a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Yamagata Film Fest 2007 – boxoffice.com blog #1

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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!


Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 5, 2007 at 3:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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