Monday, October 24, 2011

Exclusive report from the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

by Nicholas Vroman

Every two years, the town of Yamagata in the north of Honshu, for one week becomes the focal point for a slew of Japanese and international documentary filmmakers, students, doc fans, volunteers and acolytes to immerse themselves in films, discussion and drinking sessions - all centered around the current state of documentary production. In my opinion, it's the most interesting and important film fest in Japan. I hit the fest only for the last few days, missing the critical mass of the opening weekend, but still walking away with my head buzzing around the current state of documentary filmmaking in Japan - and the world.

Yamagata province is just over the mountains from Fukushima. The earthquake, tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster continues to preoccupy the national discourse. The festival programmers quickly pulled together a program, the Great East Japan Earthquake Recovery Support Screening Project. Symposia and a collection of 29 films became the focal point for discussions about how the disaster was mediated, the general quality of these inquiries and a larger look into the function of committed filmmakers in the national dialogue. Endless images of wasted landscapes commanded screens over the opening weekend. Many were earnest, but dull. One in particular, "311" by Mori Tatsuya, Watai Takeharu, Matsubayashi Yoju and Yasuoka Takahara, sparked weeklong conversations about documentary ethics. Naomi Kawase's "3.11 A Sense Of Home Films" had an international who's who of filmmakers weighing in with short meditations on the tragedy. Victor Erice completists, take note! By far the most well-received was Matsubayashi Yoju's "Fukushima:Memories of a Lost Landscape."

This was just the tip of the iceberg from a festival that has huge ambitions, a very let's-put-on-a-show feel and succeeds wildly. Among the sections of the festival are an International Competition (this year's judges included Atom Egoyan and Haile Gerima), New Asian Currents (Takahise Zeze and Mickey Chen were the judges), New Docs Japan (mainly well-meaning, but marginally crafted works) and some special focuses for this year. Islands / I Lands, NOW - Vista de Cuba was a monumental program on Cuban documentary. My Television focused on Japanese TV documentary from the 60s and 70s. A Reunion of Taiwan and Japanese Filmmakers;12 Years Later brought together young filmmakers who came to Yamagata for a program 12 years before and got them back together to see where they are now. Matsue Tetsuaki was part of that bunch. And there was whole lot more in the way of formal programs and events, but much of the action and chat takes place at on of the best watering holes in all of Japan, the Komian Bar, where every night after the final screening, basically everyone gets down to continue the discussion until well into the wee hours.

The festival The festival closed with a screening of "Regarding the Lives of Others," a bit of a hagiography of Tsuchimoto Noriaki, most famous for his series of films on Minamata. but the film channelled a palpable excitement following Noriaki and his generation's invention of committed documentary cinema. Having his longtime cameraman, the generous and slightly cranky Otsu Koshiro on hand for chat and comment only added to the screening.

Again, Yamagata pulled off another amazing festival. Next year, the program is replayed in Tokyo. And in two years, the 13th edition unveils itself. I can hardly wait.

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