Though the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival goes on until October 13, the Film Critics’ Workshop at the festival winds up today with three articles. The first covers a widely attended and much-discussed program of films and discussions dealing with the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and the subsequent nuclear disaster. The second and third are reviews of Mehran Tamadon’s Bassidji, a study of Iran’s guardians of morality, and Zhang Mengqi’s Self-Portrait with Three Women, a Chinese director’s interrogation of identity.
Facing the Earthquake: “Cinema with Us” at the YIDFF
In reference to the festival’s strong local community base, “Cinema with Us” was the title chosen for the special program of screenings at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival on the topic of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. For the many audience members who live in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region, the disaster still looms large. For those who had traveled further, the occasional throb of a military helicopter passing overhead served as a concrete reminder of Yamagata’s physical proximity to the disaster, even though, insulated by a full 360-degree curtain of mountains, the city sometimes seems like a long way from anywhere.
According to Yamagata-based festival director Takahashi Takuya, unsolicited submissions documenting the disaster began arriving at the office soon after the quake. The festival directors opted not to curate, and the films were presented as received. Twenty-nine works will screen over six days at the festival. Fujioka Asako, director of the festival’s Tokyo office, also chaired “Facing the Earthquake,” a two-part symposium that helped bring filmmakers and activists together with locals and visitors in order to contextualize the works and identify potential issues for further debate.
In Hurray! Hurray! Yamada: The Cheerleading Club of the Hosei (Fure fure Yamada – wasurenai tame no eizo kiroku), director Miki Shigenori follows a Tokyo high school cheerleading team as they visit their sister school in the tsunami-struck town of Yamada in Iwate Prefecture. In the first section, “A Record of Memories not to Forget,” the camera focuses on the performers, largely resisting the urge to dwell on the faces of the refugees. Responding to a raucous Japanese take on “Yankee Doodle,” the applause is reserved. In the second section, a collection of interviews with the young performers entitled “What they Thought,” one student admits that the club struggled to find an appropriate volume for the performances.
Similar missteps in tone characterized Japanese television’s response to the disaster. Fujioka chose to open the first symposium by quoting critic Kitakoji Takashi, who questioned the obvious gulf between the initial raw disaster footage and the polished mainstream-television “tear-jerkers” that followed soon after. But how to find an appropriate documentary grammar? Panelist and director Mori Tatsuya struggled to describe the trauma of the scene firsthand. The smell, the constant tectonic rumbling, the 360-degree destruction. All these, Mori suggested, will never be adequately conveyed by a medium comprising a series of individual frames.
A point not addressed by the panel–among the documentaries screened, one particular kind of shot occurred over and over again: a long, slow tracking sweep, usually filmed from the window of a slowly moving car. This approach was taken to what may be an extreme in Lives after the Tsunami (Tsunami no ato ni). In the devastated coastal areas around Ishinomaki, director Morimoto Shuichi’s camera tracks across a seemingly endless wasteland. When roads become impassable, he attaches his camera to a bicycle and continues tracking through the flooded streets.
Formally, these camera movements are perfectly suited to the endless panorama of the tsunami’s destructive path. Ethically, however, these shots reenforce the gross disjuncture between the perspectives of the out-of-town observer and of the local victim. The traversing lens paralyzes its human subjects, frozen gumboot-clad before a backdrop of destroyed vehicles.
Morimoto said at the symposium that initially he had intended only to document his journey, but an increasing sense of guilt compelled him to begin to approach survivors. In Lives after the Tsunami, a taciturn man encountered at an emergency well seems to accommodate the sudden intrusion. As he hesitatingly reveals details about his lost son, grief quickly turns to anger towards the town mayor. “You can't just pop in to the areas that are ok, shake the hands of some evacuees. You have to come and see the worst of it.” Arriving at the gutted shell of a primary school, Morimoto surreptitiously films bereaved parents as they clear out a child’s locker. “Please don’t film us,” the woman politely asks. Morimoto turns the camera toward a nearby mirror, but the gesture comes too late.
311 takes Tokyo tourist reflexivity to an extreme. Mori Tatsuya, Yasuoka Takaharu, Watai Takeharu, and Matsubayashi Yoju hop in a car together two weeks after the disaster. (The participants claimed that they had not planned on making a documentary, but simply decided to go to see the disaster zone “with their own eyes.”) With the directors compulsively filming each other as they go, their rapid-fire four-way conversations play out within the safety of the car. These early scenes perfectly capture the nervous banality of Tokyo life in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
Heading north, the beeps of the twin geiger counters start to slur together, and Yasuoka uses his press credentials to gain access to the Fukushima exclusion zone. The filmmakers’ homemade plastic suits, amateurish attempts at DIY radiation control, impede the camerawork. Eight kilometers from the nuclear plant, faces swathed in duct tape, they make an emergency stop to change a flat tire. The film has turned into a black comedy about Tokyo radiation fears.
With the filmmakers’ arrival at the tsunami zone, however, the tourist approach reaches its nadir. Mori and Yasuoka trail the recovery effort, twin cameras peering though the rubble trying to catch a glimpse of the unseeable dead. At the symposium, by way of justification, Mori vividly described his participation in terms of his own deteriorating state of mind. Depressed in Tokyo, two weeks glued to the television, suffering from “a fictitious post-traumatic stress disorder.” Pressed on the ethics of these scenes, Mori assured the symposium audience that “when we shot, we were aware of our position as the aggressors.” Yasuoka’s comment was frank: “I felt like a hyena, waiting for bodies to shoot.” Fujioka relayed the response of an angry Tohoku audience member who attacked the film’s egotistic conceit: “This is not about us, it is something you created out of your own head.”
