Covering Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom:

A Report from the Daily Bulletin

Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom
An Interview with Jose Manuel Costa and Kees Bakker

Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom

The Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom seminar was conducted under the auspices of the 2001 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The symposium occupied a full day, and was divided into morning and afternoon sessions.

The seminar began with words from coordinators Kees Bakker and José Manuel Costa. According to Bakker and Costa, the seminar started last year in the small Portuguese town of Serpa as a chance to think about the state of Portugal and documentary film from the level of cinematic expression rather than production and distribution, through informal discussion. In particular, the two organizers hoped that Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom would give young Asian directors whose works are not well known in Europe and North America the chance to speak in front of an audience. The seminar takes its name from the work of the same name by director Robert Kramer, the subject of a retrospective at YIDFF 2001, and the seminar is also a memorial to Kramer, but it was not intended as a site to discuss Kramer’s works.

Directors Sekine Hiroyuki (Maya, U.O. 5), Tan Kai Syng (Chlorine Addiction), Kawaguchi Hajime (Variant Phases; all but U.O. 5 screened in New Asian Currents ’01) and Jon Jost (6 Easy Pieces, screened in International Competition ’01) were invited to participate in the morning session. Costa explained the choice of panelists by commenting that the works of all five directors were deeply interesting for their very methods of filmmaking. Medium alone does not make the method, but Sekine’s film is 8 mm, while Jost works in DV, and Kawaguchi and Tan alternated between the two formats. And, with a little guidance from moderator Bakker, discussion centered perhaps unsurprisingly around questions of new and old technology.

For example, Jost explained that he depends on the relative ease of DV—namely its low cost and the little time it requires, both of which allow him to make what he really wants to make—saying, “Digital video allowed me to rediscover my interest in moving pictures, which had utterly bored me before.” Tan described the attraction of DV from another angle, saying “If you use nonlinear editing, which allows you to copy things as much as you want, you can make so many different variations, and you can do so many things even frame by frame. I think this is interesting.”

That said, there was also a movement to preserve the temporality of film, in contrast to the easy reproducibility of digital media. For example, one member of the audience pointed out that Sekine’s method of shooting an entire reel of film in one hand-held long take doesn’t allow for error, making each shot specific to a certain time. Sekine (who apparently has made and screened films independently for 20 years) added, “I think that the act of screening itself becomes another method of expression, so I always operate the projector myself at screenings of my films. Even for feature films in a movie theater, there are always little differences in an audience’s character and atmosphere,” thus demonstrating the temporal specificity of screenings as well.

Another member of the audience asked whether the creation of image databases might not make screenings themselves obsolete, prompting a cool and measured analysis of the issue of screenings and new technology from Kawaguchi. “I see a lot of possibility in Internet screenings [of films]. In particular, I think it could be a breakthrough for increasing the absolute number of independent filmmakers. That said, it’s not the same thing as a theatrical screening. You can say it about chemical film and digital video too, but it doesn’t mean that one is going to replace the other. Rather, we’re seeing a proliferation of choices.”

The morning session’s discussion concentrated on these and other points, but the significance of the session may have been less in the issues raised (as discussion covered only the tip of the iceberg), but in imagining rather what could have been talked about but ultimately was to remain unsaid. For example, one audience member’s question, “Whether you’re working in film or video, what do you think about the actual subject being filmed?” went unanswered, but could easily have been connected to the question of image databases and other timely issues of visual culture in today’s world. As Bakker said, “To come up with one conclusion is not the purpose of today’s seminar.”

For the afternoon session, the organizers invited directors Zhong Hua (This Winter), Ono Satoshi (Danchizake (Homemade Sake)) and Pedro Costa (In Vanda’s Room). Bakker explained the criteria for choosing the afternoon panelists as coming from “how a work which begins with strong human relations conveys those relationships through the medium of documentary,” and the films of all three directors are certainly girded with love towards their subject and with a firm cinematic form. To kick off the discussion, moderator Costa asked Zhong and Ono for their responses to the question with reference to their works. Ono explained that “[My father doesn’t talk until the end of the film, but] I actually interviewed him for about ten hours. When I watched the rushes after I’d finished shooting, though, I felt his feelings and his kindness to me and my mother more through his hands when he’s painting, or when he doesn’t allow even one grain of rice to slip away when he’s brewing sake, so I cut out all of the interview scenes.” Zhong’s response was, “I talk to them a lot, and start filming once I’ve started sharing their thoughts and way of life... Even though I’m filming, I don’t hide the fact that I’m there.” Unfortunately, these remarks were not picked up in the following discussion, which centered rather around audience questions to Costa, whose film had acquired passionate fans during the festival.

As a result, Zhong and Ono had few chances to speak during the session. This was hardly due to any lack of appeal in their works—José Manuel Costa praised This Winter as “a great surprise for me at the festival,” and Pedro Costa remarked, “It is a very spiritual film, so I still can’t say anything about it.” Ono’s Danchizake was also given top marks as a very interesting film for the Doc’s Kingdom seminar, and Ono has been invited to attend the next seminar in Portugal in September 2002 along with Kawaguchi Hajime.

