As Twins—Worlds that Connect and Cross through Cinema

As a filmmaker from the very small film nation Switzerland, it is a special honor for me to be graced with a retrospective at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival of 2017. Even more so as I had the chance to personally meet the founder of YIDFF, Ogawa Shinsuke. Our meeting in Yamagata in 1986 was owed to his initiative. For me, this was a fortunate opportunity in all respects. Here is the short history of how our meeting came about: when Ogawa Shinsuke saw my documentary about the mountain farmers in the Swiss Alps entitled We Mountain People in the Mountains, it reminded him of the farmers who live in Japan’s mountainous regions, tending to their day-to-day work under comparably archaic circumstances. He repeatedly thought that my film and his A Japanese Village—Furuyashikimura—a cinematic meditation on the lives of farmers in a small mountain village—were actually twin brothers. In 1986 upon learning that I would come to Japan for the promotion of my feature film Alpine Fire, 1985, which I had shot in exactly the same region as my documentary, We Mountain People in the Mountains, Ogawa Shinsuke invited me over to Yamagata. An unforgettable event during my stay with him was our joint travel to the small village of Furuyashiki. We wanted to show We Mountain People about the farmers in Uri to the villagers appearing in his own film. On our extensive walks together we also visited other locations of his film A Japanese Village—Furuyashikimura. During those visits the life of the Japanese farmers whom I encountered gradually appeared closer and more familiar to me. Moreover, I became increasingly cognizant of the fact that global peasant cultures have more things in common than differences based on whichever national community they belong to. This is of course not to be confused with the national identity of the farmers based on their country of origin.

My two mountain farmer films, We Mountain People and The Green Mountain, are exceptions in my filmography. The reason for this is because both are the only films I made which can be called pure documentaries in a classical and ethnological sense. All my other films play with the elements of documentary authenticity and fiction in different proportions. I officially called Zones a “fictive documentary” because for political reasons I actually did not receive permission from the responsible authorities to shoot a proper documentary on an officially certified surveillance specialist.

My artistic films, Chicory, Bernhard Luginbühl and Sad-is-Fiction are playfully creative duels between the authentic persona in front of the camera and myself behind it. These were made truly in the spirit of Robert J. Flaherty and his wife, Frances H. Flaherty, after whom the main award of this festival is named. Furthermore it is almost impossible not to observe a certain artistic kinship between my very first film Marcel (1962), which I shot with an 8mm Bolex, and Flaherty’s film, Louisana Story (1948).

I intentionally did not attend any film school. For I declared cinema itself, or the 120 years of film history, as my school of film. I did so being aware of the fact that, as an aspiring filmmaker, you stand on so many shoulders of genius filmmakers who have laid the foundations of the art of cinema with their masterpieces. This group of course included the films of veteran masters such as Mizoguchi Kenji, Ozu Yasujiro and Kurosawa Akira, as well as those films made by a new generation of filmmakers during the 1960s and 1980s. For example, Shinoda Masahiro, Yoshida Yoshishige and Imamura Shohei, as well as Oshima Nagisa.

As important sources of inspiration for my feature film Alpine Fire, I would like to list The Naked Island (1960) by Shindo Kaneto, The Woman in the Dunes (1964) by Teshigahara Hiroshi and Kwaidan (1964) by Kobayashi Masaki. What impressed me most about these three films was the quiet radicality of their visual language and their adamantly uncompromising dramaturgy. Also, their subtle “culture of silence” in the way they dealt with words and dialogues.

Aside from these films what inspired me in particular was my reading of the novel Narayama-bushi ko (The Ballad of Narayama, 1957) by Fukazawa Shichiro. The German translation bore the title Schwierigkeiten beim Verständnis der Narayama-Lieder. As a small homage to the author of the book, the family in my film Alpine Fire goes by the by-name “The Irascibles.” I took this reference directly from Fukazawa’s novel.

As a Swiss, I have always envied Japan for their flag emblem: a white surface with a big red circle in the middle of it. There is no way to put it clearer and conciser. We Swiss have a red surface with a white circle in the middle. However, this white circle is stretched out into the directions of all four cardinal points. Each of our national languages pulled on the circle and thus turned it into a cross. This is democracy at its most. And, well, this is how our films are, too.

Fredi M. Murer

* For Fredi M. Murer’s biography, please see “Special Invitation Films.”