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Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Film Critics' Workshop: Day 1

From one of the world's outstanding documentary festivals come reports from three new, young critics.

For the first time this year, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, which began on October 6, is hosting a Film Critics’ Workshop. Six participants—three writing in Japanese, three writing in English—were chosen to watch, discuss, and write about documentary films under the mentorship of professional critics. Starting today and continuing for the next three days, the English-language texts from the workshop will appear in Notebook.

Here is the first batch of reports from one of the world’s outstanding documentary film festivals, by three writers who are relatively new to writing about cinema.

My Own City

Stranger in My Own City: Sameera Jain’s My Own City

I am in my own city, but why do people keep gazing at me like a stranger? This is the constant incongruity haunting the experience of the leading character, a female driver in Delhi, of My Own City (Mera Apna Sheher).

The use of hidden cameras in the film contributes a lot to such a sense of alienation. The most obvious reason to use such cameras is to capture some subtle details that might get consciously covered up by people, such as the look full of contempt from a street food seller when the heroine wants to eat at his stand with the male customers instead of taking home her food. The hidden-camera images are sketchy and fragile, emphasizing the heroine’s anxiety. The hidden lens, carried sometimes by the cinematographer, sometimes by the actress herself, is usually around waist height, giving an upward view of many scenes. (Imagine how stressful it was when, as children, we looked up at a large crowd of busy, indifferent adults.) The only space in this metropolis that this “stranger” can escape to is her car. There the camera tells how she defines her own way by giving frequent close-ups to the steering wheel and the shift gear.

In this city, women are supposed to be quiet, submissive, and invisible when necessary, a rule this female driver obviously disobeys. Nevertheless, the heroine, though negotiating her gender identity by choosing an unconventional job, is still to a large extent defined by the society. Evidence for this emerges through the camera’s diligent effort to record every piece of jewelry she wears, the traditional Indian dress she’s in, and the color of her nail polish.

Among all the spaces, one shows up most frequently—the street she passes through every day. The camera surveys it in a stationary high-angle shot, with everything subject to change at every minute, mostly by men. They rush on motorbikes, fight over a traffic accident, and more than seven of them pee behind the same tree, while women just keep passing by silently. Director Sameera Jain also repeatedly shows a soccer goal post in a park beside that street, revealing the different behaviors of boys and girls in front of that frame-like shape, to point out that the process of socialization actually starts so early.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” says Simone de Beauvoir. The film starts with this street, and also ends there with a blurry upward view from the hidden camera carried by the heroine, intimating how young girls in this city start becoming a woman, how they become one, and how they betray as a stranger. —Di Wu

Kantoku Shikkaku

80% Pro: Hirano Katsuyuki’s Kantoku Shikkaku

In 1997, Hirano Katsuyuki, a married, middle-aged AV director, and his 26-year-old actress and lover, Hayashi Yumika, set out to cycle from Tokyo to Hokkaido. Two video versions of their trip already exist, the intimate documentary Yumika and its gonzo porno alter ego 41-Day Adultery Bicycle Tour. Hirano’s Kantoku Shikkaku reframes this ambiguous relationship in light of Yumika’s death in 2005.

If we accept the director’s word, then this film is a love letter, so we anxiously wait to see what kind of unorthodox intimacy may emerge. As with any good road trip, there are moments of free-wheeling exhilaration. Handycam set askew atop a rock, the couple strip naked, crisp and exultant in the cold air of Japan’s far north. However, these unencumbered moments are the precious exception. Largely, what we get is two lovers arguing. On a boat, in a tent, under the sky…delivered via the woozy, autofocus, handheld trappings of late capitalist screen “reality.” Largely stripped of the poetic and the erotic, we are left with a pornography of emotion.

Another aesthetically rewarding interlude serves as both a relief and a warning. Yumika steals her first moment behind the camera. Singing child-like, she captures the sunset with an unexpectedly steady hand. It’s a welcome break from the increasingly claustrophobic road trip, but the relief we feel at the director’s sudden absence brings to the fore lingering doubts about the power relations at play. In flashback, a fellow porno director ex-boyfriend asks Yumika how she feels about the trip. “Just work,” she says, hesitating… “well, 80% pro.” Hirano is crestfallen. Surely they go as lovers? Yumika: “well… that’s your fantasy.”