Director Costa received a variety of questions from audience members inquiring about everything from his chosen format to the sound in his film, and some of his responses related back to Bakker and Costa’s criteria for selection. For example, when asked, “I couldn’t tell how much direction you gave for some of the scenes, but how did you try to construct the narrative?” he replied, “I didn’t write a script, and I don’t tell anyone what to do. You can hear many ‘voices’ in this film. They are not my voice. I have absolutely no interest in my voice. It’s an extremely spiritual process in which you can hear one voice and then another. Because of this process, it’s not the story of one person, but of the place, and a wonderful moment in which everything forms a perfect circle is born.” The director went on to add that he spent seven months editing before that moment arrived.

Since the symposium was also part of the festival’s Kramer Retrospective, Erika Kramer, Kramer’s partner in life and work, gave a few words after the close of the discussion. Then bassist Barre Phillips, the composer for Kramer’s films since Guns (1980), performed his “original soundtrack” for part of Jon Jost’s 6 Easy Pieces as the work was shown again. To the delight of all, Phillips also shared his considerable talent with festivalgoers at venues ranging from the Awards Ceremony to the Komian Club.

Reporter: Kotegawa Daisuke
—Translated by Sarah Teasley


An Interview with José Manuel Costa and Kees Bakker

—In the seminar, there was a discussion of the possibilities for digital technology within documentary. What do you think about this issue?

Bakker: Like Pedro Costa (director, In Vanda’s Room) has said, the actual technology may have advanced, but the most important thing, the point of departure when making any film, is the director’s vision. I think that digital technology has only made it possible to turn that vision into a film.

Costa: Jon Jost (director, 6 Easy Pieces) said that at first, he wanted to make avant-garde works, but that he couldn’t make a living doing that, so he started making conventional films too. But he said that when the age of digital technology arrived, he no longer had to worry about production costs, so he could return to his point of origin and make what he had wanted to make. In this sense, the advance of digital technology gives us a chance to return to film’s origins without worrying about funding.

—In the morning seminar, there was some discussion of whether with digital technology, the existence of film festivals and theaters in the future might itself become a sort of database.

Costa: There are two ways of thinking about film. The first, from the birth of cinema to now, is the medium as chemical technology. The other is the medium that can respond to the need to watch something together in a dark place with many people. These needs have existed since before cinema was invented, for example with magic lanterns in China. So even if cinema disappears, this need will remain. Film festivals are one way of responding to that need. Of course things like the internet are a different medium, so while you can’t say for sure that they will have different results, one thing we can say is that film festivals and movie theaters will continue to exist as long as that human need is there.

—What do you think about Asian works in the context of documentary around the world?

Bakker: I go to a lot of festivals in Europe, but for me, there’s not really a difference between Asian and European works. You can have a powerful and compelling subject, but the number of works that use it well as a film is very small. In that sense, there’s not much difference because a film is from Asia.

Costa: Right now, documentary film-making is popular all over the world. But the works coming out of some countries in Asia is a bit different from works made in Europe. I think there are a lot of works with a social theme. This is probably because today, you can use new technology to make a work more cheaply, so we’re seeing filmmakers appear who use this to make films that address their fears and sense of urgency about society. At the same time, in a number of countries, we’re seeing challenging works that, when they think of documentary as a method, try to take it in a new, different direction.With this mix of different kinds of works, I think that Asia is a region rich in variety.

Interviewer: Kishi Yuki and Kawasumi Naoki
Interpreter: Catherine Cadou
Compiled by Kishi Yuki


The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) Network was founded to ensure the success of the first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 1989. The festival is sponsored by the city of Yamagata, but director Ogawa Shinsuke, who first came up with the idea for the festival, worried that government direction alone might not sustain this continuous event. Feeling that the festival also needed young people in the region who were interested in film and special events to participate, he called for interested local residents to form a literal network and work together to make the festival a success. This was the first step in the birth of the YIDFF Network.

The Network’s first activity was to screen and watch documentary films. Screenings of films by Robert Flaherty and Ogawa and of new documentaries occurred throughout Yamagata Prefecture. Other activities included inviting filmmakers primarily from Asia to screenings that became a chance to meet people and exchange information. These activities were on a small scale, but looking back now, they make us realize that the film festival’s basic activities were already underway.

In this way, the Network’s main task at the time was to advertise and publicize the film festival through screenings for Yamagata residents and other projects. However, as the festival dates drew near, members started to wonder what their role would be during the festival itself. Ogawa’s suggestion was to write and edit a daily paper during the festival. He showed us the daily paper from the Berlin Film Festival and told us, “A good film festival must have a good daily paper.” This left a great impression on us. This was the beginning of the Daily Bulletin. And since then, the Network has also shouldered the large responsibility of running one of the festival’s media organs. This has given us experience comparing filmmakers and films, and the job has many elements, from photographic and video records to editing and publishing. The details of the job have allowed local residents to be a part of an international film festival.

Currently, the YIDFF Network not only publishes the Daily Bulletin, but also shares the responsibility for central festival tasks like planning programs, selecting films, running the festival and writing and editing the festival catalog. An influx of students has given us a new youthful face, an increased reliance on Internet publicity has brought an increase in members from other parts of Japan and from overseas, and the Network starts its motors several months before the festival.

During the festival itself, the Network concentrates on recording interviews with filmmakers and other festival participants. Here, we introduce two reports by Daily Bulletin staff members on Yamagata Doc’s Kingdom, a one-day symposium on the present and future of documentary film at YIDFF ’01.

Masuya Shuichi, Coordinator, YIDFF Network