To visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea might be a thrilling touristic option for Seoul’s visitors if they feel bored by the repetitive shopping and gourmet options in this vibrant Asian metropolis. Yet the DMZ as a buffer zone, evidence of division and Cold War remnant has also lent its symbolic weight to an emerging film festival – DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs), launched in 2009. Taking Seoul subway line number three to its final stop, we find ourselves in the city of Goyang, which hosted all the DMZ Docs events this year, although the nearby city of Paju co-organised and co-funded the festival.
I want to approach DMZ Docs here as a “projective” film festival (to borrow a concept from Claire Bishop), based on a neo-liberal logic that foregrounds “projects” designed to foster connections, from three angles (1). Firstly, the idea suggests how we can think of film festivals as part of a series of arrangements made by the festival organisers in connecting with the urban setting and the national/regional cultural industries. Secondly, the idea also reinforces our understanding of film festivals as never isolated from global “networking,” both spatially and temporally. A network-based, projective film festival is capable of generating new visions and trends in both content and structure via programming and other events. Thirdly, a project-cantered logic is embodied in and through project markets and pitching sessions.
The relationship between a film festival and its hosting city is always intriguing in the Asian context. As the tenth largest city in Korea, Goyang impresses as a well-planned satellite city, with blocks of modern exhibition centres and shopping malls. Actually, the festival’s main multiplex theatre is located in a mall surrounded by sparse residential quarters and expansive undeveloped land. For sure, the entanglement and tension of the DMZ could be faintly sensed in this modern new town. But what was more strongly felt was Goyang and Paju’s joint official efforts to boost the local cultural industries via the film festival, especially given that Goyang aspires to become “a mecca for broadcasting and visual media in the northeast in the near future,” according to the vice chairman of the film festival Mr Choi, who is also the mayor of Goyang.
Indeed, DMZ Docs’ timing in late September is revealing about the interconnections and competitions between this festival and two other major documentary film festivals in East Asia – namely theTaiwan International Film Festival (TIDF, established 1998 and held annually held since 2014, this event takes place just after DMZ Docs in early October) and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan (YIDFF, established in 1989, this biennial event takes place in mid-October). Kicking off on September 17, DMZ Docs’ sixth edition boasted a line-up of 111 documentary films and three major competitive sections: the International Competition (twelve films), the Korean Competition (nine films) and Youth Competition (Korean short films by students), besides themed sidebars. Although the festival promoted a too generalized value of “peace, communication and life” in its booklet this year, its highly diversified programme incorporated some of the most exciting 2013-14 productions from around the world, to highlight refreshing methodologies, daring experiments and pressing issues in documentary cinema. It seemed as if the programmers were trying to bombard festivalgoers with as heterogeneous a selection as possible, in order to leave “what counts as a documentary” an open question.
At the same time, the retrospectives on Marc Karlin and Italian documentaries (from filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cecilia Mangini) were simply too valuable to be ignored this year. The festival paid tribute to Karlin (1943-1999) in its “Masters” section, with a body of work that was introduced to the Asian world for the first time. The screenings also anticipated two major publications in the UK on this highly significant, yet little known British filmmaker.
Karlin carefully constructed his politically charged cinematic essays with hybridized materials from reenactments, found footage, interviews and even installations. Karlin’s filmmaking sets out to carve a space for what the director calls a “dream state,” full of the tension “between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated” (2). While you might find in films such as Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Collection, 1975), For Memory (1982) and Utopias (1989) the Marker-esque traces of insightful contemplations and debates upon memory, history and the agency of people, we also notice that Karlin’s obsession with a cinema which reasons and thinks is also rooted in the sociohistorical undercurrents of his time. Instead of didactically addressing issues of class, gender, ideology and so forth, Karlin’s pursuit actually ventures into effectively engaging with the spectators via formal/structural experimentations.
