a film festival in Japan
AT HOME IN YAMAGATA
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Oct 10th-18th 2019
I am here, at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Reached Tokyo a day earlier along with Cui from China and Hind from Canada, both of who I met on the train. Friendly volunteers met us at various transits, guiding us gently through a long route to hotel Washington in Yamagata! Had some trouble finding vegetarian food in Japan and was famished by the time I reached Tokyo. Pleasant surprise to have our host Toru receive us in Yamagata with a special food packet. Apparently his colleagues informed him about it while we were on the train to Yamagata. Bless him and his team!
There are films and filmmakers here from Syria, Afganistan, Turkey, Hongkong, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Hungary, Canada, US, Japan et al. There is also the news of a strong typhoon named Hagibis heading towards Japan. Hind is paranoid and wants to be home with her kids! Its estimated as being the strongest in sixty years, she tells, google-wise. The thought of Yamagata being the last festival we may attend infiltrates our conversation. The lack of concern regarding the matter among our hosts puzzles us for a while, until subsequent announcements in Citizen's hall about the protocol in the scenario of an earthquake, help calm things. Here it is like those everyday announcements we have for switching off the mobiles or not bringing in food. They live here with the awareness of nature's force and fury and have learnt to prepare for it...we may after all survive Hagibis, alongwith everyone else, I tell Hind. I promise to miiself to report from Yamagata on Cinema if I do! Here I go:
This is mii first time in Japan. I see the Japanese do not rush in and out of screenings. They don't talk in theatres and do not walk on the road drinking coffee nor coke out of plastic cups and bottles. We are hard put to find garbage or bins on the roads. Its a while before Hind spots a designated street ashtray.
Am here to show mii film At Home walking in the New Asian Currents program. Irrespective of the location and culture of the countries they hail from, filmmakers from everywhere refer to 'dark times'. It is what unites the poet-rebel-artist-musician-filmmaker in the face of increasing divides. It is empowering to be in the company of practitioners, each made to feel an outsider in her/his own homeland for speaking the truth hiding in plain sight. The crises Everywhere, across films without exception are man-made, if variously flavoured with the local socio-economic-cultural-political climate; trailed by a variety of quasi religious, quasi ideological tropes as the case may be- American, Iranian, Indian, Syrian, Chinese, Brazilian, Turkish et al.
Nevertheless. One believes Art is critical human practice. The more it is pushed under ground, the stronger force it gathers. We have enough evidence.
Vincent Van Gogh's Irises in cafe Logjam, Yamagata
Creative practice rooted in the search for beauty& truth is critical because it promises to take you to a place in yourself, where you may experience the world as One. There are costs. Yet I'd rather be here, than anywhere else. Abbas Kiarostami says it his way- lie has a kind of truth.
I see Midnight Travellers from the Afgani filmmaker Hassan Fazili today; a recommendation from Hind. Filmmaker Fazili, sentenced to death on the charge of making a film about a Taliban commander, makes a 3 year long escapade through Tajikistan, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia together with his wife Fatima Husseini also a filmmaker and their two daughters Nargis and Zahra. The film tells of the family's hard run for survival, shot entirely on smart phones. All four names are credited for cinematography. The synopsis of the film is urgent enough. But it is the way in which a near blind journey's narrative builds itself through poignant ellipses that carries it gracefully beyond its premise. The seamless intermingling of the personal and political is too real to be only specific. In the uncertain moment of a migrant future looming large and clear over the world populace, it cannot be only a Fazili story. Before his intrepid escapade from the certainty of annihilation in Afganistan into an uncertain future for his entire family, Hassan Fazili was running an Art cafe in Kabul destroyed by Taliban. The bright smiles, laughter unmixed with terror and the only too human tears of the two little girls wash over mii as I wonder what a film has to do with its premise or why someone must make a film at the risk of life?
Painting from a students' exhibition of Tohoku University of Art & Design, ongoing at the cafe.
