Toward a Common Tenderness: An Interview with Kaori Oda

Mentored by Béla Tarr and recipient of the Nagisa Oshima prize, the Japanese documentarian comes into her own with her immersive new film.
Aiko Masubuchi
Cenote
Spending time with filmmaker Kaori Oda, you often hear her reminding herself to thank those who have helped her. In a director's comment, Oda states that showing her debut feature, ARAGANE (2015) is her way of repaying the generosity of the Bosnian miners who showed her their work. Experiencing her films which so far have all been shot, edited and (except for one short film) sound-designed by Oda herself, Oda is clearly a gifted artist but it seems just as true that her work is made to be a gift to the people she worked with.
Her gifts are deservedly being recognized. One notable collaborator is her mentor Béla Tarr, who she studied under at the Hungarian filmmakers' short-lived film school, film.factory. ARAGANE was made during her time at the film school in Sarajevo and since its release, Oda has drawn other heavyweight fans including Apichatpong Weersathakul, and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (the latter who has continuously, on numerous occasions, vocally praised her work). Domestically too, Oda just won the inaugural Nagisa Oshima Prize for exciting new filmmakers whose jury was headed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and consisted of Keiko Araki, the director of Pia Film Festival, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
When asked at International Film Festival Rotterdam about how she feels about her most recent work Cenote being categorized as a documentary, Oda responded that she likes to call her work "films" but for the sake of clarity, she sometimes explains that her films are "experimental documentaries." Oda's oeuvre of three features and four short films to date, are certainly far from the conventional talking head documentary. Her first film, the 38 minute long Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), which won the Audience Award at Nara International Film Festival, employed reenactments by her family members, two weeks after her coming out to them about being gay. ARAGANE was mostly wordless and filled with the clanging sounds of metal and the hammering of drills echoing through a Bosnian mine. In 2017, she used the film medium to reflect on her actions as a filmmaker and cameraperson, producing an essay film just as probing and poetic as its title, Toward a Common Tenderness. Formally, Cenote, shot in Super-8mm and an iPhone X, lands somewhere between her last two features. It is at times observational, accompanied only by the sound of bubbling water and at others, overlaid with an evocative voice-over by a girl reciting lines from ancient Mayan poetry and lines that Oda had scripted based on her research and experiences of the natural sinkholes in Mexico called cenotes.
On the year that marks a decade since making her first film, we sat down with Oda after her international premiere of Cenote at IFFR, to discuss her filmmaking trajectory so far, the nature of her collaborations and on the making of Cenote.

NOTEBOOK: How did filmmaking start for you?
KAORI ODA: I had been playing basketball since I was in elementary school but in my junior year of high school, I injured my foot. I had multiple surgeries but they told me that that’s it for me and basketball. Up until then, I was only doing basketball and so I was pondering about what to do next. And I said to myself that the next thing I do will be something I can continue for the rest of my life. So I started doing a lot of things, like drawing and making animations. And I started playing with film cameras and video cameras. That was when I thought that if I stayed in Japan, I’ll lose sight of myself. I was attending a two-year college at the time and was planning on transferring to a four-year college but I decided to also apply to schools in the U.S. And I got in so I transferred to Hollins University, a liberal arts school in Virginia.
I had to do a senior thesis there to graduate and that was when I chose to use the camera. That summer, I went home and came out to my family that I was gay and the experience of that was so intense that I wondered if I can do something related to it. That was how I made my reenactment film, Thus a Noise Speaks. My family and I made the film together two weeks after me coming out. That experience made me think that cameras are amazing and made me want to continue with it.

NOTEBOOK: And you weren’t interested in movies until then?
ODA: I would borrow DVDs from the video store with my friends, but I rarely went to the movie theaters then.
NOTEBOOK: After that, how long did it take for you to make the next piece?
ODA: I made one or two shorts with my friends but I was feeling that they weren’t quite right. I had never been to film school so I started to think that I wanted to study filmmaking but I didn’t know where to go.
Then, the Nara International Film Festival [started by director Naomi Kawase] screened Thus a Noise Speaks and there’s a man there called Shinji Kawakita who had recently gone to Busan with director Kawase. I think director Kawase was a juror there and the head of the jury was Béla [Tarr]. Béla had already made The Turin Horse and he was saying that he was going to retire and start a film school. In a taxi, Béla asked Shinji to have good candidates apply to the school. When Shinji told me about it, I said, “I’ll do it.” I didn’t have any funds lined up but I went ahead and sent Thus a Noise Speaks.