In Nightcleaners, for example, Karlin and his colleagues approached the issue of unionizing underpaid women office cleaners in the 1970s by turning away from the conventions of observational documentary filmmaking of the time. That the film is a work being directed and constructed is revealed at the very beginning, as it “contains within itself a reflection of its own involvement in the history of the events being filmed” (3).
Even images of the interviewed subjects prove to be an unorthodox study of physiognomy, as the camera zooms in and out, adjusting its distance from the interviewee, while the spectators are confronted with partial facial expressions, movements of eyes and sometimes mismatching voice tracks which disrupt any authoritatively imposed meaning of the images. The filmmakers’ manipulation of images and sound therefore not only throw up questions about documentary truth and photographic images, it also positions the night cleaners’ fight and their campaign in a multi-layered, historically complex space in which tensions exist between the cleaners, the Cleaner’s Action Group and the unions.
DMZ Docs might be one of the contact points, no matter how limited the scope of reception, for spectators to trace the genealogy of global political filmmaking. Thus we may want to rethink the significance of a retrospective such as the one on Karlin. If films like Nightcleaners “could provide the basis for a new direction in British political filmmaking” in 1975 (festival catalogue), is a Karlin retrospective in 2014 simply about the rediscovery and redefinition of a lesser-known filmmaker vis-à-vis film history? Or could it also be a programming gesture of broader social significance? The retrospective may also offer documentary filmmakers and the like working with socially engaged methods and topics a certain framework of reference in speaking from a geopolitical perspective, as democracy protests and civil campaigns are renewed across East Asia in locales such as Okinawa, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and even some Mainland Chinese cities.
What further distinguishes DMZ Docs from either YIDFF or TIDF might be the “DMZ Project Market” (DPM). Aiming to be “the premiere incubator for Asian documentaries” (DPM brochure), the market is the latest addition to Asian documentary funding schemes in the region. Launched in 2013 and based on the festival’s previous grant initiative, DPM illustrates the neoliberal concept of a “film project” by assembling the full industrial cycle for a potential work, with segments named “DMZ Pitch” (presentation sessions for selected pitches), “Project Meeting” (consultations with industry professionals), “Docs in Progress” (evaluative discussions for previous funding recipients), “DMZ Talk” (themed panels) and finally “DMZ DocsProject Screening” (a showcase of finished DPM-funded projects).
Open to the public, the two-day long DPM Pitch attracted a rather passionate group of audience members like me, not only because of the fascinating, heterogeneous projects classified under three sections – “Asia” (eight projects), “Korea” (fifteen projects) and DMZ Documentary (two projects) – but also because of the sense of interactivity and suspense in the pitching presentations. There was also the unparalleled excitement of “knowing about” future projects and the mechanisms generating these works.
Importantly, the pitching platform at DPM also figures as a crucial location for generating coproduction opportunities for Asian documentaries, with the geographical underpinning of “Asian documentary” broadened and redefined. For instance, this year’s DMZ Pitch included a Chinese-French coproduction by Chinese auteur Wang Bing, entitled Shanghai Youth (under the “Asia” section). Overall, this year’s DMZ Pitch awarded grants to fifteen projects, including Wang Bing’s, amounting to a total of 325 million Korean Won (around USD 300,000). As a relatively young documentary festival, DMZ Docs can enhance its profile via DPM funding and promote projects by emerging talents as well as established filmmakers, thus securing a number of titles and premieres for future festival editions.
Lav Diaz’s latest work Storm Children Book One, which had its world premiere at DMZ Docs this year, was backed by a 2013 DPM grant. For this project, Lav Diaz spent nine months shooting footage around the disaster areas hit by Typhoon Yolanda (a.k.a. Haiyan). Through this project, Diaz not only reflects upon the Filipinos’ struggle with nature, but also interrogates the sociocultural significance of “storm” as it relates to the country’s turbulent national history and psyche.