In many films the hard choices & challenges are visible. I wonder when was it not a hard time for the real artist-poet? Going by the entertainment and propaganda value society seems to have assigned singularly to Cinema and the way it has consigned Poetry to the margins, it may be considered a harmless activity. History however, tells another story. In all times and places, Authors, Artists, Filmmakers, Singers, Dancers have continued to face bans, punishment, exile. We know of those prosecuted, exiled, killed for making a film, poem, novel or song; murders disguised as encounters or accidents are not unfamiliar. It is invariably the inner freedom embodied by the creator and manifested by her/his creation that spells trouble. Albert Lamourisse's french film Red Balloon made in 1962 is a fine allegory of how a free being, what-if-a-balloon, stands to threaten the system. Perhaps everyone knows how difficult it is to be free in the true sense of the word. There are hidden costs. Besides, one may find oneself standing with Truth, all by oneself. Artist is aware there is no congenial time to speak unafraid, free; that even when it seems like, it ought not to be trusted.
The Japanese audiences seem to watch the films very carefully as is reflected in the Q&A. Their attention to detail is touching. I am glad Yamagata is where mii film has a World Premiere- a festival that consciously stays away from the infantile culture of putting a premium on Premieres. It is a joy to experience a festival of films International in spirit and Asian at core. Yamagata feels intimate to mii, much like Cinema. I meet people in cinemas, street corners n cafes, coming up to mii to tell their impressions of mii film, other films. It is a privilege to hear audiences respond with such close attention to different kinds of films. Makes mii curious about the long history of Yamagata
IDFF and the story of how it has kept the spirit of its founding figure Ogawa Shinzuke breathing. There are people from so many nationalities, languages, cultures gathered here. The blank screen lighting up in the darkness of the hall unites us all, even if for a while.Watching films from across the globe, it is plain how oppressive regimes everywhere talk one language while their poet-artists talk another. Irrespective of which part of the world we come from, we speak each other's language.
Amir Naderi the Iranian filmmaker living in exile in Japan now, says 'there are few festivals that make filmmakers. Yamagata is one'. He is introducing films from the curated section Reality and Realism: Iran 60s-80s which include defining new wave filmmakers like Bahram Beizai, Sohrab Shahid Saless, Forough Farrokhzad, Khosrow Sinai, Kamran Shirdel, Abbas Kiarostami and himself.
Most of the films in the package have been buried long in prohibitions and bans for various reasons, all in some way seem linked to the idea of a threat to the nation's image. As we speak about it in 2019, Iran contemporary filmmakers Bahman Kiarostami of Exodus and Arash Asaghi of Gracefully ironically struggle with the newest economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US. Apparently the programme coordinator Kato Hatsuyo had a hard time getting the films across. She shares with us what for her especially connects Yamagata to Iran - Plums! Whenever she eats one, the stew made with plums by friends in Iran is evoked. Thanks to these friends, the films we are seeing now have gotten across the border. I am attending such a lovingly put together international festival in an age.
A pavement of an old street of Yamagata, once lined with cinema halls.
There are curious metal etchings on the street I stumble upon in mii morning walk. These are brass plates set in the stone pavement beneath mii feet depicting what looks like a history of Cinema.
The street once used to be dotted with film theatres, Rimiko explains later. She is a volunteer, interested in cinema and studying to become an interpreter/ translator. She has also translated for a japanese animation film, premiering shortly in Tokyo.
Kiarostami's First case, Second case (1979) seems like the film I may have after all come all the way to Japan to watch. It was a film in the making through the critical transition of the change of power from the Shah to the Islamic revolution that changed the face of the country forever, albeit not without igniting its artist-poets. It was his first feature film, independent of the erstwhile producer Kanun and has the mark of the genius. It is the independent witness status Kiarostami assigns to the camera that distinguishes his Looking; as if in his hands camera becomes a being with conscience. Like Chekhov, he seem to see the artist-writer's role as a lawyer presenting a case to the audience for judgement while her/himself refraining from passing verdict. Kiarostami uses the camera to probe, question, analyze, reflect, problematise by opening up the seams of a nuanced discourse. He uses the camera's presence to do what cannot be achieved without it and brings out a molecular reality as under a microscope. It is hard to believe an experiment of this nature can reveal so much about the whole picture if one has not seen it happen in front of one's eyes.
A simple school classroom event ends up turning critical evidence of a most complex nature with roots running deep in the sad predicament of a human world of rewards and punishments. Presenting you with two scenarios, the filmmaker problematizes forever the very bases of the adult binaries of good/bad moral conduct, individual freedom, collective responsibility, solidarity, justice, war n peace. As arguments are made from all sides, the fallacy of taking sides, and the logic of choosing one over the other fall away. Its thrilling to see the painter discard pure colours from his palette in favour of the broken tones in as early a work as this. And I keep returning to his films for the myriad broken tones. Much like in Nature, in the Kiarostami world too, there is no absolute black nor white. If there was any, in your world, it just may have no use anymore. The urge to take sides, judge wrong from right, gets sort of disabled for good. Again, the refrain- why does one make a film?
