Personal, Poetical and Political: Asian Currents in Yamagata

in 9th Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

by Anette Olsen

Travelling to the other side of the world is not something you do every day, and it was a real excitement to arrive in Japan for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival held every other year.

The festival proved to be a great viewing experience offering a dense program with an international competition section, a special section on Asian docs as well as various other programs.

Since its beginning, the Yamagata festival has made efforts to screen Asian documentaries, and the New Asian Currents section has become a wide open window into documentary filmmaking from Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan, Malaysia and many other countries from this part of the world.

One of the absolute highlights from this section was the 5-minute long (or short) “A Short Journey” by Thai director Keng Dern Tang. The film grabs the viewer instantly and contains in five minutes all the elements of a human drama. A little boy says to the camera that he is going to pack his clothes and leave. A social worker has come to take him to school. But by the time the film ends a few minutes later, the situation has changed dramatically. The film received the Fipresci jury’s Special Mention.

Quite a number of films in the New Asian Currents section were “first person” films using voice-over commentary on issues dealing with the personal family relations of the filmmaker. Two Korean films “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” by Gina Kim and “Family Project: House of Fathers” by Jo Yun-kyung were examples of this very personal approach.

Other films opted for a wider angle like “Hibakusha – At the End of the World” on the atomic bomb and nuclear radiation victims. Japanese director Kamanaka Hitomi travels to Iraq where depleted uranium shells from the Gulf War are believed to cause cases of leukemia and cancer. She also goes to Hiroshima to interview “hibakusha”, victims of radiation from the atomic bomb thrown by the Americans fifty years ago and to the US where farmers’ families living on contaminated land near the nuclear plant of Hanford are exposed to internal radiation. The film digs into the political motives of covering up the truth about radiation effects on people.

In the more poetical end of the scale, the black and white experimental doc from Taiwan “Nail” by Huang Ting-fu should be mentioned. As one of the rare films shot on 35mm, it captures the atmosphere around a temple in Taipei, filming people in fascinating close-ups.

“The Old Man of Hara” by Mahvash Sheikholeslami and “Noah’s Ark” by Soudabeh Babagap, both Iranian women filmmakers are also poetical works with unquestionable visual qualities. By the way, women directors were represented by a little more than 1/3 in the Asian Currents section.

“Wellspring” by Chinese director Sha Qing is a beautiful and moving film on a Chinese family’s struggle to help their sick son. The son suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot talk but communicates by moving his foot. The family can’t afford the cost of surgery and helplessly watch their son become weaker. But what we see is not only tragedy and desperation but a family facing the situation with great perseverance, dignity and a “wellspring” of love and affection for their son.

Hopefully many of these films will appear on Western screens to enrich viewers with extraordinary stories told by Asian filmmakers.