A Roundtable on Barbara Hammer’s Devotion (2/2)


SM: Along with my bewilderment at who had what kind of point of view in this film, I kept feeling like I’d heard this story somewhere else before. That is, although they were talking about Ogawa Shinsuke in Devotion, it’s actually the story of a son’s feelings towards the father, the patriarch, who used to ostracize and torture him and to hurt his feelings when the son was youth. And it’s the story of the son killing this father. The son grows up hating his own father and the village that raised him, but at the same time, he has been so influenced by his father’s work and ambition that he cannot leave his father. This has turned into the guiding principles of his life. It’s a fable of patricide. Everyone adored Ogawa Shinsuke as a big brother and a father, so even though they felt hatred towards him, they were also proud of having been in the collective in the end. That’s not an unusual story and I think the universality of this issue gets revealed.

MN: There is a sort of simple psychologizing that happens when they start complaining about Ogawa. It’s revenge on the patriarchy, so it’s killing the father. Right in the middle of that, you get the image of the huge iron tower falling to the ground—the tower that’s been built by student activists to actually obstruct planes from flying off the runway. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but at the same time pretty simple and says nothing about the crazy situation at Sanrizuka where all this interaction was taking place.

AH: I think maybe for an audience who doesn’t know or appreciate Ogawa as much, the more balanced thing would be actually to have the collective talk more about their shooting experiences. I missed that. If they are doing all this, then what are they doing it for? That would balance the narrative.

MN: Especially since they say that the films saved them.

SM: The other thing is that although the staff members all had a hard time in that terrible collective, they were very careful to create good relations with the villagers when they went out to the village to make a film. The villagers had respect not only for Ogawa himself but also for the staff members. They thought Ogawa was a great person and they were also impressed with the crew who spent their days making experimental tools or models for no pay, all of which seemed meaningless to the villagers. At first they thought that the Ogawa Productions people were strange, but then gradually the villagers started to regard them with respect. You can see that respect in Ogawa’s films. This happened in both Furuyashiki and Magino. However, Barbara didn’t use the films that showed how the villagers saw Ogawa Productions properly. She deconstructed those films in her own logic and used them as material to make a patchwork of issues of sex, the father, the collective and patriarchy. In that patchwork, the villagers’ point of view had completely disappeared.

MN: She’s not interested in what the films are all about. She’s interested in this group which came together because of a shared politics of redemption, the trials and complexities of striving for a cause collectively, and finally with the human relationships that compromise those ideals. So the farmers are beside the point and the films are, too. While I was interested in seeing Hammer’s take on these things, I think what she’s focused on is still very important. This brings us back to Ann’s point about fascism and filmmaking. Maybe we should ask if there’s ultimately a difference between collective filmmaking and individual filmmaking. Unlike Ogawa’s approach, Hammer was working with a rotating crew of several people. It’s close to personal, individual filmmaking. In fact, while Ogawa was into constant discussion with his crew, Hammer kept her cards very close and didn’t really let people know what she was thinking. So Devotion really is a personal film. But are you saying that the differences between collective and private filmmaking are insignificant? If all filmmaking is fascism, then the only difference is that Ogawa Productions was living together?

AH: I don’t even need the follow-up tensions to convince me that the collective never works. If someone is the boss on the set, that’s okay, but when you extend that kind of so-called democracy even to your private life, it never works out. It’s idealism pushed to an extreme. What the filmmaker or any individual can do best is to point out the situation, instead of telling people what to do and what is good and right. Every filmmaker must work out his own salvation. They have to work out their own way of working, etc. The energy and the encouragement which push this ideal to an extreme is extremely admirable. Why can’t people try to be better human beings? It’s that kind of effort which sometimes fails, usually fails, but it’s not that it’s not worth doing. It’s not that people know better. I’m sure Ogawa knew all the difficulties involved, but he just does it.

MN: After the movie yesterday, I was talking with a few film people who were noting that in the history of Japanese documentary, you go from an era where the collective filmmaking was an ideal (which is one reason why Ogawa Productions was and is so important to everybody) to an era of personal film. To many people it feels like the pendulum is swinging back to valuing a kind of collective filmmaking. At the same time, we were saying that after watching Devotion, anybody that was thinking about doing something collectively is going to go straight back to 8mm and do-it-yourself documentary.