Vivek/ Reason by Anand Patwardhan, a 4 hour long film with two intervals means that I miss all films that day. I can catch it back in India. But what of the experience of watching Anand Patwardhan in Japan? Maharashtra has always intrigued mii with its peculiar blend of orthodoxy and reform; blind faith and reason, suppression and rebellion. Anand builds a case in his film in favour of reason, albeit through an ideological lens. In a bid to reason with the rise of a militant Hindutva politics, the director builds a handbook recounting stories of some very disturbing incidents of recent times; the premeditated killings of rationalists unfold in detailed chapters flagged by the reconstructed recurring motif of masked-armed motorcyclists on a killing spree. It is informative, investigative, educative in the way a film setting out to set the truth before you in the documentary way, seeks to. The Hemant Karkare part of the investigation and the woman attorney speaking about it is stunning and one can't help thinking of the word 'courage' as being synonymous with this woman. When the man who wrote 'Who killed Karkare' talks about the police system and mentions the word 'informer' it connects in a strange way with Kiarostami's film I saw in the morning on how solidarity, spying, punishment, discipline, culture of creating informers, surveillance- is where it all begins. Hindus and Muslims uniting against the 'freedom' of women in front of dargah Haji Ali is dark comedy. The anger of the filmmaker reaches mii through the film. It frightens mii to see what a people can become, feeling secure with their child in the safekeep of pedophiles, their son as crusader in the brigade of hate and women in the service of mock sanyasins. Is this India? Yes, it is a palpable & sad part of it. Much like the despair arising in mii at the moment, is a part of mii whole.
The word Vivek carries for mii the dimension of conscience strongly within it, which reason leaves out. Moreover how does one reason with the unreasonable? Hasn't every theology or ideology, reasoning their way got more people killed in the process than the world wars? A pity that the ostensibly noble cause of 'bringing people together', has often ended up creating harder dissensions. As one watches the discourse, one can't help being struck by the same colour of the opposing flags in the film- only different shades of red. Coming from a Hindi speaking region, and having spent a decade living in Maharashtra in different decades, am struck by a Maharashtra split into Marathi & Hindi speaking people aligning neatly to the left & the right. At least the film seems to give an impression of the misguided miscreants belonging to Hindi speaking right & heroes, martyrs belonging to the Marathi speaking left. I do not recall language playing out in such neat political binaries in Maharashtra and the implications thereof.
A man in the Q&A asks - "You seem to be pitting Reason against Religion, when you seem actually to mean, Nationalism. It appears to mii more like Nationalists using religion, while they are not religious themselves..." I would have liked to sit through the discussion but I am famished and with a headache brewing, I must take leave.
Hagibis seems to have passed. I walk out in the rain, wondering what is 'India' and who represents it. Also if I am free to not 'represent' it. Its curious when such an amorphous, open-ended concept, of a people, civilization morphed into a hard, contentious, divisive affliction; how it impacts and implicates all of us. We seem to have landed a rut, with nowhere to go. The harder we struggle, the deeper we descend into the quicksand.
I don't know there is a message box for filmmakers in the YIDFF office where anyone can leave messages for you. Today I find two. One by Rimiko marking out veg eateries in an incredible hand drawn Yamagata map! another message about eating options by another friend of the YIDFF who I had enquired about eating options.
Through these I reach few lovely cafes like Logjam & Himalaya offering specially priced meals for the YIDFF festival delegates.
Exodus from Bahman Kiarostami's Iran treats a critically poignant theme of Afgan migrants who have entered Iran illegally, now making a case for a return to their country following a fall in Iranian currency. It is an example of camera looking so closely at a single part that it reveals the whole picture. It is another of those urgent stories of an uncertain future reflected through an increasingly migrant experience of the world. It is curious how the camera intent on listening to the pleas of the migrants, turns the public space of the migration office window into an 'almost' private space. The camera in such moments acquires a striking invisibility, making one wonder about the presence of camera and its effect on the playing out of the various testimonies. It is difficult to say when the people on either side are performing, says Bahman in the Q n A. The use of the rap song Exodus, is curious, playing upon the mixed emotion evoked by the irony of the situation, as it stands. A sensitively made film that brings up a theme extremely relevant to our times; to mii foregrounding the vulnerability of people having no choice in the narrative of the nations.
