Archive for October 2007
The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival takes place basically in 3 venues in the heart of the downtown of this sleepy provincial capital. Festival attendees and goers are easy to spot walking between the venues or grabbing a quick bite to eat at Café Doutour or at a ramen shop, with their passes and name tags festooned around their necks.
Sunday brought some street action with a little International Cultural Festa across the street from the main venue at the Central Public Hall. Many a festival visitor missed the 10am screenings to gawk and take photos of the childrens’ talent shows and the local flamenco dance school recital, and to munch on very authentic curry and naan and very interesting (to be nice) Mexican tacos.
However, a quick walk through the quaint street festival brings one to a big orange Super Deluxe 35mm movie projector and an installation of pod-like paper lanterns that front the Muse Cinemas, two smaller screens largely dedicated to the New Asian Currents section of the program.
A grab bag largely of socially committed documentary, the New Asian Cinema program hides a few diamonds in the rough. It’s where one can find new talent, experimental approaches to documentary form, and cinema-as-organizing tool. One can tell from the crowds here – largely very serious looking young folk, that this is where the art and function of documentary is being deeply analyzed and discussed. And huge crowds they were. Where else would a poorly shot and edited Indonesian film on the issue of environmental and cultural changes in the small community around a small, and getting smaller, lagoon play to a sold-out house and engender a lively discussion. But it did. And though the film, Drown Sea probably made few fans, it’s festivals like YIDFF that give the opportunity for these things to play and for filmmakers to share these visions – and hopefully return some time in the future as better documentarians.
The afternoon brought one of the true highlights of the film festival, The Monastery. This loving and beautifully shot film shows the final few years in the life of an old, cantankerous, and ultimately lovable Danish eccentric, Vig. Vig decides to turn his decrepit chateau into a Russian Orthodox monastery. His musings on philosophy and life, and most importantly, his relationship with a savvy and uncompromising nun, Sister Amvrosija, create a moving testament to tenacious individuals and their Quixotic quests. A problem with documentary festivals is the relentless hours one must sit through of human suffering and personal tragedy that makes up the content of most docs. It was a welcome relief to see a funny, poignant film about frail, but ultimately inspiring individuals, making the best of their lives. With good marketing and distribution The Monastery should cross the pond quite successfully. Look for it on US screens next year.
There’s a ghost haunting the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Sato Makoto is his name. Longtime festival-goer, filmmaker, and genial presence at the festival since the late 80s. At the age of 49, Sato committed suicide a month ago. The talk at the sprawling Komian Bar, the evening after-screening hangout, often leads to the question, “Did you know Sato-san?” Often followed with, “What a great guy.” Sato-san first arrived at his first YIDFF in a junker car, pitched his tent under a bridge, and proceeded to soak up documentaries, eventually becoming one of Japan’s leading documentarians. His presence is felt in the screening halls and in the dark corners of the Komian Bar.
Personal documentaries were the highlight of the International Competition films on Saturday. When considering the all-night partying the fresh and sunny morning (Yamagata is in the mountains) started a bit too early at 10am with Hala Alabdall and Ammar Albiek’s interminable experimental doc, I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave. Inept home-movie style imagery, repeats of the same scenes from different angles, far too much of the filmmaker self-reflexively explaining, rather than showing what her movie is about, the audience suffered through its two hour plus length. What should have been a compelling story of Syrian expats dealing with the legacy of torture and 25 or more years of exile from their homeland became a self-indulgent mess that left the viewer numb, rather than moved.
Following was Canadian filmmaker, Ryan Feldman’s loving portrait of his endearing and whacky grandmother in Lick Salt – A Grandson’s Tale. Armed with video camera he shows her warts and all, as she deals with dementia and loneliness. Not a perfect film, but only the heartless would not identify with old Cecile. When Cecile begins talking to the pictures on her wall and wonders about all those people in the TV set who visit her, one could not help but give a bittersweet sigh.
Q and A brought a particularly cogent comment by Philippine director Kidlat Tahimik, who’s been involved in a similar project with his own grandmother. He stated that in his country, siblings vie for who will take care of aging parents, whereas in the first world the issue becomes, who will take care of the old. From this he noted how the technology of video may be the tool that can bring a bit of solution and resolution to this problem.
