The first time I went to Yamagata, for their first festival in 1989, I submitted my film Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses), because I thought perhaps the Japanese would have a different idea of “documetary.” While Plain Talk showed around – Berlin, London, the Whitney Biennial, and a mess of other festivals, it did so as a political/experimental film, but not as a doc. At that time documentary festivals were rather staid, the cinematic side conventional, and something like Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line was thought a severe transgression on the right etiquette of documentary making. My film was beyond the pale “experimental.” So I thought just maybe the Japanese might have a different view, and it turned out I was right. They flew me to Japan, whisked me from Tokyo to Sendai on a bullet train, and up over a little mountain range into the valley where it is located. I recall being struck by the multi-story glass box pachinko halls on the outskirts.
At that time it was a small city, with a provincial air to it, which saw them scurrying to do everything right and asking was everything OK. It was. The festival was good, with a strong selection of films (I don’t recall which though) and my acquaintance Robert Kramer was there with his back-in-America film, Route One USA (a very long and I thought not very insightful left-slanted look at the US East Coast). He sat beside me during the awards ceremony, palpably upset when the first prize was awarded not to him; he got second prize. Robert and I had a story since 1968, not to tell here. Also there was Johan van der Keuken, a very nice Dutch filmmaker. I recall the festival organizing a little river-side picnic gathering during some local festival. They made a nice spread, and then a professional group of dancer/singers did a show. They then asked us, collectively, to get up and sing a song, in keeping with their tradition. We were all non-plussed and I suppose we were very bad guests as we together, from many different cultures, couldn’t sing a song for them.
My next visit was in 1999, with London Brief, my first digital film. I sent them 40 minutes of unedited material perhaps in April or May, and they said they wanted it in competition. I think the minimal length for the competition is 70 minutes or so, so I said OK, and went to London for a week, and shot more material since I didn’t have enough good stuff to make a film so long. Then edited in Lisbon with daughter Clara on my lap, aged 3 months, and sent finished film in July or so. They announced it was in competition. Then they said, aha, it must be transferred to film according to their regulations at the time. I said I didn’t have $30K to do that, especially for a film most would say was “experimental.” They then offered to loan me the money and buy the print for $15K. I said I couldn’t afford to lose $15K doing that as I was sure the film wouldn’t sell anywhere (it didn’t, but then I didn’t try at all). They were mortified as it was already announced. I offered to withdraw it from competition, and they ashamedly said OK, and so I did. But they invited me anyway, paid the airfare and showed out of competition. I talked with them about it all and the next festival the rules changed: digital video OK. London Brief got a Fipresci pat on the shoulder. Yamagata seemed a little bigger.
In 2001 I was again invited, with 6 Easy Pieces. Again no Western idea of a documentary. It won a runner-up prize, of which I think I still have the Yen (half of which was stolen by my landlord 2 years ago) which I’ll use when I get there this autumn. Yamagata seemed bigger still.
And in 2003 I was again invited, with OUI NON, a film which is a fiction, though one that turned into a documentary about itself when it fell apart. Again, I didn’t even bother to send it to Western documentary festivals. Both aesthetically and thematically I was sure it was beyond comprehension for them. And the city seemed still bigger. As I recall this time around I met Aureaus Solito, Philippine filmmaker whose first film was there – in the worst 16mm print I ever saw. I encouraged him to shift to DV, to which he was resistant, but I kept at him over the next few years, and he finally did, making The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros in DV, which was a big festival splash and made his career. Since he made some more, and this year was in Cannes Director’s Fortnight with a new film, DVD of which he promises to send me once the sound is tidied up.