There is no Iranian new wave without these pioneers says Agha Naderi while introducing Sohrab Shahid Saless's film a Simple event (1974). The film unfolds in an ordinary village. Complete with its school, classroom, blackboard, teacher, school inspectors, vegetable shop, river, boat & tavern, it is a familiar village where I have never been. I watch the child run from pillar to post in an adult world. Its a while before it occurs to mii that I have not heard his voice. The child hardly speaks. His mother doesn't ask him anything when he gets home. And he has nothing to tell. No questions that he would rather ask his father; nothing that father wants to know. The couple do not have anything to tell each other. Life goes on from one day to another in the tale of a fisherman and his wife, as if nothing will ever happen, till one day the wife just dies. The child comes home like every evening. He pauses a moment to glance in the direction of the absence before continuing with the daily act of making his bed in the other corner. Life continues. The film homes in. Very powerful work. I come to know later of Saless's love for Chekhov, his film study in Austria & Paris and his permanent exile in Germany.
For mii screening, Makiko is there to lead the Q&A. She is the coordinator for the New Asian Currents section. A university student wants to know about the continuous presence and referencing of camera in the film, including a thanks in the film credits to small cameras. There is a young Japanese actress who says the film articulates personal questions she has long been struggling with. She says, 'I want to pray but unlike mii mom and granny, don't know how to'. A woman says while watching the film, she was as if learning to see the beauty in the everyday things- 'I just discovered looking at the film why we worship Buddha's feet !' she says. I tell her the original title of the film Pavlechi keli Tirtha alludes 'to making a pilgrimage of your own footsteps'.
Anand asks if I don't think its dangerous to have people hail mystic poetry and song while there are grim issues to deal with in the street? I say I don't see the contradiction between inner and outer struggles. Both are equally needed, speaking to very different needs within the human heart. One cannot possibly make up for another. We need both.
Yoko is here to watch films taking off from her office in a university in Tokyo. She says the film makes a deep impression on her; while watching she found herself reflecting on her own little life caught up in a repetitive loop of her office; dealing with the daily squabbles. Annie, a young Chinese film enthusiast wants to know how one researches for a film like this. Someones else finds the music amazing and wonders if the woman is a famous singer. I tell her she is a wandering pilgrim I met on the road, near blind, with no home nor family, perhaps mii age. It is a very reflective, thoughtful and resonating discussion on a film one has just completed; a discovery, like every time when a film you've laboured on for years, finds its temporary home in as discerning an audience.
The senior filmmakers from the Director's guild of Japan, Mr Mizutani Toshiyuki & Naitoh Makoto conduct an interview around the film for their journal. They are surprised medieval poetry is still being evoked, read/ sung in India. John Junkerman says much as Reason angered & pained him, At Home Walking seems to heal. For him the two films form a set- carrying an invisible India within a more visible one.
She is the one who introduced herself to mii on the train- as 'Hind -mii name means India'! She is from Morocco, living in Montreal for 30 years, yet unsettled there, dreaming of returning to Morocco, live within walking distance of the sea and make films travelling through the land. We extend her dream by making plans to collaborate on a film, travelling with the musicians in Morocco. Amen.
Hind Benchekroun is here with her film Xalco, set in a Kurdish village. She has co-directed it with Sami, her partner. The home, family and village you see in the film are Sami's.
I tell her that the faces of the women in Xalco and their uncommon beauty is like I have just been with them. Emotions however run high in this house in Xalco- the village most men have fled, leaving the women to fend for themselves as well as raise children. Some make a second family and home in Europe. There is beauty, laughter, irony, anger, sadness and longing in the film as we sit on the floor with the women making naans in the clay oven of the dark kitchen. However there are also moments when I am caught off guard; dealing with the discomfort of gazing at the real characters of a 'documentary'- so up close, amidst intense personal drama. Its curious how documentary starts to grow on you quite like fiction- a tale, as real and unreal as only a reality-unfolding-in-the-presence-of a camera can be. It sustains the promise of a 'reality' pitched on personal drama, affording us a peek in a stranger personal life from an unfamiliar culture and far away land. The intense drama is immersive. But when it turns too real, it begins to seem scary in a way quite different from fiction.
