ragtag. Also, some festival friends tend to get
favored treatment in a tiny 15-film slate construed from thousands of
entries. A good example from this year is *Living the Light—Robby Müller.*
The foreigners were, like, why??? But Müller was a friend of Ogawa
Shinsuke’s. He was a talented filmmaker, but still (similarly, people
wondered about a previous festival’s Müller retrospective, when there are
living filmmakers who changed the course of documentary history).

Other festival friends this year include Wiseman (*Monrovia*), Patwardhan (
*Reason*), and Wang Bing (*Dead Souls*), who have been in this tiny
competition before. Reason was a respectable choice—it’s a major,
harrowing, Patwardhan film about nationalist violence. In one unforgettable
sequence, three nationalist agitators call for the audience to “crush Anand
Patwardan’s bones”; the camera pans and shows the director shooting among
the press, and he gets a question in: “I’m right here. You want me, come
and get me.” He’s a brave man in a dangerous spot. As for Wiseman, his film
has already made festival rounds; but he’s hugely popular in Japan. Same
with Wang Bing.

But Wang Bing deserves some highlighting. The thing is well over 500
minutes when you include intermissions, so it fills an entire theater for
an entire day—and they showed it twice. You have to admire Yamagata’s
courage to show films this long, especially when the competition is so
small (Wiseman’s film was 143 and Patwardan’s was 208 min). They also
showed his West of the Tracks and Feng Ming, both of which took top awards.
I love those films, but this one did nothing for me. I’m willing to admit
it might be because I watched it at home streaming, rather than in a
theatrical setting I had no control over and with a crowd (the Yamagata
audiences were huge and a majority stayed to the end). I found *Dead
Souls* dull
and repetitious, a mere string of (often poorly-shot) interviews. I was
grateful that it didn’t show the disturbing ethical lapses of his recent
films. But the whole affair was lifeless and could have been accomplished
in a 2-hour film. Obviously, the jury disagreed. They gave it the Flaherty
grand prize.

Suwa was on the jury and I cornered him at the closing party to ask what
turned his proverbial crank. He has some decent reasoning: the 8 hours
stringing together various POVs on the same physical space and time had
this strange, cinematic dynamic. An accretion of details, sometimes
contradictory, that intermingle and work off each other in a manner he had
never experienced in cinema. OK. I guess I can imagine that, but I
certainly didn’t experience it. WB himself was a no-show. Wang Bing has a
rep for suddenly dropping out of programs that people put their treasure
and sweat into, most recently at Wellesley last year. But here Yamagata’s
devoting two days of theatrical real estate to his film, and imagine how
much money it costs to subtitle an 8 hour film. What made this no-show
particularly obnoxious was the fact that he was just in Tokyo a couple
weeks ago for a small, minor gallery installation. In a message to the
awards ceremony, he said he was simply too busy. But it’s hard not to
imagine that the difference between Yamagata and that tiny gallery was that
the latter is trying to sell his work for tens of thousands of dollars. I
guess he felt no upside to attending Yamagata.

In contrast, screenings of Makino Takashi’s *Memento Stella* were prefaced
by a heartfelt message to the audience where the director explained how
desperately he tried to work around typhoon flight cancellations to get the
festival from Berlin. He even offered a profound thanks to the programmers
for their efforts to show his work. *Memento Stella* was never going to win
an award, and the film has been ravaged in social media. But those writers
were expecting “documentary” in the conventional sense, and this is a
Makino film. And one of his best. It has connections to *the* world, but
the film is a trippy, starry trance film-of-a-documentary. Suwa and I
talked about this one, too. We were both thrilled to see Yamagata include
it in the competition. After all, one of Yamagata’s legacies in Japan has
been to smash conventional notions of the nonfiction form.

Onward: Wakai Makiko’s New Asian Currents program was as strong as ever.
Although the international competition filmmakers rarely get it because
they are focused on their competition, the Asia program remains the heart
and soul of Yamagata. Unfortunately, frenetically rushing from program to
program, I only saw about four of the films, but I liked all of them. The
title that I heard dropped more than any other was probably the special
invitation of Mickey Chen’s *Boys for Beauty,* which was shown in tribute
to the director following his untimely death. My fave was Oda Kaori’s
*Cenote*. It was a stunning experimental doc she shot in the freshwater
sinkholes of Yucatan. The film alternates between underwater photography
and more ethnographic images on the ground above. The former were sensuous
and haptic and reminded me a lot of the experience of *Leviathan* (incredibly,
these razor sharp images were shot on iPhone); unlike *Leviathan*, the
images of people up on the ground focus on faces and give some sense for
their life (happily, these grainy images were shot on Super-8). Oda also
had an art exhibit connected to the film at a local gallery.