Shot in black and white, Storm Children Book One is threaded with “the image of the lost child.” Observational in essence, this 143-minute long documentary pieces together segments of several young characters’ repetitive, Sisyphean yet sincere efforts in scavenging garbage, exploring debris, helping out with housework and other daily activities. Despite the sparse conversations and interviews with the filmed subjects, the film is not so interested in reporting on the harsh living conditions of the victims, and the children are not necessarily connected with each other. The filmmaker encounters them at various locales, and their backgrounds or motivations are never fully explained. Besides chronicling the mundane aspects of post-disaster everyday life, Lav Diaz’s camera also gazes at the typhoon-generated spectacles, particularly the ships and cruisers that have been shovelled into seaside villages. After destroying residences of the villagers, these uprooted ships become reminders of and monuments to the disaster itself, the surrealistic sight of which contrasts sharply with the children’s narrative of their loss of families, and the villagers’ futile efforts to rebuild their homes.
Storm Children is Diaz’s essayistic effort to foreground the young people as “seers” of the storm and bearers of its powerful consequences. As the most vulnerable witnesses of the disaster, storm children actually try to resist the destruction and displacement in their otherwise seemingly meaningless lingering, searching and digging (4). Through documenting the storm children and their families, Lav Diaz also reconsiders the Philippines’ social history – not through an orthodox chronology of crucial people and events, but via outbursts and disruptions of time-place in all their absurdity and illogicality, via stories of the marginalized and under-represented.
Which such a strong filmic line-up, the only dissatisfaction with DMZ Docs might be in attendance. While the audience was seriously dedicated, they failed to fill out the seats for most of the screenings I attended. The audience numbers for festival screenings fluctuated between crowd pleasers such as the opening sports documentary, Crying Boxer (E Il-ha, 2014), and more challenging experimental works, like the selections in the “Passage” sidebar such as The Great Flood (Bill Morrison, 2013) and Anna (Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, 1975).
Nevertheless, on consecutive nights during the festival, in a small tent area near the mall, cinéphiles were consoled with late-night snacks and alcohol, paid for by one of the festival organizers personally (you saw different hosts swipe their own credit cards on site!). During these night sessions, festival organizers, volunteers, guests and audience members were able to share a table and indulge in a wonderful camaraderie fostered onsite. During these sessions, we always spotted the familiar face of actor Cho Jae-hyun, best known for his performances in many of Kim Ki-duk’s films, from Bad Guy (2001) to the recent Moebius (2013). Running around as if one of the volunteers, Cho is actually festival director of DMZ Docs.
While the officials and entrepreneurs are savvy enough to leverage Cho’s public image for promoting the festival, it is interesting to see Cho and his colleagues also actively mobilizing the event as a platform for various experimentations and engagements. Their efforts are evident not only in the programming – they are also nurturing and consolidating the connections among the festival actors such as governmental and business sponsors, film professionals, audiences and even volunteers. Such networking is essential to a projective festival’s agenda.
Having said that, a film festival culture cannot be planned. While neoliberal agendas seem to standardize festival layouts and content globally, we might still want to believe that one film festival is distinguished from another, in that each engages with the contingent components of the festival phenomenon differently. Is DMZ Docs different from Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival simply because of the former’s alluring project market? YIDFF has its origin in its visionary founder Ogawa Shinsuke’s collective documentary filmmaking practices. Every two years people travel to this remote northeastern Japanese town not only to watch documentaries, but also to share moments of talking about films over a cup of warm sake, in and as a community, so that they might better relate to Ogawa’s vision.
Optimistically speaking, we might already see a DMZ Docs community in the act of becoming, in those informal parties and encounters in the late night tent area. Therefore, I’ll reserve my final conclusions about this young festival for the future.
DMZ International Documentary Film Festival
September 17-24, 2014
Festival website: http://www.dmzdocs.com/
1. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (Verso, 2012), p. 216.
2. See http://spiritofmarckarlin.com/bio/
3. Claire Johnston, “Nightcleaners (Part One): Rethinking Political Cinema,” Jump Cut 12/13 (1976): pp. 55-6.
4. See Lav Diaz’s director’s statement.