Friday, February 6, 2009

INTERVIEW: Kazuhiro Soda on his award-winning observational film "Mental"

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

When I first found out that Kazuhiro Soda had agreed to an interview with me I was obviously excited. Since 2007 and the release of his documentary "Campaign" that chronicled his former classmate, Kazuhiko Yamauchi's run for municipal office in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, a buzz had been growing about this New York-based filmmaker and his "observational" as opposed to "documentary" style films. "Campaign" toured film festivals around the world, picked up an Adolphe Grimme Award in Germany, aired on PBS's popular documentary program "P.O.V." and ultimately paved the way for the success that Soda is now enjoying with his second "observational" film "Mental". Extremely personal, often dark, but in the end empowering the film gives voice to nearly a dozen patients at the Chorale Okayama, an out-patient mental health clinic founded by Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, and it's the stories of these people who have in some cases struggled for decades with mental illness that has garnered it great praise around the world. "Mental" has already picked up awards for Best Documentary at both the Dubai and Pusan International Film Festivals and Soda is currently at the 59th Annual Berlinale with it, the very same festival that premiered "Campaign" just two short years ago.

International success, awards, globe-trotting, I'd assumed that the best way to interview such a busy filmmaker would be to simply email him a list of a dozen or so questions and have him reply to them whenever his schedule allowed. I was surprised, in fact pleasantly so, when Soda insisted that we speak via phone, a decision that makes total sense once you hear his story. "I used to make many documentaries for Japanese TV, like NHK documentary films," Soda explained from his home in New York City, "and when you work for TV with a budget you have to write a very detailed synopsis before you shoot and you know exactly what's going to happen. Even narration before you shoot in order to get approval from the producers. That's the necessary step. You even have the ending and you have narration for the ending, so basically you know everything before you shoot."

I could only imagine that my email, precisely thought over and laid out to so as to cover as much ground as possible in the fewest questions, would have seemed to him a little too much like those synopses to the 40 to 50 television documentaries that he'd made, and that eventually led him to a creative crossroads and his own "observational" filmmaking style. So we threw the blueprint away and spent an hour chatting about the making of "Mental", the near tragic effect it had on one of its subjects, an upcoming book he has written and how he equates his role as a filmmaker to baseball. I thought it was only appropriate under the circumstances to reproduce our conversation (nearly) in its entirety.

CM: You're heading off to Berlin soon, aren't you? Are you getting excited because you've had a lot of success with "Mental" already.

KS: It's really exciting because Berlin is kind of special for me. I premiered my previous film "Campaign" there and that was kind of like a launching ground. It was a very big deal for me, so it's very exciting to go back to the same place with a different film.

CM: And also because of the success behind "Mental"...

KS: Yeah, right. It was surprising to me that I got any awards for the film. At first I was kind of skeptical. I mean I was always interested in the subject, but I wasn't sure how many other people would be interested in this subject. It's kind of dark, it's not very flashy, you know? So I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I would get from other people, but surprisingly I'm getting very strong reactions from them. I'm very happy about that.

CM: I think it's a very universal kind of subject matter.

KS: Yeah, that's what I realized, and I thought that many people didn't feel any connection to the subject, but contrary to that many people have family members or friends or someone who is close who is suffering from the same disease. Many people told me about these things, saying actually I have a special feeling because I myself have a brother or my family member or very close friend who committed suicide. Anyone living in the world is kind of touched by this subject matter in some way.

CM: When you mention suicide I'm assuming... You dedicate the film at the end to three of the patients from Chorale and I think I know what would have happened to them, but did they end up committing suicide?

KS: Two of them, yeah. Two of them decided to kill themselves. One of them maybe she didn't really do that, but nobody really knows what happened. It was a suspicious death, so no one could say it was suicide, but she was found dead in her room, but two of them for sure decided to end their lives.

CM: It was interesting to me, I was watching ["Mental"] with a couple of friends and they had different reactions. One actually couldn't finish watching it because it was so intimate and personal and dark, and because he had been touched in his life with mental illness, so it kind of hit home; but when you're interviewing these people you achieve this level of intimacy and they're telling you very personal things. It reminded me in some ways how psychotherapists have therapists that they go to unload all these things that they're hearing from their patients. How did you deal with hearing such personal things, such tragic stories? When you packed up your equipment at the end of the day was it hard for you to leave those stories behind, or leave those people behind?

