Pushing the Boundaries of Documentary

in 9th Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

by Stephen Teo

The 8th edition of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) unfolded over a period of less than a week (October 10-16), tightly packing in several programmes including the main competition of fifteen films, the New Asian Currents, new Japanese documentaries, and a focus on Okinawa as a “nexus of borders”. The Fipresci jury zoned in on the New Asian Currents, with 30 films (both short films and long features) in competition — a category that was more able to meet the stated purpose of Fipresci to award new and young cinema. The cinemas represented covered a geographic area ranging from Palestine to Japan, and needless to say, the subject matter was wide and diverse, taking in intimate and heartbreaking studies of families in crisis and overviews of national politics and the survival of a people. The high quality of the films and the excellent standards of the filmmakers made it a difficult task to pick just one prizewinner. I was personally impressed by several films which I felt were all equally worthy of a prize, and these included Korean director Lee Hosup’s “And Thereafter”, a film that slowly reveals the secrets of a dysfunctional family resulting from a marriage between an American soldier and a Korean woman from the days of the Korean War, and Lee Chang-jae’s “Edit”, that superbly delineates the pain of a filmmaker who questions his own lack of social commitment while making a film about three people who are socially committed to making their society better. Sha Qing’s “Wellspring”is a touching film about a family with a son suffering from cerebral palsy; Korean director Lee Mi-young presented an effective documentary “Dust Buries Sabuk” which revisits the history of the Sabuk Incident (the protest of mine workers in a coal mining town) and thus recapitulates Korea’s past history of repressive government; and Malaysian director Amir Muhammad’s “The Big Durian” was an entertaining potted history about Malaysian politics under the 22-year rule of authoritarian leader Mahathir Muhammad. In the end, the jury finally decided to award the Fipresci Prize to “Three-Five People”, directed by China’s Li Lin, and to award a Special Mention to “A Short Journey” by Thai director Tanon Sattarujawong (this latter film runs only five minutes and the award was to commend the director’s ability to tell everything he needed to say in this short time span).

“Three-Five People” is a feature-length video documentary which tells about the tragic state of street children scraping an existence on the streets of Chengdu, the capital city of China’s Sichuan Province. Director Li Lin shot the work as her graduation piece for the California Institute of the Arts, and the film dates from 2001. Originally intending to make a documentary in Tibet, Li was passing through Chengdu and befriended the children (two boys and a girl) after meeting them loitering about in the railway station. Li then decided to make her film about these children, practically abandoned to their fates by all and sundry. The resulting work is a harrowing exposure of corruption. Li at first shows us scenes of the children stealing gold earrings from passers-by in order to fund their heroin habit (and she does not flinch from showing us in great detail scenes of the children shooting heroin in various parts of their bodies — and these scenes alone pose a confronting sense of realism to the viewer). Li gradually shows how the authorities — the police and their informers — are culpable in making the children what they are (particularly the informers, who incite the children to steal and then sell them the heroin they need). To her credit, the director does not merely observe a tragic social phenomenon playing itself out in front of her camera, she tries to intervene in the process of her filming, attempting to help the children herself and to convince the authorities to do their bit. The courage and commitment of the filmmaker is an integral part of the drama, and in this film, Li Lin represents what was really the most exciting discovery of the New Asian Currents programme, namely that Asian filmmakers are increasingly prone to pushing the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, addressing certain ethical issues within society and within cinema itself.