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Monthly Archives: October 2011

This weekend, responding to the Opinion Page columns by Thomas “Ever Wrong”  Friedman and to Ross “Never Doubting” Douthat I found myself twice

Though other respondents raked both columnists over the coals no less kindly, somehow my words seem to have gotten under their flunky editor’s skins.

Ever Serious Thomas

To Mr Friedman:

For someone who is given to peering over the horizon to see the future, Mr Friedman has a lot of catching up to do:  many of us noted the wallow into corruption of America’s institutions quite some time ago. Decades ago. But here, suddenly, it dawns on Mr Friedman that our system is corrupt and if it doesn’t shape up things could get ugly. But they already are ugly with a Justice Department that doesn’t prosecute the real crooks, a Congress that is capital’s poodle, an Executive that is merely Bushism with more articulate words, and all the consequences of the long-term corruption (much of which under other names Mr Friedman championed – from smash-mouth talk about Iraq to “globalization” and all the other wrong steps he’s taken). It is ugly to be evicted from your home because your job got shipped to China and some robo-mortgage was sold to you with tiny nasty print. It is ugly to be conned into a costly student loan on the premise of a hot-shot job to find the economy got shipped to lower-labor cost lands like India.

I bet if I waded through past column I could find Mr Friedman waxing about his lunch with Mubarack and how hunky-dory things were down on the Nile, peace with Israel, etc.

Eat humble pie, Mr Friedman. Something is going on and you didn’t know what it was, did you, Mr. Jones?

[Update.] On Nov. 2, I replied to another Friedman Op-Ed item, and again was censored.  Here’s what I wrote.  I note that many others made the same points, so I guess it must be “getting personal.”

“Moreover, I am certain….” Every time Mr Friedman utters this phrase or some equivalent, I feel like ducking for cover. He is serially wrong, so when he assures us of something, one has to look under the hood. He still tries to make his Iraq frothing at the mouth look good, never mind the damaging real-world evidence. Now he equivocates on our Afghan follies. Given how wrong wrong wrong Thomas is on the not-so-great game of opining as a “pundit” one must take his advice on The Great Game with a boulder of saline material.

Do ever-wrong columnists ever retire (in shame)?

Ross “Doubtless” Douthat

To Mr. Douthat:

Mr Douthat, typically, doesn’t comprehend what is before his eyes, or he can only see it through the thick distorting prism of his prejudices.  OWS – which he finally acknowledges as something other than as an object of ridicule – isn’t about fiddling with a few financial factors in the existing equation. It is about a wholesale rethinking of our values and priorities; it is about, OMG, questioning capitalism itself (in Douthat’s eyes as radical as questioning the Catholic hierarchy). It is about our need to shift from a profit-oriented system to a humanistic one which perceives that we live on a finite planet and that constant growth, as required to generate the riches and imbalances of a capitalist system, isn’t possible. We need to shift to a self-sustaining system in which limited wealth is equitably shared, not only among ourselves, but globally. This is anathema to our capitalist priests.

So Mr Douthat can only sit on the side-lines wondering how to fiddle with the existing system to “make it work ” not having learned the actual lesson that it can’t work because of original contradictions and design flaws. He imagines his current favored would-be candidate, Romney, will somehow morph (which Mitt is good at) into a Republican wizard who will save the system with wise decisions. The reality is that Romney is more a Wizard of Oz sort, a pure all-American fraud.

The Times tipped its hand early in the Occupy Wall Street game when, in keeping with the rest of the corporate owned and controlled press, it consigned the events down on Zuccotti Park to a small notice and then ignored it.  A far cry from the prompt coverage which the Tea Party corporate zombie demonstrations received.  Then, grudgingly, with snide and contemptuous articles the NYT, along with other national press, admitted that the demonstration there actually existed.  And when it sprouted companions across the country, and then across the globe, it began to actually take it with a small dose of seriousness.  As have our authoritarians in government who are now applying police force.  It is merely a matter of time before some are killed.

As was quipped by a very serious person quite long ago, a “free press” is available to those that own them.

Goldman Sachs CIA Corporate ConspiracyAnti OWS snow-job

In what is obviously a conspiracy orchestrated by Goldman Sachs, the CIA, the HSA, and the Department of Meteorology, an autumn storm has dumped snow onto Zuccotti Park in New York City, in a blatant and vicious effort to rein in the burgeoning Occupy movement.   A spokesperson for the Department of Defense issued a formal statement of regret for the vast collateral damage incurred in the region, with countless trees felled and electricity knocked out for over two million customers.   The statement however said that the storm was a necessary move in light of the sneaky and pernicious nature of the Occupiers, who would not stay in their appointed “free speech zones” but instead had morphed across the nation.   He said if national security required it, further “snowjobs” would be unleashed.   Elsewhere, lacking the subtlety of the New York tactic, police have attacked Occupiers in Denver Colorado and numerous other parts of the nation.   The Homeland Security Agency released a copy of the Patriot Act, stating it wished to remind the public that the Bill of Rights listed in the Constitution was not applicable during the War on Terror and that Occupiers were at risk of drone attacks authorized by the President if they did not fold their tents and shut up.