Past two decades has seen a surge in documentaries in India and world over in a certain kind of personal filmmaking, telling the 'story' of an 'interesting' character from 'real' life, situated in a family, a home, a village, a culture, a country. Sometimes the family is your own. The films ride on the promise of taking you by the hand into the curious 'real' life as it is lived in some corner of the global village. To mii the films seem to have an area of darkness at the very heart of the human drama . As a filmmaker it still makes mii uncomfortable in mii push back chair to watch a couple have a 'real' fight on screen; a wife wail aloud or a son curse his mother in a fit of rage. Of course the camera is not a hidden one, and one can say that the subjects are in a tacit pact to play themselves out in front of it. Nevertheless. We are aware as filmmakers, that the relationship involves a subtle politics; a power dynamics tilted in favour of the filmmaker as primary arbiter. It is the thin line one walks while working with real people on a film. One is compelled to account for the fact that the subjects are not aware of the whole picture/ story as it exists in the maker's head, not really. Neither do they have a clue to what Godard terms as the 'un-discover-ed continent' of Editing. The accountability to the consent people give to be in mii film is proportional to the power wielded by mii camera.
However the 'true story' promise in the new sensation-al cinema that has emerged strongly in film to digital transition is yet to be studied closely with reference to the growth of a market for documentary. It follows more from a culture of international co-productions and commissioning agencies, looking out for the more local yet 'compelling 'stories', sensational, even scandalous pitches promising exclusive access to characters and their often puzzling lives featuring exploitation & injustice, trading in miseries often stranger than fiction. It seems to grow roots upwards in response to a growing appetite for 'real' in an increasingly virtual experience of life. Half a century post Jean Rouch, candid, direct cinema, documentary, verite, reality, fiction, return in changing forms, call for a re-view.
Self portrait: Window in 47 km is a film by Zhang Mengqi. Makiko's recommendation. A looking at one's own family back in the village and its entanglements with Chinese history. There are no roller coaster rides of emotion here. It promises no personal drama, nor a dramatic graph. There are poignant moments, sensitive silences and personal accounts of tragic lives enmeshed with harsh and seemingly mindless political histories but the telling is matter of fact. The film grows silently on the viewer and it is interesting how the grandfather, grandmother and granddaughter retain their own undisclosed identity and secret universes apart and outside of the filmed universe.
In another film of hers, called Self portrait: Sphinx in 47 km, the concept of Time is just an idea, as the older people exist in the past and the children are waiting for the future. With China growing rural-to-urban migration, the working-age people leave to find employment in urban centers and manufacturing zones. The resulting phenomenon of the 'left behind generation' creates a significant physical and emotional void. It is the telling of stories, personal accounts of histories that fills the void, in filmic time. Zhang's camera avoids intrusion into the personal domain, staging the village as liminal, even void of temporality. The stories, personal as they are, become here the key to solve riddles of the past, to evolve with and continue to move forward.
Her latest film is eighth in a series dating from 2011 when Zhang first began filming her father village in Hubei province, central China as part of Wu Wenguang's project, a founding figure of independent documentary in China. As part of his Folk Memory Project he recruited young filmmakers and dispatched them to villages across China to interview survivors of China Great Famine. Millions died in the famine caused by economic and social policies of Mao's Great Leap Forward. The ghastly man-made disaster is glossed over in official Chinese history.
Amongst the first recipients of the Ogawa Shinzuke prize was Wu Wenguang in 1993 for My Red Guard. Ogawa Shinzuke, the founding force behind YIDFF described the slow pace of farmers telling stories as village time.Yamagata became critical as a dynamic space where the festival attendees did not only study the films exhibited and were exposed to new information about filmmaking, they also were enabled to return to their own contexts to share what they learned here and support other documentary film-makers. Wu Wenguang was one of the few Chinese directors to meet the late Ogawa in person at YIDFF. Wu, who had not seen many foreign films till then, was able to access them through Ogawa and also take back to China VHS tapes obtained through the Ogawa Pro and YIDFF offices. Back in Beijing, he conducted small private film screenings in his apartment for fellow film-makers, generating new conversations around documentary. It seems at the 3rd YIDFF, the participation of Wu & the regulars at his apartment film screenings- was a moment to mark in the history of independent documentary film in China!
