Who is the author of a documentary film? This was just one question that arose repeatedly during the week of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. I’ll give it its full English name just that once, which gives it its internet domain of yidff.jp. But “Yamagata film festival” is all that is needed to distinguish it from the city and prefecture in northern Japan which share its name. Yamagata was early into the select world of documentary festivals in 1989 and it has been held biennially since but, surprisingly, has not been covered here before.

In the week in October in which it is held it is only possible for one person to see a small fraction of the films being shown. I will discuss some of these later but first I thought it would be helpful to readers to give an idea of how the festival itself is performed.

Yamagata is a small city in the central northern highlands of Japan’s main island, Honshū. It is served very conveniently from Tokyo by shinkansen trains that are detached quickly at a junction, before winding into the central hills at a more conventional speed. Lest I am accused of any cover-up, I should mention that this junction is Fukushima – the city that shares its name with its own large prefecture.

Yamagata festival itself has roots in the radical outlook of the Japanese independent documentary movement but the festival has never been purely Japanese and, prompted originally by Ogawa Shinsuke, has been at the forefront of promoting Asian documentary. Its main competition has always been an open one and has featured documentaries of filmmakers recognised around the world.

I did not spot the TV network buyers that drive the market at other documentary festivals and Yamagata is not a big-money festival – the atmosphere is friendly and collegiate with film directors mixing in with staff, volunteers, contributors and audience. Ironically, it was at a UK event that curator, Hussain Currimbhoy described his Sheffield venue as a “small town, where no one can hide”. As a Canadian, he could get away with that. I think, as a mere southerner, I would have been lynched if I had said that in Sheffield. The inhabitants of Yamagata however seem willing to describe their city as small, are conscious of their Tōhoko region being an economic backwater even before the triple disasters, and are proud of their festival, even if documentary film-viewing remains a minority taste.

Kōmian Club

Kōmian Club

The one area where there seems to have been money-a-plenty in Yamagata is in the construction of halls. An audience of several hundred gets lost in the larger theatres of Yamagata. Perhaps that is what has led to the popularity of the “Kōmian Club”. Late at night, a crowd larger than I saw at any one film crushes into a Japanese inn that is little more than a corridor, a couple of small siderooms and one attic. A rich mixture of conversation with filmmakers, academics and enthusiasts was on offer for a very modest entrance fee [stills here, short video here]. Even the overspill crowd outside consisted mostly of non-smokers. I still haven’t cracked smoke-free areas in most of Japan, which bear no obvious correlation to the displayed characters for kin’en, but Yamagata film festival and its Kōmian club are almost entirely smoke-free.

At this point it is time to confess that your correspondent is no linguist and that Japanese and others from many places were more than happy to open a conversation in English, if necessary with the aid of one of the interpreters who were on hand. All films and events are translated into English, as well as Japanese where necessary. At film Q&As – which seemed to be the rule rather than the exception – there was consecutive translation. I was a bit slow to realise that discussions were one better, with simultaneous translations through radio ear-pieces.

Films were subtitled in English with Japanese “subtitles” at their usual place on the right-hand-side. The English subtitles provided by the festival were markedly superior in fluency and legibility to several of those others provided by the films’ distributors.

More than ten films and events were put on simultaneously at a number of venues that were no more than a few minutes’ walk from each other. The timekeeping of events was exemplary. Old hands from other festivals should be warned that, aided by the briefest of festival trailers, the film was always under way within a minute of the advertised time, announcements for Q&As together with offers of translators – having been made before the start. This scheduling always gave time for the entire work, including translation credits, to be given (London, Sheffield and Pordenone please note).

I need to say, however, that the overall calendar of the festival includes some padding. The 2013 festival was billed from 10-17 October. If you booked a hotel from the 9th to the 17th, expecting the program would cover those dates, you would have some film-free periods (which has its attractions). In many ways, the festival happens over a long weekend, with the International Competition entries bunched from Friday to Monday. Other strands run longer and I got lucky. With an unerring ability to dip on the winners, I could watch prize-winners all day on the last Thursday.

But that is all day, and not all evening. For every other festival I have ever been to, the peak audience time is the evening, for shows starting around 8pm. That includes the Yamagata in Tokyo mini-festival that happens on each Yamagata “off-year”. However, although a small media viewing room for press is open until 9pm, the festival shows no films after 8pm. The festival’s director, Fujioka Asako, indicated that they would reconsider this in the future.

Before I get to a discussion of some films, there is one more matter on the reception side that needs to be confessed. Should you come from Europe, you’ll have some eleven hours flying east, the worst possible test of jet lag. I could foresee that watching long documentaries after such a flight would create problems and I came a day early but it was not enough for my decaying body.

With Japanese daylight in October being from 5am to 5pm, and most Japanese restaurants and offices of the “construction state” having no natural light, there never seemed to be enough opportunity for my brain to get daylight exposure to readjust. If you were a film director needing to be lively for a couple of events plus Kōmian Club, I think it was manageable. But a European-based critic needs a week’s acclimatisation in the mountain resorts of the Tohoku region.