I haven’t been back since 2003, because they didn’t accept Rant 2 years ago, and I suppose I didn’t make something even I could call a documentary since then, until this time around. I sent them 3 films: Swimming in Nebraska (2009), Dissonance (2011), and Imagens (2011). I got the reject notices for the former two today – and I admit they are weird/difficult. Imagens, though slow, seems to go down easier. While I don’t have the full data, from what I can figure, I must be the most invited to Yamagata filmmaker on the planet! Here’s the list for this year:
Images of a Lost City USA, PORTUGAL / 2011 / Portuguese / Color / Video / 92 min Director: Jon Jost Apuda CHINA / 2010 / Naxi Language / Color / Video / 145 min Director: He Yuan Armadillo DENMARK / 2010 / Danish, English / Color / 35mm / 101 min Director: Janus Metz The Collaborator and His Family USA, ISRAEL, FRANCE / 2011 / Hebrew, Arabic / Color / Video / 84 min Directors: Ruthie Shatz, Adi Barash Day is Done SWITZERLAND / 2011 / Swiss German / Color / Video / 111 min Director: Thomas Imbach Distinguished Flying Cross USA / 2011 / English / Color / Video / 62 min Director: Travis Wilkerson The Embrace of the River BELGIUM, COLOMBIA / 2010 / Spanish / Color / Video / 73 min Director: Nicolas Rincon Gille KANTOKU SHIKKAKU ("Director Disqualified") JAPAN / 2011 / Japanese / Color / Video / 112 min Director: Hirano Katsuyuki Nenette FRANCE / 2010 / French / Color / 35mm / 70 min Director: Nicolas Philibert Nomad's Home EGYPT, GERMANY, UAE, KUWAIT / 2010 / Arabic, English / Color / Video / 61 min Director: Iman Kamel Nostalgia for the Light FRANCE, GERMANY, CHILE / 2010 / Spanish / Color, B&W / 35mm / 90 min Director: Patricio Guzman Position Among the Stars THE NETHERLANDS / 2010 / Indonesian / Color / Video / 111 min Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich Vapor Trail (Clark) USA, THE PHILIPPINES / 2010 / English, Tagalog / Color / Video / 264 min Director: John Gianvito What is to be done? FRANCE / 2010 / Arabic / Color / Video / 152 min Director: Emmanuelle Demoris The Woman with the 5 Elephants SWITZERLAND, GERMANY / 2009 / German, Russian / Color, B&W / 35mm /93 min Director: Vadim Jendreyko
A glance at these shows some I have read about before, some are in 35mm, and most rather long – just a few shorter than Imagens’ 92 minutes. I’d take a bet that mine cost far far far less than any of the others.(*) Say $100 or so. Tapes cost about $3 back then and maybe I shot 20. And a lot of unpaid time. For Imagens I walked around the area I lived in in the years 1997-98 – the Alfama, Graca, Castelo, and sometimes in Bairro Alto and a few other areas of Lisbon, day after day, hours at a time, casually shooting. I don’t really know how much I shot because I would go home and look and throw away the same day the material that wasn’t so interesting. I culled out about 12 hours, from which Imagens was extracted. There’s another film (or two) left in it I suspect.
I look forward to this year’s festival and a chance to see a little more of Japan, including the devastated areas near Sendai. I will see if either I can find someone to take me around a bit, or rent a car and do it on our own (hoping Marcella will be along with me, though she has alleged obligations to 15th.)
Awaiting word from Venice (on other films), Vladivostok, DocSDF in Mexico City, Busan, DocLisboa, and Firenze. And maybe another one or two. Might – if invited and if decide to go – be a rather busy time of travel.
And then, no longer a professor, I look to return to Seoul to shoot a documentary of a kind of the development of a large scale, 90 minute dance spectacle by Eun-me Ahn, whose work I have seen 5 times (all different things) and very much like. About as unlike my work as you could get. Yesterday she gave me the nod to shoot from late November on through putting on the show in late February.
(*) A little exchange with Travis Wilkerson, working along with me and others on Far From Afghanistan, informs that his might be cheaper – says his was all shot in his living room and I guess using chips instead of tape. Dang. We’ll have to tally budgets in Yamagata and see who’s cheapest!