The many unresolved problems raised during the symposium were a reminder that the YIDFF “Cinema with Us” program is a work in progress. New perspectives will emerge from the disaster zone, and Takahashi said that late entries would be collated and later screened. He and Fujioka have also discussed producing an edited version. Perhaps most importantly, “Cinema with Us” marks the beginning of a new archive, a challenge to documentary criticism and an important locus for future research. —Jamie Morris
Men of Contradiction: Mehran Tamadon’s Bassidji
Bassidji, by Mehran Tamadon, an Iranian who left the country when he was 12, is based on one question: Why is Iran today so divided by religious and political differences among its citizens? Tamadon seeks his answers through a series of dialogues with people of the Basiji faction, the most passionate supporters of Iran’s current hard-line government. We may remember them as the bike gangs who rode through Tehran to suppress the election protests a few summers ago.
Early images of the film show Bassorah, a famed battleground of the Iraq-Iran War where the Basiji militias fought, now strewn with tanks, cannons, bunkers, and other relics of war, amid which imams stand preaching. Tamadon speaks to a man who answers all questions the same way: “People owe everything to the martyrs.” On a scaffold where tourists gawk at Iraq across the river (next to a billboard saying “America Can’t Do a Damned Thing”), another man laments the fall of Iranian youth to Western cultural invasions. Under the sound of bombs exploding, a man says, “there are evils plotting against Iran, every moment.”
Back in Tehran, Tamadon goes into the Nasr district, the Basijis’ stronghold. We see tender images of the Basijis in their daily routines, such as cooking and tea making, carried out in affectionate ways that almost contradict their ideological militancy. But whenever a Basiji displays a humane, compassionate side, it gets quickly suppressed. The best segment of the film takes place inside a propagandist publishing house. In a set-up that’s similar to the TV-studio scene in Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Tamadon plays the Basijis audio recordings of questions from their ideological opponents, such as “What would make the Basijis stop acting like victims?” or (from a woman) “Why can’t they look at me in the eye?” Tamadon brilliantly captures the Basijis’ befuddled reactions to the questions and the clumsy verbiage they use in their defense, creating a hilarious fusing of the real and the absurd.
Wherever Tamadon goes, the responses by the Basijis are the same. They mock his questions or respond with roundabout phrases. It’s frustrating that we may never know the real motives of the Basijis, since their ideological barrier and their awareness of Tamadon’s camera never allow the discussions to go beyond the superficial. But the greatest achievement of the film lies in revealing the Basijis to be a contradictory group of people, forever trapped in the denial of their own more human sides out of fidelity to a system of beliefs that they themselves have no explanations for. —Ian Wang
Age of Uncertainty: Zhang Mengqi’s Self-Portrait with Three Women
Finding oneself is among the eternal themes in the spiritual world of people in their early twenties. I was eager to see Self-Portrait with Three Women, by 23-year-old Chinese director Zhang Mengqi, because I wanted to see how Zhang, who shares the same age, gender, and nationality with me, answers questions that have been haunting me and probably everyone who has been through this age, since long before. Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going?
Unfortunately, the film did not help resolve my confusions. Although the director, who also narrates the film, states at the beginning that she is making this self-portrait to understand her own life, she ends up adding to the complexity of her mission by inviting too many topics into the film without budgeting their proportions according to their relevance and importance. The generation gap, which the YIDFF catalogue picked up as the main theme, is presented by the differences among three generations–the heroine, her mother, and her grandmother–in education, politics, and cultural values. Such subtopics are narrated in a similar way to other major topics, such as body, sex, and relationships. This very complexity reveals the filmmaker’s anxiety and depression, yet leaves the audience uncertain about the intention of the work.
Her distinct style of visualizing these themes consists of a kind of performance art, involving sanitary napkins, blowing up a condom like a balloon, and Zhang scanning her face with a flatbed scanner or dancing with her body contorted. But this performance seems to be more about presenting Zhang’s strong curiosity about her own body than working with the topics she has raised.
The director makes an obvious attempt to experiment with various cinematographic devices, some of which seem to be used for their own sake. The use of the girl’s mother’s image imposed on her body portrays how her mother transfers her own hopes to the daughter and how the fates of different generations overlap, which is also expressed by laying on top of one another the surfaces of a digital video screen, a glass window or a mirror, and the film screen. Zhang continues to repeat such devices even when the topic of the narration has moved on, blurring the clarity of her discourse. Sometimes the meaning gets disturbed by technique. In an interview in the YIDFF’s Daily Bulletin, Zhang said that she regards projecting her mother’s image on herself as a dialogue between different generations, but to me it is more understandable as another articulation of her claim of being burdened with her mother’s dreams.
Nevertheless, I got completely captured by one scene in this film, which takes off the mask of acting, forgets the concerns about techniques, and resonates with the voices down deep in my heart. That is when Zhang recalls writing a self-critical report after making “an unforgivable mistake” by dating a boy at the age of 15. She sits in the center of the screen, writing every single word of that shameful report with red pen on her own body, hastily and anxiously, meanwhile reading these words out louder and louder, finally to the extent of shouting. The words she’s yelling are mostly positive and promising: “I will be a good girl! I’ll listen to mom and study hard!” However, her trembling, breathless voice suggests that she’s almost crying. At this moment, her multiple identities–the performer, the artwork of herself, and the director–unite as one, the daughter. This, I believe, is the pure, natural, and thus real reaction of the director facing the ghost of that painful memory, which is more striking and powerful than the unnecessary sophistication in some other scenes. —Di Wu