SM: Considering the direction of Japanese documentaries as a whole, I also think that we can’t go back to collective filmmaking. Watching Devotion, I thought the Ogawa Productions collective lasted because of Ogawa’s charismatic, fascinating charm, but also, and more importantly, because they had a common cause. They could tell the state and society to look at the contradictions within them. They were angry at the contradictions occurring right in front of their eyes and about the terrible things going on. For example, farmers were evacuated just because the state decided to make an airport. Some people with hearts stood against that, and said that it wasn’t right. So there was this overwhelming cause. Today, it’s difficult to find a cause that will maintain a collective. The Ogawa collective moved from Sanrizuka, where there was a cause, to Yamagata, where there was no cause at all. When they moved to Yamagata, there was no cause to maintain the collective. They said that they were trying to understand the spirit of the farmers, but this wasn’t a cause the villagers or other people—all they could say was, “Go ahead, do as you like.” The villagers and other people could not share in the cause. The object of filmmaking in Yamagata wasn’t the state or power, so naturally, the collective had to look within itself rather than looking outwards. They had to face their own microcosm and they had to face it in their collective. Naturally, that made the collective shut in, and by cornering themselves in the shut in world, I think they hurt each other.

MN: This is one reason why the lack of historical context bothers me. The film itself becomes that closed-in world of the late Ogawa Productions. And you miss this aspect of...

AH: Putting it into a context.


MN: It seems like she’s interested in only the politics of collectivity. And Makoto just made one of the most important points that gets lost in the film, a point the director probably can’t recognize because she herself became so enclosed in this world of personal relationships. I mean, she seems to have this incredible emotional displacement herself. She loses history. In the same way, she loses Japan in a sense. While I dislike almost all films about Japan made by foreigners, this one is actually quite good. And yet, at the same time, she tries to make the Ogawa Productions the analogue of Japan, but actually loses that, too, by focusing exclusively on the human relationships. It’s a big loss.

AH: She lost and crossed cultural and national boundaries. And when she gets to this particular subject, the audience should realize that as a foreigner shooting something in Japan she is putting something in Japan which is out of the ordinary in that particular context. But because she goes directly into this situation itself, I think for me at least as a filmmaker, watching this movie is extremely revealing and enlightening. I mean, having a sense of actually what you’re doing and realizing what that implies and what it costs all the time. And it’s better that when you’re doing it, you know it.

SM: I think Japan is definitely reflected in that film. It was only ten years after Ogawa’s death that people really could talk about him. And although everybody knew about this dark side, about Ogawa’s dark world, it could only have been revealed through a foreigner’s eyes. If I want to make a film about the collective of Ogawa Productions, I’m not free from my position and my private relations with the members of the collective, so it’s impossible for me to be objective. But because Barbara and her camera came from an outside world, people from Ogawa Productions were able to say things they could not say before in front of the camera. There you see the catharsis and power of this film. That very fact is very Japanese, I think.

AH: Not necessarily. Some people in Hong Kong documentary say that at some stage, a local production will want foreign people as well.

MN: You don’t have to essentialize Japan here. Faced with a foreigner—no matter where you’re from—you’re set off balance in the encounter and things can sneak in and out that usually don’t get said.

AH: Maybe they think a foreigner will accept that kind of point of view more.

MN: Actually, I’m not convinced it took a foreign encounter to extract this story. The people who agreed to be interviewed had already begun talking about issues like the money situation and Ogawa’s oppressive presence. They started talking in places like the Athénée Français Cultural Center in Tokyo, which held Ogawa retrospectives in the years before Hammer’s entrance onto the scene. In other words, the stage was set for her.

That said, her reputation as a feminist filmmaker had preceded her. And one thing you don’t get in the film is that while you see all these patriarchal abuses in the group’s past, in the intervening years everyone had had their consciousness raised vis a vis gender issues and the treatment of women in Ogawa Productions. They had become extremely sensitive to gender politics in the intervening years, and thus recognized the problem even if they didn’t when the collective was functioning. And that’s why some people could talk about it while others were probably scared stiff when they heard that Barbara Hammer was going to make a film about them. Again it’s that historical nuance that’s totally missing.

SM: This has less to do with being Japanese, and more with the fact that Ogawa was a kind of god. He had so much influence, and he was like a kind of god, especially for filmmakers from Asia. There are a lot of filmmakers who discovered a new direction after coming to the film festival in Yamagata and meeting Ogawa. So Ogawa became a kind of god, and the collective way of working that he had used had a huge influence on filmmakers from many countries. Ogawa’s version of collective wasn’t the crew members’ version, so he could really emphasize anonymity and the idea of taking care to create good relations and a strong collective and then going out and talking to the villagers, all for the cause. So the view of collectivity that Ogawa kept explaining was dispatched from Yamagata as a kind of mythology to filmmakers in Asia, and has reached many filmmakers. This has already happened. But this was only a part of the whole story; in fact, the mythology was supported by the crew members, and the mythology hurt many women. And there were a lot of dark parts to the collective that could not be well described from Ogawa Shinsuke’s logic alone. It took ten years to admit that.