The sidebars were of the usual high quality. The cleverly titled AM/NESIA:
Forgotten “Archipelagos” of Oceana, by Hama Haruka and Greg Dvorak, had a
wonderful structure: Crossings, Lands, and Bodies were “three archipelagos”
containing the films. Most of the films were from the last 5 years, but
they also showed a sound version of the 1933 *Lifeline of the Sea, *one of
the first long-form documentaries in Asia. These were tightly programmed to
play off each other in their brackets and get people thinking. For example,
imperial era *Lifeline* was shown back to back with Sekiguchi’s *Senso
Daughters*, and peoples’ breath was taken away when Japanese songs from the
*Lifeline* era were sung in the later film. This kind of thoughtfulness was
evident in the catalog as well, for instance putting the colonizer in
brackets when listing the source (eg., Hawai’i [USA]). This is Yamagata
smart. I love it. The program came with a great catalog with essays and
poetry. I haven’t cracked this one, yet, but look forward to it.

Another sidebar was Tsuchida Tamaki’s Double Shadows 2. Like its
predecessor, this was a cineaste’s fun feast of films about film. There
were a few classics that have rarely been shown in Japan (*Showman, Meeting
Marlon Brando, Chronicle of a Summer*), along with a worthy new film or two
(Kim So-young’s *Goodbye My Love, North Korea, Chuck Norris vs. Communism*).
A highlight was a tribute screening of *On My Way to Fujiyama, I Saw… *by
Mekas. This was also the festival’s opening film. I missed the opening
ceremony, but the introduction by Kimura Michio (the farmer poet that
invited Ogawa to Magino) was the talk of the festival. He had met Mekas on
that 1983 trip to Japan, and contrasted Mekas’ nostalgia for his home to
Kimura’s own hatred for his own village. This program, by design, is a grab
bag of cool and interesting films yet, unlike AM/NESIA, does not make the
effort that went into programming felt. Thankfully, there is a very serious
catalog, filled with top writers and a great section on Mekas. I’d seen
most of the films, so I spent my time elsewhere.

Another major program was Morita Noriko’s The Creative Treatment of
Grierson in Wartime Japan. If Double Shadows 2 was a cineaste world, “the
30s program” as people were calling it, was an historian’s world. I heard
one disparaging comment calling it “that dissertation program”; true, it’s
the topic of the curator’s dissertation. But it was anything but stale.
There were a set of carefully chosen frames that teased out the global
connections and synchronicities going on in the late 30s and early 40s when
documentary was taking its conventional form. I’ve never seen such a
program attempted anywhere, and thought it was very successful. It pitted
canonical documentaries like *Drifters, Housing Problems* and *Turksib* against
their Japanese counterparts, some of which are rarely shown canonical docs,
and others unknown films which have not been screened since their initial
release. Everything was projected on film, which was occasionally
eye-opening (foreign curators I talked to were delighted at both the chance
to see early Japanese doc and the proper projection of classics that made
them rethink the films). And the special catalog, with essays by
Kinejapaners Naoki Yamamoto, Anastasia Fedorova, Aaron Gerow and myself
(also Okada Hidenori) amply showed how the theoretical discourses around
documentary were far more advanced than anything going on in the West (ie.,
Rotha and Grierson). There were good talks as well; I was particularly
impressed by Anastasia Fedorova’s discussion of *Turksib* and the equally
imperialist* Hakumo-sen* (as well as her contribution to the catalog).

One of the more unusual programs was Home Movie Day. This was part of the
global home movie day celebration, although it took place a few weeks
early. The venue was the Forum, and independent cineplex. On the surface,
the Forum looks like any other multi-screen cineplex; however, its roots
sink back to the independent screening movement forged by Ogawa and others.
So it was wonderful to walk into the theater and see a battery of Super-8
projectors set up in the back. The first film was startling. It was 20
seconds of a clock tower at night, followed by what looked like colorful
strips of films running down the screen; it was accompanied by the director
crouching in the front of the screen with a tiny music box playing a paper
strip. It was startling because this was the festival trailer that opened
every screening. It was a charming, lovely trailer and truly wonderful to
see a live performance in Super-8. This was followed by various home movies
brought in by directors visiting the festival, including John Torres from
the Philippines, Oda Kaori, and others. As you might imagine, this was hit
and miss. But the climax of the program was fantastic. Onishi Kenji, the
Don of Super-8 in Japan and projectionist for the evening, showed his
documentary on the 2013 festival. It was, as usual, filled with fast-motion
clips of familiar faces and stunningly beautiful, hand-developed Super-8.
And this was followed by Sato Makoto’s rarely screened Super-8
documentary/fiction/home movie, *Megami-sama kara no tegami* (*Letter from
the Goddess*). Oh, and the young ‘uns in the audience were treated to a
stuck projector and film meltdown! The MC actually had to explain what they
were looking at. Onishi called from the back, “No worries. It happens all
the time.” Charming.