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Coming already with a good claim to being the film of the year, The Act of Killing, along with its director, Joshua Oppenheimer and co-producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen were present. In a continuing stream of awards at festivals, Act of Killing took second prize at Yamagata. Many readers of this site will already have read of the film, or have seen it, as I had at Sheffield. Shot in Indonesia, it focuses on the perpetrators’ accounts of mass killings in the 1960s, using both their testimony, and their own reconstructions using various genres of fiction film. In the process we learn much else, including the dominant political stature of these perpetrators today, the various positions they take to justify their action, and, their continued use of violence and racketeering to subjugate groups including the ethnic Chinese. Above all, we come to see what the carnage meant for victim and perpetrator in an unprecedented and unforgettable way, that leaves no room for subsequent denial by the continuing regime, its benefactors or beneficiaries. I had already learnt in the UK that generous scheduling for Q&A for this film paid off handsomely. The one I attended in Sheffield was rushed and nothing like as illuminating as one in London just before. Listening to the ICA event here will repay anyone with an hour-and-a-half to spare. At Yamagata, Q&As would often adjourn to the foyer after a half-hour or so, and the filmmakers were more than willing to take questions from all comers at Kōmian Club. But for Act of Killing we had, as well as all these, something potentially more dynamic, a two-way discussion between Joshua Oppenheimer and Hara Kazuo, the maker of some of Japan’s more intrusively personal documentaries, including Yuki yukite shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987) whose protagonist, Okuzaki Kenzō , had a uniquely close past to alleged mass-killers whom he pursued – and who, in contrast to Oppenheimer’s Indonesian killers, denied any taint connected to the deaths. The discussion was introduced by Markus (Abé Mark) Nornes, author of two books on Japanese documentary, and whose connection with Yamagata precedes his academic career. This discussion can be heard in a number of Ustream links, along with others from the festival here. Unfortunately, these only record the conversation in the room, not the simultaneous translations, so you will need better Japanese than mine to understand Hara-san’s questions.

But did Oppenheimer engage with them? This is open to question, as Oppenheimer’s answers wandered little from answers that he had given elsewhere. Perhaps my comment on limitations under jet lag apply more widely. As I had seen it, the key question remains: What is different about Oppenheimer’s Indonesian perpetrators – why can they give a completely credible account of slaughter when, from almost everywhere else, we just have either blanket denial or bar-room braggings that are literally incredible (in the latter category, I would include both Imamura’s Miki-kanhei otte – Taihen [In Search of Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand, 1971] shown this year at Sheffield, and Terra de Ninguém [No Man’s Land, 2012], shown at least twice recently in London). When I first put this question to Joshua Oppenheimer in open questions at Sheffield, I had not seen Duch, le maître des forges d’enfer (Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell, 2010) by Rithy Panh. Curiously, at Kampuchea’s jail S21, since even its existence was a secret, the confessions extracted under torture before killing there served no purpose other than as a private moral justification for the torturers’ next act. Nevertheless, I was dissatisfied with Oppenheimer’s response at Sheffield, which characterised his killer’s confession as responding to a universal need for empathy, “empathy is the beginning of love”. Firstly, it didn’t begin to explain what distinguished the frank confessions he had got from the blanket denials found elsewhere. It requires us to believe that every evil-doer, from George W. Bush to Paul Aussaresses, is already troubled by a conscience. Secondly, I profoundly disagree with Oppenheimer on the nature of empathy. Oppenheimer seems to depict empathy as just a more adult manifestation of sympathy. In my opinion, that blurs a crucial distinction that is lost if you depart from defining empathy as the internal modelling of another’s thought. In short, empathy need not be benign, its basal state is probably malign, and in that I side with the mass-killer protagonist of yet another documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons in the Life of Robert S McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003). Sensu McNamara, torturers like Aussaresses could not have been so skilful without empathy.

So, I was glad to be able to put the question again to Joshua Oppenheimer at Kōmian Club – what made the protagonists in The Act of Killing so different? And this time I got a very different answer: because the powers in the outside world have continued to condone the killings. Oppenheimer has his own American media examples, but I can recall headlines in London’s Evening Standard of a million killed in purges in Indonesia. Although the front-page banner headline presumably sold some newspapers, the story didn’t even carry down the short page as the story became “alien”. A regime hostile to the West was being replaced and the costs were carried in a country far away. So, as I understand Oppenheimer, a tacit approval of the outside world has mediated an active approval at home, reinforced by ethnically coded narrative films, such as the one quoted in his film, Pengkhianatan g30s/pki (Arifin C. Noer, 1984).

