An Interview with Feng Yan (Director)
Breaking Out of Conventions, Towards a New Documentary
Q: What was your impression of the festival this year?
FY: This was the seventh time I’ve attended YIDFF, and I was very happy watching films because I found this year’s lineup to be at an especially high level. In the past I’d seen more films using traditional filming methods like the Direct Cinema approach. This year I found a complete turnover and that a new form of documentary film had emerged.
Q: Tell us about Horse Money.
FY: The Grand Prize winner was chosen by unanimous agreement of all jury members. Our discussion, however, included debate over how its high recognition doesn’t need a prize, or on the other hand that a second or third prize would just not be adequate for this film. In the final decision, Horse Money did receive the Grand Prize, but I must say this—regardless of the award, Pedro Costa is an exceptional outstanding filmmaker.
Q: What did you appreciate about Horse Money?
FY: It was said perfectly in jury chair Thom Andersen’s speech at the awards ceremony. Well said, from a person who’s some kind of a philosopher.
These past few years, I’ve been translating Sato Makoto’s book into Chinese—his The Horizons of Documentary Film—To Understand the World Critically. During the process, I’ve realized that critics who started their careers as filmmakers usually say the same thing. What Thom said has already been written by Mr. Sato.
In this book, there’s a discussion about the relationship between truth and fiction. When Pedro Costa made In Vanda’s Room, he had not yet mastered this truth/fiction relationship. But with this film, he does it successfully by utilizing a clear form, style, and method. It’s a fantastic endeavor. I was really overwhelmed. It’s a great pleasure to have been able to encounter a film like this as a film festival juror.
Q: So this year’s festival was really high caliber.
FY: The standard was really high. I heard that there were good films in the New Asian Currents program, but I was unable to see any of them. I also missed the Latin American program.
Q: You had no time to watch other films aside from the International Competition?
FY: I watched all the International Competition works together with the other jurors. It was not easy, but I’m glad to have seen the films together with everybody. If I were watching alone, I would have relied on the catalogue synopsis and made wrong judgments—like, this one doesn’t look too great, or maybe this one isn’t too ambitious, and so forth.
But once I faced the silver screen, I found all of them took me by surprise in the way they approached the filming. The International Competition films were really of a high standard. Each film was excellent and so many made me want to see them again. If the DVDs were on sale, I’d go buy them.
Q: Which film left the strongest impression on you?
FY: I only saw the International Competition films, and among them I loved Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. The beginning with the repeated images of a boy being beaten made me flinch. Surely it was because the directors wanted to emphasize this, but it was too brutal for me.
But as I watched on, I started to relate and soon found I couldn’t stop crying. There’s a young man who loves movies and wants to become a filmmaker—I remember that he dies. I’m not exactly sure, but his final words referred to shooting from a fixed angle. That killed me.
This kind of film could easily become a journalistic style aimed at breaking news. The reality in Syria is so tragic that fact is enough to capture people’s attention. But this film manages to work with structure so that there’s something that goes beyond and moves the emotions of audiences. That was what impressed me the most.
Without proper equipment or facilities, how does one film? Bullets are flying throughout town, it’s very dangerous, and you are not free to film. You always have to film while hidden. Towards the end, there’s a rise in the emotional dilemma of wanting to but not being able to film. And finally, the walking boy is captured in a long shot and the conflict reaches a climax. With that, my own inner tension as a viewer was released. That kind of expressive design of the film material was also something that impressed me.
Q: You’ve attended YIDFF first as audience, next as a filmmaker, and now as juror. What do you think about this journey?
FY: There must have been someone behind this. Yamagata is like a mother to me, a place that provided me with first milk and fostered me. I attended the first time invited by someone who is very important to me. I’m only here today thanks to him.
For the first few times at YIDFF I attended to watch films, and the films I encountered there influenced me tremendously. Ogawa Shinsuke’s book also empowered me, and I came to make films myself. 1997 was the first time my film was shown in Yamagata. I still have vivid memories of that occasion.
I was in the midst of confusion when I arrived in Yamagata. I still couldn’t recognize that the film I’d sent in had really been chosen for screening. As I was checking in at the office, I felt a warm gaze at my back. I looked behind me and saw Fujioka Asako who was looking and smiling at me. That presence was so warm for a first-time filmmaker like me and it became an unforgettable memory.
Q: Would you like to be on a jury again?
FY: No, I don’t. Next time, I want to participate with my own film as a filmmaker. No one knows if it will be selected, but I have to do my best anyhow, right?
(Compiled by Kano Megumi)
Interviewers: Kano Megumi, Hirai Mona / Translator: Fujioka Asako
Photography: Oki Kayako / Video: Oki Kayako / 2015-10-15