The festival offered a new edition of its 3/11 series, Cinema With Us 2019,
programmed by Hosoya Shuhei. There was a relatively small selection of
films, with an equal selection from Taiwan (especially by Huang Shu-mei).
Also a 3-hour symposium with Wood Lin, Komori Haruka, Aikawa Yoichi (who is
researching the Ogawa Pro screening movement) and media theorist/historian
Kadobayashi Takeshi. There was some talk about the program is making the
problem of forgetting palpable. Fewer films than before. Fewer audience
members. It will be interesting to see how the festival deals with this
inevitable trend as 3/11 recedes into the past.

There were other programs I didn’t have a chance to get to. Reality and
Realism: Iran 60s-80s, Perspectives Japan (recent domestic docs), Yamagata
and Film (also an ongoing program), Yamagata Rough Cut (workshopping docs
by young filmmakers in rough cut form), Chris Fujiwara and Kitakoji Takashi
ran another film criticism workshop, and Fujioka Asako programmed Rustle of
Spring, Whiff of Gunpowder: Documentaries from North India. The latter was
in conjunction with the establishment of a film archive in northeast India,
where political unrest has made such an institution impossible up to now.
Another event that caused a lot of buzz was a small program of
documentaries on butoh dancer Ono Kazuo, climaxing with a live performance
by dancer (and festival interpreter!) Kawaguchi Takao in the ruins-like
attic of a nearby primary school; I heard it was breathtaking. There were
also a few symposia celebrating Yamagata’s new status as a UNESCO Creative

Oh yes, and it seems the Fins threw some money at the festival to promote
their country…by constructing an honest-to-god Finnish sauna in front of
one of the venues. Unfortunately, you needed both time and a swimsuit.

What am I missing?

One relatively new thing were satellite events held at night at cafes
around town. They had this kind of thing in the past, but in 2019 they felt
more organized and ubiquitous. Some of these showed films. Others were
organized by other documentary festivals, or journals like *neo-neo* and
*F/22*. These were really uneven. Some were virtually empty. Others were
packed, drawing spectators from the official, ticketed events. In this
sense, while it was interesting, it might also be a little self-defeating.
The festival is doing a bunch of these themselves (Taiwan party, karaoke
night), and they tend to be more meaningful and well-attended.

Ah, once again the festival published the free *Sputnik* magazine.  This is
produced by a team led by Tsuchida Tamaki, with editors Okuyama Shinichiro,
Nakamura Daigo, and Nakamura Masato. Billed as a “YIDFF Reader,” it
includes essays on nearly 30 of the festival films, and by prominent
scholars and critics. What a wonderful idea. There is still a daily
newspaper, but *Sputnik* has heft because its prepared over the summer. The
writing is solid and critical.

And did I mention that *Sputnik*, like all festival publications and every
single screening and symposium, is bilingual? Where there are other
languages besides English and Japanese, there are always interpreters/subs
as well. It’s by far the most international festival in Japan, putting TIFF
to shame (as Aaron often points out).

Another thing worth noting is that Yamagata’s celebration of cinema spins
off to the rest of Japan after the closing ceremony. The festival selects
some directors to hold screenings in other parts of the prefecture. And
then quite a few directors are tapped for screening events at universities
and institutes around Japan. Sharing the documentary love.

The festival also held tribute screenings for friends of the festival who
passed away: in addition to Mekas and Chen, there were Nelson Pereira dos
Santos, Tamura Masaki, Barbara Hammer, and Peng Xiaolian. And, sadly, Ogawa
Shinsuke’s wife, Shiraishi Yoko, passed away the day before the festival.
Word spread mid-festival, although I’m unsure if there was a tribute or
not. There was also a beautiful catalog offered at the venues for Miyazawa
Hikaru, one of the core masterminds of the Yamagata Festival. He died last
year at aged 64. Miyazawa-san was a fixture at YIDFF, and an activist
supporting local film culture through independent screenings. Everyone
missed his presence very much. The catalog features tributes from scores of
people who appreciated his efforts to make Yamagata a “Movie Capital.”