The discussion between Oppenheimer and Hara was part of a strand at Yamagata called The Ethics Machine: Six Gazes at the Camera. There were also discussions here on Disaster Films and Ethics, led by Saitō Ayako who also participated in the titular “six gazes” discussion with Markus Nornes and British documentarist and academic, Brian Winston. Nornes’ summary of the six gazes can be found in the Yamagata program, online. Whilst Nornes quoted Nichols to say that gazes were more about audiences, Winston said that the crux of a documentarist’s ethics were to the subject, not to the audience, which he illustrated with some critically adverse illustrations.

The relationship between the documentary filmmaker and her or his subject was a constant theme in all the discussions at Yamagata. I thought I could detect a difference between many Asian documentarists and their western counterparts in this relationship. Whilst cultivating a close understanding of their subject or subjects seemed fundamental to them, I could not detect any of the former even considering the possibility of their subjects’ refusal of subsequent consent. I heard no one consider a subject’s consent might need to be over-ridden for their own safety or mental health. Shangfang (Petition, Zhao Liang, 2009) might have been considered for this purpose. Besides this film and Hara’s, the strand included examples by John Lennon/Ono Yōko, Ariel Schulman/Henry Joost, Germán Scelso, Kamei Fumio and Luis Buñuel. Unethical risks to the subject were also put under examination in Brian Winston’s documentary of the filmmaker Robert Flaherty, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen (2011), which came in under invitation films of contributors.

There were strands which a single correspondent could not reasonably visit at all, and I had to decide to leave a retrospective on Chris Marker and an examination of the Arab Spring to writers elsewhere.

The principal strand, the International Competition had fifteen films. The main prize-winner was Tour of Duty by Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae. It paints a picture of life gone by in an abandoned red-light district next to a US base in South Korea. But it does so in a very eccentric way. Although we seem to start with a talking head, that of an old sex-worker giving an account of her mistreatment, it is the landscape of the abandoned district that interests the filmmakers in a highly choreographed movie that does finally have an extended dance scene.

A World Not Ours

A World Not Ours

A’Lamun Laysa Lana (A World Not Ours, Mahdi Fleifel) explored life in a Palestinian refugee camp and also won an award at Yamagata. By daring to follow what might have been a dead format of flashback – home movie, several crucial but mundane truths about living in a camp were conveyed that had hitherto escaped me in many more overtly political films about the camps.

Although these two attracted the jurors, led by Adachi Masao, I noticed that several others shared an interest in borders. Fahtum Pandinsoong (Boundary, Nontawat Numbenchapol) looked at attitudes to the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. As Numbenchapol left Bangkok, it seemed to him that the closer one got, the less it mattered. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to make a film that argues that its subject is unimportant.

A boundary more fluid in a literal sense was explored in Char…No-Man’s Island by Sourav Sarangi on an island in the Ganges between India and Bangladesh. In a place where the land beneath one’s feet is transient, the means to make a living becomes everything and Sarangi has made a fine film by examining the life of one boy in depth – over time, through his family and in his dealings across the water.

Revision by Philip Scheffner brought together a number of themes that were topical to the festival. Without borders, where some people want to prevent transit and others try to cross, the events investigated by Scheffner and his co-writer and producer Merle Kröger would not have happened. Scheffner was not investigating the act of killing itself – that of two Romanian migrants on the German-Polish border. “We didn’t want to take the place of the police or the judge. They should have done their job and they didn’t. We thought the one thing that was missing was space.” But the killings, and the decades of subsequent indifference would not have happened if political dividing lines had not radically moved at the end of the Cold War. Wealthy vacationers from the old West of Germany had found a new happy hunting ground at the new eastern border. They hired a local ex-policeman who chose a place he knew was frequented by illegal border-crossers. Two Romanians were shot and left to die. Was it a recreational killing? In the sense of the hunt in Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, certainly, but was the quarry human? A likely defence could be mounted that commercial ambition to provide a bag of wild boar led to a reckless disregard of human safety but Scheffner’s point is that this defence has never been required to be made.

Scheffner’s previous films, such as The Halfmoon Files (2007), privilege the spoken word in pointed ways. Rather than resort to dark screen, as in that previous film, Scheffner, both in Romania and Germany, films his subjects listening to their own testimony. This, as Scheffner wrote in his introduction, connects the witness to us as spectators both formally and socially.

In the process of our hearing this testimony, the absence of the judicial process around this act of killing becomes foregrounded. We are not spared the different attitudes to Roma families by Romanians but this seems not to be the decisive factor in the victims’ families being excluded from even basic information. The revelation of one particularly damaging neglect is held back in the film to great effect. Scheffner described the context of the killings in the east of Germany amid neo-Nazi violence as “structural violence”. Whether related to the film I cannot say, but I read, as I submit this piece, that the German government has announced a program to re-investigate 746 killings and attempted killings of 849 victims from this period. Revision also took one of the subsidiary prizes at Yamagata.

Space prevents me from describing more films, or indeed some twenty diverse films in the strand New Asian Currents, but I hope I have began to show the advantage of getting up close to filmmakers at Yamagata.

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival
10-17 October 2013
Festival website: http://www.yidff.jp/2013/