Yumika ostensibly consents to everything, allowing Hirano to shoot her boozing, bawling, pissing, puking, confessing. However, the director flexes his omnipotence by interspersing these ragged moments with intertitles. Ranging from expository to confessionary, Hirano’s white-on-black captions hem in Yumika’s increasingly uncontrollable breakdowns ex post facto, shaping and molding her trauma to fit the director’s version of events. Crucially, a fleeting montage of the couple’s SM-tinged erotic back-catalogue surfaces, raising uncomfortable questions.

It’s 2005,  and once again the camera sits askew upon the ground, this time capturing the discovery of Yumika’s corpse. The still rolling camera records everything, and Yumika’s mother’s raw grief lends the film its first truly shocking moment, pure horror movie excess. Intertitles narrate the director’s breakdown, culminating in a five-year vow of cinematic silence, Kantoku Shikkaku (A Director Disqualified).  A final interview with Yumika’s damaged but eerily philosophical mother, shot in rich HD, hints that new perspectives are possible, but as a broken Hirano reels into the night on Yumika’s bicycle, camera in hand, we are left exhausted and skeptical. —Jamie Morris


Amplified Images of Endurance: He Yuan’s Apuda

Apuda (Apuda de shouhou), by Chinese director He Yuan, may be one of the most subversively naturalistic documentaries playing at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival this year. A 144-minute-long visual poem, the film is about the lives of Apuda, an indigenous Naxi apple farmer in China’s Yunnan Province, and his ailing father. 

Filmed mostly in long takes with a stationary camera placed at either flat or 45-degree angles to the subjects, Apuda focuses on the minutest details of the father and son’s impoverished existence, which include getting up, spitting into a pan, walking in the yard, smoking from a pipe, chatting with visiting relatives, etc. Accompanying the visuals is the copious usage of ambient sounds from other natural and human lives, the sources of which are almost never shown. Language plays a third role here. Apuda and his father speak in a minimalist manner, often repeating phrases. Occasionally, a self-revelation is muttered, such as Apuda’s father calling his life “absurd.” However, these occasions are scarce, and for the most part, language is just another element of the film’s sound design instead of a track of its own. He Yuan’s documentary aesthetic thus emerges—showing life as a series of amplified still images.

He Yuan displays astounding patience in his observations. The deliberately slow scenes of daily activities gradually reveal that Apuda’s father is teetering on the end of life, even though he still has the stubborn attitudes of a needy patriarch. Apuda, constantly hounded by flies wherever he goes, carries himself with a certain existential dignity despite his hardship. He has heavy eyelids that conceal a defiant gaze, and he is attuned (or at least thinks he is) to the business calculations of an apple farmer. 

With its dense images and sedate rhythm, Apuda will demand the viewer’s utmost patience and willpower to decipher. More often than not, the oppressive emphasis on details forces the viewer to try to find meanings in parts where none can be extrapolated.

In the portrayal of Apuda’s father’s death at the end of the film, He Yuan breaks from the living-quarter vis-à-vis that has been the film’s predominant style, and dots in images of nature and mourning, which though well composed, seem overly artful, a forceful attempt to bring the film to a more cosmos-reaching resolution. It might have been better to simply end the film without them. For while death is inevitable and unsurprising, it is Apuda’s perseverance in the face of crushing wretchedness that inspires our reverence.  —Ian Wang

The idea for the workshop sounds great. I’d love to hear more about the mentorship, such as comments and general strategies.
The workshop is built around the premise of giving the participants practical experience as critic-journalists covering the film festival. Every day they meet with the mentors and work on the texts they’ve written for that day. Then everyone decides on the next round of assignments. On Saturday, participants attended a symposium on documentary film criticism featuring filmmakers, scholars, and critics. Today (Monday) all the workshop members will get together to discuss a single film. The mentor’s role involves, e.g., helping the participants write about cinema, within the space limitations of a short article (imposed by the Daily Bulletin of the festival which is printing some of the texts), in a coherent and interesting way. Getting them to focus on concrete details of image and sound. Helping them think through their responses to a film and complete thoughts that are not yet complete.
Excellent. Wish I could take part. Good luck. I’m looking forward to the rest of the entries.

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