The Young Asian Documentarists By Atsuko Saito

in 9th Yamagata Documentary Film Festival

by Atsuko Saito

The 9th YIDFF was held from October 7-13, 2005, in Yamagata, a medium-sized prefectural capital about 350km north of Tokyo. The biennial festival, initiated by the late documentarist Shinsuke Ogawa, was launched as part of a municipal centennial celebration, in 1989, and has since drawn much-needed attention and exposure to an oft-overlooked genre. Slowly but surely, YIDFF is building up a solid fan base for documentaries in Japan.

This year’s program included films in seven categories. The first three of these are permanent: the International Competition, with fifteen feature-length documentaries from around the world; “New Asian Currents,” presenting works by next-wave filmmakers from throughout Asia; and “New Docs Japan,” dedicated to new Japanese documentaries. Four exciting special categories rounded out the program: “Yunnan Visual Forum,” dedicated to exploring new forms of visual anthropology in Yunnan Province, China; “Facing the Future and Walking Tall,” six documentaries by members of Taiwan’s FullShot Documentary Workshop about the recovery from the devastating 1999 Chi-Chi Earthquake; “Borders Within-What it means to live in Japan,” a series focusing on the plight of ethnic (zainichi) Koreans living in Japan; and “all about me? Japanese and Swiss Personal Documentaries,” a collaborative project with the Vision du Reel International Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, featuring screenings of Swiss and Japanese “self-documentaries.”

The major change this year involves the prestigious FIPRESCI prize. Heretofore, eligibility was open, but from this year eligibility was (and will remain) restricted to the New Asian Currents category, in which 26 films competed. Quite frankly, just seeing all of the entries for this one category during the five-day festival was a struggle in itself, and committing oneself to watching all NAC entries effectively prevented serious filmgoers from even sampling much of the remaining offerings. This “unforeseen consequence” must be addressed by the festival organizers in the future.

The five-film Chinese contingent was the most numerous in this category, followed by four from Japan and three from Taiwan. The explosion in Chinese films reflects the country’s modernization, as well as the increasing availability of hand-held digital cameras. Not surprisingly, these young filmmakers turned their cameras on conscientious subjects close to their own experiences, but many are tinged with a sharp social conscience. Director Sue Yueling records a Tibetan Buddhist acolyte’s journey through the Shangri-la district of mountainous Yunnan province in Blossoming in the Wind . Painter Lin Xin returns to Chen Lu, his childhood home, and documents the decay in the city famed for its ceramics, in a series of sensitive, animated interviews with long-term residents. In Last House Standing , directors Gan Chao and Liang Zi interview a Mr Jiang, one of the last pre-revolutionary dandies who, as a seventy-year resident of a Shanghai district now scheduled for demolition and redevelopment, refuses to budge in the face of sweeping change. Try To Remember focuses on its director’s visit to his native village. Aside from showing reunions and shocking changes, director Zhong Jian trains the camera on his own mother, who recounts her memories of the Cultural Revolution. The fifth Chinese entry, a love story entitled White Tower , takes a ground-breaking look at a group of deaf men and women. Long ostracized, even by their own families, the subjects of the film reveal their human side in long and lively conversations about love, family, society and life.

Whereas the young Chinese directors trained their cameras on subjects which, though they may have had some broader social import, were nonetheless very close personally to the directors themselves, the next Korean wave takes a biting, accusatory stance toward social problems. In only five minutes, director Kim Kyung-man in The Things That We Shouldn’t Do edits government newsreels with such acerbic touch, so as to strike a blow to Korean military macho, mockingly comparing the attitudes which led to intervention in the Vietnam War and the stances taken toward the Iraq War. In a similar vein, Lee Mario’s Mad Minutes points an accusatory finger at atrocities committed by Korean troops in Vietnam, and the government’s guilt in such matters. Both films, though forceful and focused, remain blunt statements, leaving something to be desired in terms of technical and conceptual subtlety. In contrast, Kwon Woo-jung took his time in Back to the Soil , filming an idealistic urban couple and their family’s first year farming in a rural province. Though the protagonists start out with high hopes of changing the world, the camera meticulously and unflinchingly records their ups and downs.

Undoubtedly the most unforgettable of the Asian New Currents entries was the Taiwanese film The Spirit of 8. In it, the protagonist-director, Li Chia-hua, takes a searingly honest look at a crime he committed at the age of eight. Ordered to do so by an academic advisor, he at first reluctantly assents, only to come to realize the importance of facing his own past. The impact of such a small infraction so long ago on his teachers and family are recounted in interviews where he behaves contritely. In time, the incident’s short- and long-term effects on his own personality development become painfully clear. The interviews, conducted in a jocular tone, gain momentum and pack a powerful emotional punch. This reviewer walked away from the screening full of wonder at the adroitmess and insight which underpinned the simple lesson of the film: take a good look at yourself before blaming the world for things.

The New Asian Currents entries could not help but reflect the breadth and diversity of Asia. One particularly witty entry, from Iranian Mohammad Shirvani, took one of the 2500 candidates in that country’s recent presidential election as its subject. President Mir Qanbar closely followed the eponymous 75-year-old candidate, as he conducted his campaign from a remote rural village. After playing the old man for laughs as a naïf, the film turns the tables on cynical viewers by revealing the “As President, I will change this country and its government!” proclamations of the supposed “simpleton” as genuine political discourse, undisguised and straightforward. Israelis Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash in Garden chronicle a year in the lives of two teenage prostitutes who frequent Tel Aviv’s Electricity Garden Park. The Sound of Footsteps on the Pavement from Lebanese Reine Mitri, using the sudden closure of the renowned and much beloved Café Modca in Beirut as a starting point, depicts the problems encountered by those who would organize a movement to oppose the café’s closure, and along the way raises important questions about memory and the meaning of social movements past and present. Another entry from Asia’s Far West, until when. , directed by Palestinian Dahna Abourahme, consists of interviews with four families from “refugee camps,” and allows the anger and bitterness which colors their daily lives to speak for itself.

As for the Japanese entries in this competition, one, Dear Pyongyang, was directed by Korean-Japanese Yang Yonghi. In it, she explores the meaning of “homeland” and “family,” by examining the lives of her activist parents from the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, and of their brothers who left Osaka for a life in Pyongyang many years ago. Fort of Fabrication by Kentaro Taki resembles more a video art piece, with its amalgam of video footage, noise, sound, and ideographs fused in a kind of semiotic montage. The Japanese director Riyo Naoi’s piece Yesterday Today Tomorrow , in a more straightforward documentary mode, closely follows two families in northern Thailand for over three years. Despite being HIV positive, the family members live with a gusto and pragmatism that are truly inspirational. Finally, the FIPRESCI award winner, Haruyo Kato’s The Cheese & The Worms , stretches the definitions of both “Asian” and “documentary,” and in novel ways. Overall, though, what stands out about the Japanese works is their lack of engagement with Japanese social problems. This may reflect little more than the actual sample of works shown, but, perhaps that in itself is indicative of a deeper problem in Japan-especially by comparison to the “problems” noted in the Chinese entries.