AH: Actually, I don’t think this so-called violence or abuse or dark side should be emphasized. That’s always inherent in filmmaking and in human nature. In every production, there is someone who was abused. It’s inevitable. I’m not saying you should condone that. It’s just admitting a fact. How to do something about it, that’s another problem.

MN: So it would be interesting if her film were more reflexive, self-reflexive, meaning by extension you have to ask about her in this production of Devotion. And the film doesn’t invite you to ask that question.

SM: Ogawa was very good at telling fiction. He did a wonderful job of creating his own story. His stories about having been born the son of a farmer and dropping out from his college were all lies. He surrounded himself with fiction. So what Ogawa told Asian filmmakers about the collective of Ogawa Productions was lies, in a way, but those made-up stories had reality because they were fake. Some parts of his stories about the villagers were lies, and those fake stories were very fantastic and interesting. But you don’t see the fake world Ogawa created at all in Devotion. I got the feeling that she was looking at Ogawa Productions from the point of view that Ogawa didn’t tell any lies, and that the collective should be a little more logical and not hurt one another. It was like Barbara had absolutely no interest in that kind of fake world that Ogawa built.

MN: Ogawa’s left as a cipher in order to further other agendas. It’s the opposite of concrete—so loose and slippery that it can mean anything. And so you don’t get a sense of the power of his fantasy for the people that encountered Ogawa, because Hammer isn’t really talking about that part. He’s being used for other things.

As Ogawa’s collective got smaller and smaller, that fantasy Makoto was talking about got increasingly expansive. In fact, you could say it left the boundaries of Japan and started covering all of Asia—I think his new Ogawa Productions was clearly going to be pan-Asian. I met Ogawa at precisely this point, and I guess I have to include myself as a willing member of the fantasy. I saw various Asian documentary directors swept up in it, participating in this kind of bliss that Ogawa inspired through his charisma. And so their perception of him is, on the one hand, completely detached from the reality of the human relationships Hammer’s concentrated on. But at the same time, some of these Asian directors sensed the problems raised in Devotion. The two groups that are closest to Ogawa Productions, formed by people who were directly inspired by Ogawa to try to attempt a collective cinema, were Taiwan’s Full Shot (with Wu Yii-feng) and Korea’s Purn (Kim Dong-won). Both of them recognized the violence within Ogawa Productions and they were determined not to replicate it. So part of the inspiration was to avoid being Ogawa, to help the people in the group do their own work.

AH: When Ogawa was talking about the necessity or desirability of having a collective, what is he talking about? Why the necessity for anonymity, why does he have to extend filmmaking to life? What is the justification? Why is it attractive?

MN: This is part of the lack of the historical context because those comments about anonymity are primarily referring to a certain point in the collective’s history. After years in Sanrizuka, the rhetoric of collectivity and anonymity comes to a peak in 1972-73 with the production of Narita—Heta Village. So it’s at the culmination of years of complicated discussions taking place in the process of making many films. And it’s precisely at that point as well that the student movement starts disintegrating and the airport nears completion.


AH: But why should that be a collective? I mean it facilitates the making of one thing. Why do they have to share property and not make money from their productions?

SM: To stay completely anonymous. Ogawa always said that the members of the collective weren’t just professional cameramen or film technicians, but they all had to understand the heart of farmers. They couldn’t just observe farmers, they had to farm themselves and become insiders. In Ogawa’s logic, becoming an insider meant that there was no hierarchy of director, assistant director, cameraman, assistant, etc. Everyone was supposed to be equal. He always said that whether you were the director or part of the crew didn’t matter when you wanted to see the spirit of farmers.

MN: You’re suppressing your subjectivity as a filmmaker in an attempt to suffuse film with the subjectivity of the people who are usually objectified on film. That’s the ideal. Then there are material reasons lurking behind that attitude, the fact that they had no money. It was all going to filmmaking, not to life or to family. And so there’s a practical reason that Hammer exposes very nicely. That was part of a process that culminates in Narita—Heta Village and it’s like this vision of collectivity gets frozen and continues on to Yamagata even though everything has changed. It doesn’t work after that. Ogawa worked in a group mode from the days of his student movement films, through the Sanrizuka era and into Yamagata. But the character of the group does change as its material conditions transform and as they become better filmmakers. I think many members would agree that the group worked to varying degrees over the years, that the collectivity you find in Yamagata and Sanrizuka are not the same.