KS: That's an interesting question. I was okay because I was operating the camera and my focus is not only the person in front of me, but also technical details like aperture, focus, camera angle, so even though I'm listening to their stories my consciousness is not fully listening, so I didn't really get affected by the stories; but what's interesting is that my wife, Kiyoko, she was with me all the time because she knew many of the patients. It's her mother who connected me to this clinic, her mother works with this clinic as a non-profit organization director which sends home helpers to patients, so that's how I got acquainted with this doctor and with this clinic. And naturally my wife knew some of these patients, so she was there when we were filming. Sometimes these patients talked to her, not to me because I was operating the camera, and she gets involved or absorbed with this conversation fully, so the more she spent time with them... She became so sick and uncomfortable, so finally she made an appointment with Dr. Yamamoto. I was really worried about her as a husband because she was crying and she's saying that she can't take it any more and she thinks that she's mentally ill, just like a patient that we are filming. She made an appointment, so I was really worried, but at the same time as a filmmaker I was thinking this was interesting: the filmmaker's wife who is shooting the mentally ill is becoming mentally ill. The scene with her and the doctor, the consultation, might be an interesting scene and become a masterpiece. So, I decided to take my camera and get into the room when Kiyoko went into the room of doctor Yamamoto, and soon as I started shooting she yelled at me saying "What are you doing without my permission?! Because I'm going to complain about you!" So I had to to leave the room and I missed possibly the best scene in the film. I thought that was an interesting event to happen. You realize we can go in and out of the mentally ill patient's world. We're not different, we can't really draw the line between us. Luckily Kiyoko is totally recovered now, but she was not feeling well for several months after that.

CM: What's interesting is that people who haven't had anyone in their lives who has struggled with mental illness may sometimes have a stereotypical view in their head. It was funny that one of the patients, I can't remember his name at the moment, but he kept directingn his own sequences yelling "Hai, katto!" ...

KS: Yes, Sugano.

CM: ....but you had this kind of poetry reading of his, a woman reading his writing, and you realize that he obviously has talent and he obviously has a depth of character and a real sensitivity. It's just that he struggles with mental illness. I really enjoyed that sequence because it showed that these are fully rounded human beings who are just struggling with this one thing in their lives that is so monumental.

KS: Yeah, I agree. That was something I felt too while I was shooting. Before I was even shooting I vaguely thought that the patients might be weaker people, I mean people who were suffering, so I automatically thought they were weak, but it's not necessarily so. In a sense Sugano, his life is richer because he is ill. Of course he's suffering, and of course he wants to recover, but at the same time he can only create these poems and pictures because he went through many struggles because of the illness. So in a sense being ill is not totally negative and it doesn't make people weaker. Sometimes it might make them stronger. Another good example was a person, he was 60 at the time and he'd been ill for the past 40 years. His words are so philosophical and insightful to his life and I am sure he came up with his philosophy because of the illness and his struggles. That's something I really felt as I was shooting and editing. I'm glad you got that point.

CM: I'm just curious, did you have a screening for the subjects and for Dr. Yamamoto?

KS: Everybody saw it. We organized a special screening on November 22nd in Okayama and we invited everybody, but it wasn't easy. The minute I announced a special screening it created a kind of uneasiness among those patients. I mean I wasn't there [when it was announced], but I hear from my mother-in-law and the staff of Chorale Okayama that some people were so worried about seeing the film and some people decided not to see it and some people were really apprehensive about what they were going to see. One of the patients I was worried about was the lady who was so overwhelmed about her son, her newborn (This particular subject accidentally suffocated her infant son to stop him from crying) especially because she said she didn't want to see the film, but I wanted to have her in the screening. I didn't want to imagine if she didn't come and she hears what other people talk about her. I mean, she'd tried to kill herself so many times, and God forbid she might try and do it again because of the film. That would be disastrous for her and for me and everybody, so I had to do something about that. So I wrote a letter to her, "Please come, please come," and at first she decided not to come, but then halfway through the screening somebody entered the room and I saw that person was her. At that time her scene was over actually, so I wasn't sure what kind of reactions I would get from her. During the Q&A she raised her hand and asked me, "You didn't include that scene," and I was like, "What do you mean?" She said that she came in late, but "you didn't include that scene." I said, "What scene?" And she said, "The scene in the short stay facility" and I told her I included everything that's important to you. And at first she was devastated and she said, "I won't be able to live if everybody knows, if everybody in this room knows about the whole thing." I was really shocked to face that. Of course I had to think twice, three times, ten times, a million times before I decided to include the scene in the film, but I decided to do that and I was hoping that she would understand my intention, but obviously she was not happy about my decision. I thought maybe I had made such a terrible, terrible mistake. I couldn't speak, but then somebody else, the lady in the very first scene, you'll remember she tried to commit suicide and she was crying in front of the doctor. She raised her hand and said, "I didn't know about your suffering until now and I am glad that I know now what you were suffering, and I'm not going to change my attitude towards you. I know how hard it is to raise a kid. I'm a mother myself and I totally understand that." Then it opened up a discussion among the participants. I explained to her why I thought this scene was needed in the film and why I needed the scene to portray her properly. Gradually she understood, and I think that at the end of the day she was very happy about the reaction. Now she's fine, but her first reaction was very close to disaster! I arranged a gathering of the patients who were in the film and we did some sort of discussion forum for a book that I'm writing and she came and she talked about her experience in the film and how she watched the whole thing. She was happy for including her scene, but not without ups and downs.