That phrase sounds a bit ridiculous, but it comes from Ogawa Shinsuke and
the title of Iizuka Toshio’s 1989 documentary on the first YIDFF. This was
shown, along with its 2005 sequel, as part of a modest celebration of the
30-year history of the festival. Director Iizuka Toshio gave an interesting
discussion about the films. He described how this was his first attempt at
directing, and Ogawa gradually took the project over during postproduction.
(I was there; it was ugly.) And one of the toughest things for him was
seeing Ogawa go on and on and on about how he wanted to encourage and
support Asian filmmakers. Ogawa even talked about creating a kind of
transnational collective of directors in Asia. Iizuka would listen to these
monologues, which are sampled in *A Movie Capital,* and feel distress: Why,
he thought, doesn’t he try to raise up directors in his own collective

There was an interesting panel about the history of the festival organized
by Masuya Shuichi, who has led the festival’s volunteer network since the
beginning. I was struck by Masuya’s introduction to the 30-year anniversary
symposium. He brought us back to the Manifesto that was drafted by Kidlat
Tahimik (who had attended the Oberhausen festival the year of its famous
manifesto), and signed by the Asian filmmakers at the 1989 festival.
Kidlat, Ogawa and Co. were complaining that no Asian films were in the
competition and called for Yamagata to nurture Asian documentary. Well, the
Asia Program was started in 1991 and mirrored the international
competition. This became New Asian Currents in 1995; not only did it grow
in size and stature, but it also became as competitive as the international
competition. Masuya pointed out there was no way to predict in 1989 that
the New Asian Currents in 2019 would be swamped by 2,000 entries. Talk
about explosive growth.

Masuya also helped us imagine the conditions that led to the creation of
the festival. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to see films. There was no
bullet train until 1992, so going to the big city was a chore (I remember
driving over the mountains over 8 hours to visit with Ogawa or the long
train ride through Sendai). It was also going to cost you 30,000 for all
the travel, hotel and food. And because home video was still nascent, DIY
was the only option. People like Masuya, Miyazawa and other core people in
the festival would get friends together and rent prints and hold
screenings. The festival was a natural extension of this.

There was another tidbit from this symposium that I didn’t know, or if I
ever did I forgot: the creation of Komian Club appears connected to a
conversation I had with Masuya at the 1991 festival. I pointed out how
expensive Japan was for the Asian filmmakers (and poor students like
myself). A coffee or a beer was a significant purchase, let alone food. So
the following festival, they founded the Komian Club. It’s now turned into
one of the loved features of YIDFF.

Masuya also found Ogawa’s “Movie Capital” hyperbole a bit embarrassing, and
certainly premature. But in retrospect, Masuya realized that this was Ogawa
laying down a challenge to the festival to grow into the title. Maybe
Yamagata is no Paris, but I think it has become a movie capital in its own,
unique way.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. At the end of his 30th Year
symposium, Masuya asked for some thoughts from his audience about the next
30 years. I offered one or two. Yamagata Documentary Film Festival is
remarkably rich. At the same time, it has become regrettably predictable.
In the last decade they took on an odd repetition problem. It remains a
truly great festival, but one with no sense of surprise. There has been an
earthquake program in every edition since 2011. They’ve had Taiwan-centric
programs in 2005, 2015 and now this year. This was the third iteration of
Islands after 2009 and 2011. Double Shadows doubled this year.  Combined
with regular programs focusing on a geographical location (Switzerland,
Germany, Lebanon, Africa, Iran, etc.), there is a sense of deadening
familiarity about the festival.

Part of this is a packaging problem; things going on inside the programs
are more complex and curated than they appear in the PR. In this sense, the
contrast between this year’s Double Shadows (basically more of the
same—title + 2) and Islands (really intensely curated with overt,
thought-provoking structures and creative naming) is striking.

I realize there are programs that they pretty much need to do every year:
Perspectives Japan (for the new Japanese work that didn’t make the
competitions), Yamagata and Japan for local films (new and old), Rough Cut!
(a really worthy effort that can help produce better films), and I realize
it’s hard for them to give up the 311 program. But this puts a lot of
pressure on the other retrospectives to create a sense of wonder and
expectancy, to open eyes and draw audiences beyond set constituencies.

I hope they’ll stop doing the same thing over and over again and bring back
a sense of unpredictability that inspires a giddy anticipation before the
festival. YIDFF is stuck in a rut—a  really great rut. But a rut,
nonetheless. The festive sense of “festival” is being taken over by
predictability and endless reiteration. People have been whispering this
for many years; I wonder if it ever reached the ears of the festival?

That said, there are few film festivals around the world that are as rich
and varied. And if you are interested in Asian film, it’s hard to beat. I’m
thankful for all the films I had a chance to see (including old films on
film), all the people I met, and the daily experience of learning new
things and new ways to think about what I thought I knew.
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