Is Zhang Mengqui's, the other kind of films playing in Yamagata, focusing on the near and personal stories undramatic, and intersecting with larger political and social histories? While one kind dwells on the un-event-ful life, ambiguity and poetry of everyday, the other revels in the intensity, emotion and drama of the personal. Curious how filmmakers returning their gaze to their own family, village, country make for quite contrary tellings of what look like ironies of fate. Wonder what this looking has to do with the intent behind it, as evidenced in the legacy of a Shinzuke or a Wu. How does the presence or absence of a dramatic narrative graph impact our experience of 'reality' thus documented? How does our increasingly virtual living reflect on our perception and need for the 'real'?
In the words of Nagisa Oshima "Ogawa method returns to the original intention of documentary, realising the principle of documentary. What are the principles and original intention of documentary? First it is a love toward the object documented, a strong admiration and attachment, and it is carrying this first principle over a long period of time. Nearly all the films considered masterpieces fulfill these two conditions."
Further with equipment becoming accessible & budgets remaining modest in the digital transit, filmmakers have also tended to double up as Editors, Sound Recordists, Cinematographers. While this going solo way of making films has its merits in the personal style & subtle nuances a freedom from constraints offers, it has a downside. It is heartbreaking to see Cinema as collective practice take a beating with each individual becoming a one wo/man army. It is only countered by the fast moving industry teaming up with software to create neural map interface to scriptwriting & self perpetuating templates. While the VFX and virtual reality render 'reality' more and more suspect.
Either way, the Ogawa aim of- a group striving for collective decision-making to achieve an unusual level of connection and empathy with the people they film is missed. Having seen a couple of films here at YIDFF from what I now recognize as the Ogawa Pro extended or Ogawa inspired school of cinema, I can only imagine how critical it is to the practice. History relates that having honed their methods by developing a deep empathy with the villagers and their stories, the collective Ogawa Pro moved to the village of Magino, living as commune, painstakingly crafting extraordinary films about farming & village time.
Ogawa personal commitment to those Asian filmmakers he met, his use of the local cultural event as a way to actualize a burgeoning network of filmmakers in Asia, his connections to the local government that made the YIDFF happen, the mentoring of those who participated as translators, coordinators, interpreters, and the growing pains of film-making in post-war Japan carried by Ogawa himself, form essential elements in the formation of the cultural capital left by him. It even continues to function as direct and indirect investment in the future of film in Asia. His legacy is evidenced most directly in the recent recognition of the city of Yamagata as a Creative City of film by UNESCO.
I realise what Agha Naderi means by YIDFF being a festival that makes filmmakers. I experience it in the way the film programme aligns itself to a filmmaking like that of Zhang Mengqi's, Frederik Wiseman's, or Wang Bing's or in how it curates a special package to understand the making of Iranian New wave. Festival makes a special effort to follow the spirit of film it believes in, creates occasions to bring back the filmmakers to Yamagata with their newer works, while welcoming the changing.
Frederik Wiseman is a familiar name to Yamagata film viewers; there is palpable excitement about the film Monravia Indiana. Wiseman has been making films in Monravia for a while now, since he first chose this simple small town in America to bring out the portraits of the everyday simple folks going about their everyday jobs in a school, a church, a municipal office, a gym. The matter-of-fact-ness plays a significant role in breaking the representative image of the US. His camera seems to study what goes on around it with no fanfare, neither commenting nor explaining, just portraying matters at the heart of urban living. Wiseman's films are, in his own view, ''elaborations of a personal experience and not ideologically objective portraits of his subjects. All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make a film that is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on...I think I have an obligation to the people who have consented to be in the film... to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event."
One of his big projects has been the documentation of micro-communities. He has created documentary catalogues of some of the most important institutions, using his films to make stealth political arguments over easy generalizations & polarised debates that often end up erasing people from the very system meant to serve them.
Monravia Indiana brings home a sense of a work-a-day world of universal human register away from the generalized media hype and underlines the connect running through the making of a film. In settling to look closely at the what-is (albeit with love toward the object as Oshima reminds) it manages to present a nuanced picture, not possible to get any other way, than by a certain 'slowing down' to the pace and rhythm of the life lived in that place, with its people. One has the uncanny feeling of being present in the room where the municipal council meets over routine matters. The long engagement with the subjects, their work space and a deeper than usual concern to understand people, beliefs and systems that make the social fabric, takes it beyond the easily provoked or provoc-able human drama. It looks at the real-ity up front, whilst keeping the dignity of the subject and the filmmaker's integrity intact.