AH: But the members can move freely in and out of the collective?

MN: Only in a strict sense. One story almost all members love to tell is how people never announced that they were quitting. You would just wake up in the morning and the guy sleeping next to you was no longer there. So in that sense you can’t really quit. You have to escape. They talk about that in the film.

AH: How were members accepted? I mean, if someone wanted to join, could they just join?

MN: Oh, yeah. It was very fluid. No bizarre initiation rites!

SM: But what’s really interesting to me about the things the staff members said in the film is that—like Mark said, not being able to run away is also scary—running away from yourself meant denying your own ideals. They must have asked themselves that so often. We don’t have that in groups now, or at least we didn’t have it in our group when we filmed Living on the River Agano in Niigata. But the very logical and strong argument that they couldn’t run away from continuing to work on something there because to run way would have been to turn your back completely the cause—on your anger towards society and the feelings you had held towards Sanrizuka in the beginning—comes out in all of the stories. That made a huge impression on me, and it was really interesting. When they were in Sanrizuka their anger towards the state gave them a cause and morals, but in Yamagata, they were looking at the universe in a small rice paddy, finding a huge world in the same rice paddy as the next person’s. They thought they had to do that. If you ran away from that, you’d be negating everything the group had done. It’s a really strong argument. To anyone else, they were just people who were working in a rice paddy, and what they were doing was no different from what ordinary farmers did. But they kept thinking that only they could find the microcosm in that rice paddy, and I could see that really clearly in Devotion.

AH: I think that with the general practice of DV, collectives are even less necessary. You don’t need so much money to shoot.

MN: But at the same time, I wonder if Devotion needed a collective approach. In other words, Ogawa’s conception of group filmmaking is not simply a matter of economy. Consider the production of Devotion itself. Hammer was basically working on her own, with various translators and producers who were not privy to the creative process. This led to some frustrations for everyone. For example, like the typical American filmmaker, she simply shot off letters to former members asking for interviews and when she met people started shooting immediately. This is hardly surprising, and yet some of the former members were shocked. For them, this abrupt approach signaled a lack of understanding about what Ogawa Productions was all about, which was the collective, slow approach into those farmers. But Hammer hardly had the time or inclination to do this. Both sides ended up frustrated.

I’ve wondered if what was needed was a collective slowly working into all of these complicated people and gaining their trust—their devotion. Devotion ends up in this closed world because she was so intent upon that individual, “one person-one camera” form. The style of filmmaking that you talked about doesn’t need a group, right? That would produce a certain kind of documentary which would be so focused on the desires of that individual filmmaker that if the artist is lost, it’s going to look like Devotion. We’ve just been talking about how Hammer didn’t seem to grasp of what she was confronting, a struggle with the material that seems to have made its appearance in the film. That’s one decisive difference between what she’s done and the collective filmmaking of Ogawa Productions, which is based on endless discussion and the give and take that implies. Hammer was talking to everybody, but in another sense she wasn’t dialoguing with anybody. By way of contrast, the people she was dealing with had hours and hours of discussions when making a film, and got to know their subjects thoroughly before inserting a camera into their relationships.

AH: I think then this film is only one part and it needs two more parts. One part is shot by the collective themselves about Ogawa. And the other part is a film shooting Barbara shooting this movie. That would put everything in perspective. She really needs a DV shooting her all the time.

MN: That’s what I meant when I suggested it’s too bad Devotion couldn’t have been more self-reflexive.

SM: Devotion may have its problems as a film, but Barbara did a good job of revealing the rumors that had been floating around under the surface of Ogawa Productions and the problems that had come up since Ogawa Shinsuke’s death. I think it’s really good how she brought out the collective’s problems with money (debts), the contradiction between the collective ideal and its reality, and the suffering of the women who had been made for work without pay in it all. I think this was also good for the future of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. We all talked about these rumors, and we were all influenced by Ogawa to gather at the festival. We all talked about the story behind the story, but we ended up with a kind of duplicity in which we made Ogawa Shinsuke a kind of god in public, and talked about the contradictions of the collective when we were out drinking at night. This had gone on forever, so I’m really glad that light has finally been shone on both sides.

Editors: Thank you very much for getting up very early in the morning and taking the time for the interview.

—Compiled and translated by Murakami Yumiko