NOTEBOOK: When was that?
ODA: I was in Sarajevo from the winter of 2012, so I think I received the acceptance letter in October of 2011.
NOTEBOOK: How was being at the film.factory?
ODA: More than filmmaking, Sarajevo itself made a huge impression on me. It re-confirmed to me about the power that a place can have. And of course, really distinguished coaches came to visit and imparted their philosophy and filmmaking techniques to us but what I’m most grateful about was being able to meet people of my generation who had been making films in their own countries who, like myself, were still experimenting and feeling lost at times, wondering how they should live out their lives. But seeing that despite these worries, everyone seemed to be unable to escape filmmaking, it made me think… oh, I guess that’s just how it is. That was really big for me.
NOTEBOOK: You didn’t think you would continue making films until then?
ODA: No. I really only thought that I will continue to make films after my experience in Sarajevo.
NOTEBOOK: Was there an incident?
ODA: After making Thus a Noise Speaks, I always had something unresolved inside of me and so I decided to make an essay film. After making that, I thought, oh, I’m going to continue this.
NOTEBOOK: That was your film, Toward a Common Tenderness [2017]?
 ODA: Yeah.
Cenote
NOTEBOOK: So you were able to process a lot of things by making that film?
ODA: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: That film does directly ask questions about what a film is and why you continue to film. Why did you choose to make a film about these questions?
ODA: Because it was through filmmaking that I started thinking about these things in the first place. It was the same with basketball:  I believe that once you start something, you have to continue at it for a while to know what’s within your abilities. So I thought I’d continue doing it until I felt like I had to give up. In order to think about what I was going to do next and reflect on the things I had been doing for the last three years in film, I chose to do so using the camera.
NOTEBOOK: I’m going to take us back one step because before Toward A Common Tenderness was your film ARAGANE. Can you talk about that? Does this mean that you didn’t necessarily think you will go into the life of filmmaking when you made it? It was more like a school project?
ODA: Well, that film was in some ways my thesis film at film.factory but I had actually already been pursuing the film before we entered the thesis-making period. Béla had given us a task to do an adaptation of a short story and he gave me The Bucket Rider by Franz Kafka. It was about a poor person living in a cold room who goes to get coal from a coal seller. So as part of this research, I went to a coal mine and through that I realized that I liked the coal mine or rather, that I liked the world underground. So then we talked about shooting something there. It didn’t feel like a conscious effort, rather that it was the natural course that it took since I was in Sarajevo to make films.
NOTEBOOK: What made you decide to shoot the way you did ARAGANE? It shares a lot in terms of style with your new film, Cenote. They’re both very physical and immersive.
ODA: Again, it wasn’t necessarily an intentional thing, rather, it was my relationships to the coal miners and the coal mine that dictated the style. When I say relationship, I mean things like whether we share the same language or how dangerous the work might be or how close I can get to something. Those things change how I communicate. Regarding the miners, I was only filming them inside the mines and it wasn’t like I followed them back home to also film their private life. I was filming their work and it was also my work to film them.
NOTEBOOK: How were you able to get access?
ODA: I wrote to them once and they said, “Come on in.”
NOTEBOOK: It seems so easy! Were there things you couldn’t do or places you couldn’t go?
ODA: Many. But generally I wasn’t acting by myself and there was a person who acted as my guide who would go down with me and I would follow him. When there was a place I wanted to film, I’d tap him to ask to stop and let me film.
NOTEBOOK: Looking at your output so far, you began with a very personal film (Thus a Noise Speaks, 2010)  and then you made shorts with your friends, then went to Sarajevo and made a film (ARAGANE, 2015). After that, you returned to making a very personal essay film (Toward a Common Tenderness, 2017) and now you've made Cenote in Mexico. Is this modulation between introspection and looking outwards something that is important to you? Will your next work be another personal investigation?
ODA: When you’re filming others, it of course still comes from a subjective place but when I’m shooting others… there are moments while doing it that I start to question myself. It’s not like I’m filming to make a judgement about anything but I think that intermittently, we experience times when these questions around what our actions say about us come about.
NOTEBOOK: After making Cenote, do you have these questions again?
ODA: No. I think Cenote was a good mix for me. I was filming people I did not know in a land I was not familiar with, but I believe there is an essayistic element to the film because after all, there are things that I had written into the film. I’m at a phase right now where I’ve started to think that even without filming myself or talking about myself directly, expression can carry something about me. When I watch Cenote, I think that there’s a lot of me in it. For example, just how naive the film feels.