After Kamran Shirdel's films were banned, he was not allowed to make films, Agha Naderi tells before the screening of Shirdel's film The Night it rained.
'And what does a filmmaker like Shirdel do in such scenario?' asks the Japanese moderator from YIDFF. 'He becomes a mentor to the young filmmakers like us', says he.
In a flash Naderi enables us to see the irrepressible force and live inspiration behind the making of what we have come to know as the Iranian New wave. Each strand in such local stories of import is interlocked with the overarching History of World Cinema. A chapter of Cinema unfolding in Iran provides a way of looking astutely at a world messed up by the shortsightedness and lack of imagination of humans. Amir Naderi's own film Water, Wind, Dust is a rare gem playing in a theatre called Solaris here.
Beauty, nature, cruelty, politics, art, poverty, humanity and dignity intertwine to tell a tale that cannot be told another way- hardly any dialogues. It was made in 1989 fulfilling a long cherished dream of Naderi, of shooting in his own village famous for dust storms lasting more than a month in blazing summers. It tells the story of a drought forcing an entire people to migrate during storm; shot in the actual dust storm that summer; each frame as if, painted by the hand of sand. Extra-ordinary expression, leaving an indelible impression.
Wang Bing's Dead souls from China gets the Citizen's prize as well as the Grand prize. It is an 8 hour long testimony collected by the filmmaker through long research and travels across the country, gleaned from multiple interviews with survivors of Mingshui; the so called "anti-socialists" who perished after being sent to remote re-education through labour camps as part of a political campaign in China in the 1950s.
The question of writing & re-writing of official and alternate histories returns as one ponders the uncovering of many such hidden and buried histories now, and if or how they affect existing ones. There is much revisiting, documenting for the young filmmakers to be done in every country.
Miko Revereza's No data plan is a curious experience of watching a film journey without really seeing any faces, without ever actually seeing or meeting the protagonists who we follow. A story putting a hitherto unseen lens on the immigrant movement. The seeing and the seen as it happens in any film experience acquire here a very striking appearance. Never for a moment does the making let you forget the nature of a life never free of the gaze. It sticks in the memory as the story of two immigrants, a mother and son, keeping in touch over the audio interface of the mobile phone through their separate yet intersecting escapades. The treatment of the film becomes finely enmeshed with the experience it encodes, and hence transcends the synopsis of 'Mama has two phone numbers.We do not talk of immigration on her Obama phone. For that we use the other phone with no data plan.'
The International Competition juror Mr Ossama Mohammed, a Syrian filmmaker exiled in Paris since 2011, shows his two films, one his B&W student short Step by step and a much later feature Sacrifices in colour. The two films and (26 years apart in making) are easily some of the best cinematic writing I have seen. A sarcastic, irreverent directorial style, form-al yet spontaneous telling and a rebellious-ly new imagery one often longs for, in this image saturated times. I however find him despairing in his Q&A over questions of 'symbolism' in his work. Hearing him call his film a simple straightforward narrative with nothing obscure or symbolic about it, I remember Andrei Tarkovsky. Its only later I come to realize both as sharing the spirit of VGIK, Russia- the same film school. Mr Ossama also disagrees with the translation of the film's title as 'Sacrifices'. He said he would much rather call it -Box of life- or some such thing. Ossama's work is a discovery.
There are of course many films I would have liked to watch and missed. One can only watch as much as is possible to ingest, allowing to percolate in the system. And it is heartening to witness the struggle continuing everywhere; artists working to make space for love of freedom, or simply love for each other in the human heart, before the species wipes itself out. It feeds into the concern for a critical debate in film community back home; re-writing the role of a documentary filmmaker, recasting the director of fiction film practice, reclaiming the nomadic margin outside the frames of corporate sponsorship and advertising; study the relationship between filmmaker's intent, aesthetics and politics; of how power is wielded through a history of battles & conquests, slavery & sanctions; and of the many ways in which the ideas of power, control & interpretation play betwixt the trinity of the film's director, it's subjects and its growing, evolving audience.