And speaking of Kidlat Tahimik, why haven’t we in the ol’ USA seen any of his work since his 1977 film, The Perfumed Nightmare? It’s not that one of the most important and influential filmmakers in Asia hasn’t been working all these years. He’s at YIDFF this year as a jury member (a powerhouse group of folks which includes hot Portuguese director Pedro Costa, Thai wunderkind Apichatpong Weeraswethakul (gotta love that name!) and Canadian First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin). Tahimik did, however, make a hilarious little installation of old 16mm and 8mm cameras poised as if they were at a dinner party – or perhaps were dinner. He’s called the piece D.V.D – Dinner for Visual Dinosaurs.
The afternoon brought a strange, but well made hagiography of Finnish political folk-rock political groups from the 1970s, Revolution. If you didn’t live in Finland at the time, I suppose you would never have heard of these soft pop groups singing pro-Soviet, politically charged songs. Revolution is well made, but I think you gotta be Finnish to really appreciate it – and the bands really aren’t that great.
The evening screening brought the best of the personal docs with M, Argentine director Nicolas Prividera’s heartfelt journey, searching for information about his mother, disappeared in 1976 by the military dictatorship. His somewhat long, though very moving film takes him through myriad state institutions and bureaucracies, interviews with old friends of his mother, and most touchingly, through old home movies. Prividera’s sadness and anger are palpable.
Yamagata is a provincial capital in northern Honshu, most famous for its watermelons and hot springs resorts. As one crosses into Yamagata prefecture, banners of happy-faced watermelon slices steaming in hot onsen line the train station platforms.
The three-hour trip north from Tokyo brought many a weekend guest filmmaker this morning for the 10th Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF). Every gaijin who stepped off the platform was greeted by hordes of volunteers, eagerly waiting to spirit visiting filmmakers and press to the festival headquarters. YIDFF is legendary in documentary circles for its great curatorial eye, its opportunities for exhibition, and networking in a very quiet town. Here is where, for one week of the year, enthusiastic audiences and professionals can concentrate exclusively on the art and business of documentary production.
October 4, the first day of the festival, was a beautiful fall day in Yamagata. In good Japanese style, assistance in navigating the festival and the town is gracious and surprisingly multilingual. First order of business after hotel check-in was to rush to catch the end of Esther van Messel’s “J-pitch” seminar. Head of First Hand Films, she’s been busy working the distribution angle of docs with “The Monastery,” one of the competition films at YIDFF this year. Eager, yet unquestioning young Japanese film geeks and filmmakers, listened attentively to Esther’s case studies and anecdotes.
The afternoon brought Jessica Yu’s “Protagonist,” an oddly moving look at four very different men. In the tradition of “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control”, she presents a 70s-era German terrorist who had a serious change of heart after the Entebbe incident of 1976; a former evangelical preacher who fought with his faith and his homosexuality for years before coming out; a kung fu expert who, inspired by David Carradine, found himself and his calling; and a Chicano bank robber who came to terms with himself and his violent upbringing.
These fascinating and moving stories are all thrown together with puppet-theatre snippets of “Euripides: The Bacchae” complementing the classic tragic trajectories of each of the men’s lives. It doesn’t work completely, but the juxtapositions and connections made between the different narratives brought up a lot of great ideas and questions.
And then there was “Wild, Wild Beach,” a new Russian documentary, simultaneously horrifying, fascinating, and leaving nearly everyone in the audience a bit perplexed. What were the filmmakers after anyway? It’s a summer at a middle-class Russian beach resort. This unflinching doc shows, among other things, incoherent alcoholic ramblings; drunken violence; a drunken dwarf’s wedding; a graphic three-way between a corpulent lothario, his buddy and a teenaged girl they pick up on the beach; a dead camel; a visit by Putin — and much more. The film is a mirror of Russia as a freak show. In fact, the final scenes show developmentally and physically disabled beach-goers lolling in the surf – in case you are a bit metaphorically-challenged. But despite and because of its cruelty and sentimentality (very Russian) it was completely compelling.
One of the filmmakers (there are three director credits), Susanna Baranzhieva was there for Q and A, carefully side-stepping questions of why on earth did they create such a dark mirror on Russian society? What was their motivation? And, how did they get releases from the subjects of the film? Baranzhieva claimed that the role of the filmmaker was to show warts and all, and in regard to releases (after being asked about three times by three different filmmakers in three different ways), she said that though she got permission from her victims, there was nothing in writing – which led to some after-Q & A discussion among filmmakers asking if one legally had to get releases from people when shooting in Russia.
What a great day!