CM: When I was watching the film she didn't come across in any way as criminal. She had a very tough life with some not very understanding people or support network around her.

KS: I asked her what changed her attitude, you know. And she told me what my wife Kiyoko said to her which kind of opened up her eyes. She said to her that we showed the film to some of our American friends in New York and one of them said the police had no right to tell her that she was doomed for the rest of her life. [Kiyoko] told her and she told me for the past 15 years [she thought] anyone who knows about this event would hate her and would make her an enemy, but she realized that there is somebody who understands, even though they know what she did. That was the salvation for her.

CM: "Observationl film". I think that's what I really wanted to clarify because I think there might be people who see your work and you like to describe yourself as an "observational" filmmaker and these are "observational films". How do you define that? How did you arrive at that and why do you feel it's necessary to say "These aren't documentaries, they're observational films."

KS: It's a kind of documentary film. The larger category is documentary and I call my films observational documentary. I call it that because (he explains his TV documentary work as mentioned above) That was exciting for a while for me, but after I felt kind of uneasy about it. It was pretty dull to know everything before you shoot. I mean the reality is always more interesting than my imagination. I couldn't really change the course of the script because it's already approved and if I change it the producers will change it back. I thought it was really ridiculous in a sense because we're trying to make a documentary, but we don't want anything from the reality. So, I thought that was really kind of strange. Also the fact that we always have narration in a TV documentary, you always gear the thinking in a certain way, and the viewers do not have the chance to observe what's going on and they're not free and they're not active. They're always passive and I didn't like the relationship between the maker and the viewers. So, I thought there must be other ways to make documentaries. I was ready to make my own and I wanted to do everything in the opposite way to a TV documentary. So, first I didn't want to write anything. I didn't want to do any researching. I didn't want to have any meetings with the subjects, in fact I didn't even meet Dr. Yamamoto before I shot. I met the staff and doctors for the first time when I was shooting. Intentionally I didn't want to have preconceived ideas at all and [instead] see really what was going on in front of my camera.

CM: I'm thinking of the sessions that Dr. Yamamoto has with his patients. He's doing very much the same thing. He's sitting back, he's taking a few notes, he's just listening to the patients, and some may feel that he's being a bit aloof, but he's just listening before he would make a suggestion. In a way your process is a mirror to what's going on in front of your camera.

KS: Right, that's a great point. I like your observation. (laughs) Something like that can't come out if I force the viewer into thinking a certain way. This can only come out because I let the viewers define and interpret what they see on the screen. Actually it's exciting for me. For me I'm a pitcher and I want to the viewers to be not the catcher, but the batter and I throw my ball and I want them not to catch it but to hit it back and I like to see where this balls goes, and sometimes it's goes in very unexpected paths.

CM: Documentary films seem to have had a real Renaissance in the past few years, this past decade, but your films seem to be going in the opposite direction to a lot of other very popular documentaries. You have your Michael Moore and his style seems to be mimicked a lot where the filmmaker in a way doesn't becomes the subject, but the films are very didactic and your films work goes in absolutely the opposite direction. Have you had people who are used to that way of being dictated to and had them say I'm not quite sure how to feel about this?