NOTEBOOK: There are spoken words by a young girl throughout the film but where do those words come from?
ODA: At times she’s reciting poetry from ancient Mayan poems and some other times, I asked her to read sentences that I wrote after listening to the interviews that I did and read the transcripts.
Cenote
NOTEBOOK: You said during the festival Q&A that you added the words last. Can you talk more about this process and how you edited the words?
ODA: I had a handful of drafts but when it came to recording the words, I asked her to record everything that I had written. We recorded it sentence by sentence so when I started by working on the words, I began to get really confused as I puzzled the sentences together. So I decided to picture-lock first then add the sound and then to think about the text that wouldn’t off-set the rest. That’s the only way I could do it this time around.
NOTEBOOK: What else did you try until you came to that conclusion?
ODA: For example, people who can write—who can use words to express—will write the words first or write a script and they’re able to build something from there. But with my current writing abilities, I could only write words that were restrictive. They didn’t expand. But with images, even though it might be infrequent, I felt that when people saw them, there were different ways to encounter them. I couldn’t find the words that had the same effect...at least at the time. When I wrote blue, it was only blue. So, I thought I couldn’t begin with writing and I decided to start with image and sound which was how I had been making films until now anyway.
NOTEBOOK: A lot of people, myself included, have been calling your work immersive and experiential. The way the camera moved and the way the shots were edited together felt almost intuitive to me. Do you edit intuitively?
ODA: Yes. Which is why I asked the editor Takeshi Hata to join me for this project. I’m unable to build things logically and in order to build logically, you need words. I wasn’t able to explain that “this is this way because of this.” So I asked Takeshi to watch my film multiple times and he responded by saying things like, “perhaps consciously or unconsciously, you’re thinking about these things here.” I then refined my work using his responses.
NOTEBOOK: While watching Cenote, one moment where I felt some kind of logic appear was your use of an animal sound, maybe a cow? It appeared at the beginning and towards the end too. Something about the recurrence gave me the feeling of the underwater world and the world above water come together. Can you talk more about your use of sound?
ODA: That wasn’t a cow but the sound of a howling monkey. They live in tropical jungles. Underwater and above water; the dead and the living; this life and the afterlife, whatever those words may be doesn’t matter to me but I wanted to create moments in the film where two worlds intersected. I sort of see the footage taken with me making all these bubbles in the water as representative of the perspective of the living. But I wanted moments where my perspective as a living person became that of the dead. The sound of the howling monkeys that come in during the film is related to the idea. Also towards the end, there’s a shot where the camera continues to follow these fish in the dark. That shot, I put in consciously with intention. But it was Takeshi who helped me understand why I was doing that.
When I was filming the fish too, I was just thinking "oh, there’s fish." And while they swam in circular movements, I followed them. It wasn’t clear to me while I was filming but when I saw the footage, I realized that my body with the camera was often synchronized with them. They felt like moments when I no longer was an alien object in the space. Nor was the camera. I realized in my edits, that I was gathering footage where I could sense this synchronicity from the image; the inability to differentiate between worlds.
NOTEBOOK: This is a new way of working for you? Until this work, you were editing by yourself, no?
ODA: Generally speaking, yeah. I also of course showed Béla my work but his advice isn’t like Takeshi’s. Béla will look at the shots and give advice on which ones are good and bad. Takeshi on the other hand is less about the shots. He's more concerned about the film’s essence. Though, he did give some concrete advice too about lengthening or shortening shots. I would try them and some of them stuck.
NOTEBOOK: You don’t speak Spanish or Mayan so I assume you worked with translators. Can you talk about that process?
ODA: It was difficult! [laughs] Generally speaking, on set, there was my Mexican friend and producer, Marta Hernaiz, her younger friend from the region and another local person who sort of acted as our guide. So I would talk to Marta in English who would speak to her friend and to our guide in Spanish. Then they would speak in Mayan to people who only spoke Mayan. It was rare to meet people who only spoke Mayan but there were some people in the older generation. As a result of this process, whatever would come back to me was a super summarized version of what was being said. We didn’t have that much time and I felt bad keeping people waiting because the translation was taking up time. Consequently, I didn’t really know all that was said until I read the transcript. It must have been a lot of work to transcribe everything.
NOTEBOOK: So you must have had a lot of discoveries and learned a lot after reading the transcripts.
ODA: Certainly. But there were also a lot that I didn’t understand even after I read the transcript. When I asked our assistant to clarify, he said he didn’t understand it either. In many of the myths and legends, chronology can be elusive and people often seemed to just suddenly appear. Sometimes people told us stories that worked like these myths and they were sometimes scary to read.