KS: Well, I respect Michael Moore and his work, but I don't think I'd like to make such films because personally the message is too clear, it's too political and it's always one-sided. I mean watching "Fahrenheit 911" you cannot like Bush. It's impossible. I mean, I don't like Bush, so I agree with him; but I think for me what's really fascinating about documentary is that it's shades of gray, not black and white and it could mean different things for different viewers. I think that's the life we have. Our lives are not black and white. We cannot say really that this person is totally a villain or totally a super hero. We are all complicated. What I think is really fascinating about documentary or film in general is it's a media which allows multiple meanings. Images always involve multiple meanings and it's up to the audience [as to] how they interpret it and that's the power of images I think. For example you have a shot of New York City and you just show it and some people might say , "Oh, it's nice weather." Some people might say, "This is a really crowded city." Some people might say, "That woman passing through is really pretty," and if you don't have that narration or music or that superimposed title it evokes a lot of meanings and a lot of interpretations, but if you put narration or music or superimposed titles that say (in a deep voice) "New York City, the capital of the world," then it becomes really flat and it becomes just a symbol. It's not an image anymore. And for me Michael Moore's movies are kind of a champion of that. He's so practiced and skillful to convey his own message, but he doesn't have multiple meanings. It's not very rich in a sense, so I don't want to make films like his, although I mostly agree with what he says.

CM: Maybe we can talk just briefly about who has influenced you, impacted you as a filmmaker.

KS: The biggest direct influence is Frederick Wiseman (Wiseman is an American documentary filmmaker with his roots in the Direct Cinema movement of the late 50s). I saw his films when I was kind of struggling with my TV work, when I was feeling that it was kind of routine work and redundant and I didn't feel anything fresh. I was thinking we don't need narration, we don't need researching When I was feeling that somebody recommended to me that I see Frederick Wiseman, and I was like, "Oh! He's been doing this since the 1960s!" It was so brilliant! I had to watch his films in the New York Public Library, one after the other, holding my own Frederick Wiseman film festival. I was really fascinated by his work. It kind of confirmed how I felt about my TV work. He gave me proof that I was right because his films are so much richer and timeless, you know. It's really universal, it doesn't get older. And I thought documentaries should be this way, not the way that I was making the TV documentaries, so I was really influenced. Sato Makoto, he is a documentary filmmaker in Japan, but unfortunately he committed suicide very recently. I was inspired by his works and his books and I was really encouraged to make documentaries of my own, so I owe him a lot, but he passed away. I didn't know it, but he was suffering from mental illness actually and he committed suicide in the fall of 2007. Only a year and a little bit... a few months. He was a very important figure in the documentary filmmaking world of Japan and we lost him. We were all devastated.

CM: That's very sad.

KS: Yeah.

CM: So, you'll be going to Berlin soon, but then also you mentioned on your blog that you're working on a new film and you just mentioned you're writing a book. Can you talk a little about what's coming up next for you?

KS: Sure. The book is about "Mental". It's about why I decided to make the film, how I made it, what kind of events I encountered in the course of trying to show it in public. It's a totally different approach from the film , but it's a different media. So, I enjoyed writing it and I have my first draft already at the publisher. I interviewed Dr. Yamamoto for 3 hours, which I didn't do when I was shooting the film and the reason I didn't do the interview with Dr. Yamamoto in the film was that I wanted to make a film from the patients perspective, not the doctor's perspective, so I intentionally avoided doing an interview with him; but I had so many questions I wanted to ask him and finally I had a chance to do that for the book. I was very happy to have the opportunity to do that. He's really a wonderful doctor. Also Hirata Oriza. My new film is about Hirata Oriza . He's a playwright and a director based in Tokyo and my focus is on him and his company Seinendan. It's about the creation of his work, all the behind the scenes and how he maintains the company and how the actors train. It's a whole picture. I just love his work. I think he is one of the most important playwrights in the history of Japanese theatre and when I learned that nobody did a documentary film on him I thought "Well, this is ridiculous," so I asked him if I could do that and he was happy that I proposed the project. So, I've been doing all the behind the scenes, even when he discusses his tax strategy with his accountant.

CM: I just have one last question for you. You've lived in New York for 15 years now. Have you found subjects in North America or the United States where you would make a film in English on an American subject?

KS: Yeah, definitely. It's happened to be Japanese subjects. I have several, well, more than several, more than 10 ideas on my subject list that I'm interested in. I always have this list in my computer and whenever, whoever gives me permission to shoot will be my next film, and that includes American subjects too. So definitely, I'm interested in doing that.

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