NOTEBOOK: How did you manage the fact that there was so much that you didn’t know? Was there a fear about the violence of the camera and perhaps the documentary form creating assumptions around things that you don’t understand?
ODA: I’ve been thinking about the violence of the camera from my very first work and because of that, I think I have a certain amount of decisiveness about it or rather, I generally know where I draw the line. Since I’m the one operating the camera, I believe that I’m the sole one who will be judged by the image. So, I make films thinking that. Is what I’m doing a beautiful thing or an ugly thing? Is there something sly about the way I’m shooting? I’m always thinking about whether I should or should not record something.
NOTEBOOK: What do you mean by sly? That you’re only thinking about yourself?
ODA: Yeah, or perhaps it’s when the injury would be more slight for me. It’s not that I think that one shouldn’t push matters or step into matters. I think these moments of friction are human interactions and they sometimes occur. But I don’t believe that these frictions should be created by staging things. I believe they occur naturally. And when those moments arise and I have the courage and ability to live with filming it, I believe I should film it.
NOTEBOOK: Shifting the conversation slightly, I know you have created portrait paintings along with this film.
ODA: I worked on Cenote for about three years but I was only in Mexico for about three months. I kept going whenever I was able to find some funds. While I was in Japan, I would re-watch the footage, create timelines and read the transcripts but there wasn’t much I could do other than that. If I did all this work every day on a strict schedule, I think I would have finished everything that I could do in about a week. But… I’m the kind of person who wants to commit to something every day, little by little. So, when I tried to think of something I can do by myself, in my free time, that wouldn’t cost a lot of money… I landed on drawing. I was starting to consciously think about what it must have been like to be a girl who was sacrificed in a cenote.
NOTEBOOK: So the portrait paintings that you made weren’t of people you actually met?
ODA: No, it’s of people I had heard stories about or people I had read about. I made them imagining what it might have been like to dissolve into the water.
NOTEBOOK: Have you shown the film to the people who appear in it?
ODA: The film screens in March in Mexico at FICUNAM but the region where the people who appear in the film live don’t have movie theaters, let alone television. So Marta and I have been talking about alternative ways to screen the film. We’ve been discussing a sort of road trip-style format where we travel around and screen the film ourselves to them since they can’t watch the film even if we were to give them a DVD. What I have shared with them already are portrait photographs that I had taken of them that I asked to take as a record. I’m still figuring out the best way to share the film with everyone.
NOTEBOOK: They all knew that you were making a film about cenotes?
ODA: Yes. I said that at the center of the film are the cenotes and the communities and cultures around them and asked if they would be willing to help us.
NOTEBOOK: And you first learned about cenotes from your friend, Marta?
ODA: Marta is from Mexico City and I’m not sure if she found out about cenotes from someone she knows but her younger friend who helped us out as an assistant was from the Merida region which is where many of the cenotes are located.
NOTEBOOK: How many cenotes are there?
ODA: Thousands!
NOTEBOOK: How did you choose which cenotes to film?
ODA: We went to a few touristy ones but I thought these won’t do and so we started asking the people there about private cenotes that were owned by families or by villages. You have to pay an entrance fee but they also let us shoot in them. During my first trip, we really pushed ourselves and we went to about 25 cenotes but we didn’t go to as many in my subsequent trips so maybe it was about 40 overall.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any scary incidents? Some of the stories that are told about the cenotes in the film were about people disappearing in them.
ODA: Honestly, when you’re floating all by yourself in a vast and deep spring, it’s scary. You don’t know what’s below you even though the water was very clear. One time, when we decided that I’ll shoot underwater using the 8mm camera, I knew I had no room for error, so we asked everybody to move away and I swam into the water by myself. I swam to the center of the cenote and decided to stop there for a bit. I was completely stationary and there were no winds or waves because it was in a cave. But for some reason I was swiftly pulled to the right. That was really scary.
There was also a time when we interviewed a shaman and he appeared in Marta’s dreams. He told her where she had left her glasses.
NOTEBOOK: And were the glasses really there?
ODA: Yeah. She had forgotten them at a cenote.
That was an unsettling experience. Other than that, it was always a possibility that we could die if we weren’t careful or if we panicked too much. So I conditioned myself to not panic the entire time we were shooting.
NOTEBOOK: But you like dark places don’t you?
ODA: I like the light in dark places. I like to play with light.

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Kaori OdaInternational Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2020Festival CoverageInterviewsLong Reads
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