Denver police keeping the peace

In the same week as it was announced that the US and Iraq had failed to make a deal, and that US troops would be pulling out by the end of the year, the Pentagon informed the nation that a middle-east build-up would occur, with troops being positioned in Kuwait and in other nations in the region with pliable governments and lots of oil.   The Pentagon announcement  named the new operation as “The Great Shell Game.”  It follows the old “Operation Enduring Freedom.” The Pentagon spokesperson did not explain which meaning of “enduring” was used in the previous operation.  However, Iraqi informants suggested that the populace there had had enough of this kind of “freedom.”   Apparently this puts them in same place as American “Occupiers.”

US troops in farewell ceremony in Tikrit, Iraq, Saddam’s old home townAnother farewell in an American town

One of the reasons whyAnd anotherTimothy Geithner, Sec. of the Treasury, former Goldman Sachs guy

American ExceptionalismP.T. “There’s a sucker born every minute” BarnumTeddy Roosevelt

“These men combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil doings. I regard this contest as one that will determine who shall rule this free country-the people through their chosen representatives, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.”

Teddy Roosevelt

Police State America (Oakland)

Resist.  Occupy.

Denver banker with OWS

It’s been a month now since some scruffy/hippie/anarchists pick-your-derogatory-term, went and camped out near Wall Street.  For weeks the American press ignored them, then vilified and ridiculed them, and yet their numbers kept growing – in Zuccotti Park in NYC, and then like a fungus, materializing in cities and towns across the world, and then across the globe: 900 cities and towns, all sharing in the same diffuse and unrhetorical “there is something profoundly wrong about how the world is organized.”    The powers that be – the politicians and their financial buddies, the giant corporations and their “news” media – simply had no idea what to do with them, except apply the Pravda-like practice of figuring if they didn’t report it, it didn’t exist.  In a display of extraordinary stupidity and blindness, with the fresh examples of Tunisia and Egypt and the whole Arab spring, the honchos of America (and elsewhere) seemed blind-sided when thanks to the internet the news spread like wild-fire across the country and the globe.  One would have thought they’d learned a thing or two by the most recent bits of history – the indignados of Spain, the strikes in Greece, the global signs of discontent from the middle-east to the middle-west.  But no, our Masters of the Universe, and their hired political lackeys and pundits didn’t see, because, as ever, caught in the bubble of their own small 1% world, they didn’t imagine any world but their own: they could not conceive that the world was not all well and good, never mind the blatant evidence in their own statistics.     Even though they had been explicitly involved in constructing that alternate universe of globalization, which translated as rampaging out-of-control capitalism – the one that made them filthy rich and left everyone else behind.

About three weeks ago, I got an e-mail from someone I did not know – Daniel Levine.   He wrote about being in the OWS group, and I asked him to keep me informed on things, and I asked him who he was and to tell me something of himself.  He replied, and said he’d keep me updated, and said he was 21, and thought if he hadn’t seen my 1987 film Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses) he might not have gone to join the Wall Street uprising.  As someone who is somewhat cynical about the efficacy of so-called “political” film-making – of which I’ll have much more to say soon on the http://www.jonjost.wordpress.com blog – I was a bit skeptical, but it did move me to think that my work had, in any way, helped clarify and move someone to act.   Likewise, with this blog, and other internet things which have absorbed much of my energies in the last decade and more, where I have consistently drawn into question our national religion of “Free Market Capitalism”, noted the depths of our corruption (not only financial, but far deeper and more profound, our ethics and morals as bent by the values of that capitalism) and the severe damages it inflicts upon our society. I would like to think perhaps all this energy did not go to waste, but was a tiny ripple in a larger social wave which was building all this time.   I don’t think anyone is the sole holder of a thought, but that if one thinks something, millions of others must do likewise.   Unlike many of my friends, who seemed terminally pessimistic about young Americans, I have always felt and said that I thought, at some time, somehow, things would finally erupt.  And so it seems they have.

Where ever you are – in America or elsewhere in the world – I encourage you to go out and join your fellow humans and add your voice to this movement, whatever name one wishes to give it.   We need to defeat the economic masters of this system, and their political and cultural minions, who have orchestrated the policies of the last decades and more, policies  which have obviously failed the vast majority of humans while enriching and empowering a tiny sliver who seem utterly heedless of the circumstances of humanity.  They seem to lust for wealth and power beyond rationality, and would, if left unchecked, render the world uninhabitable in their pursuit of it.  Occupy Wall Street and all the other streets should be the beginning of a major revision in humanity’s understanding of its place on the globe and our relationships with one another – as individuals and as societies.

Castle wall, Yamagata

A few nights ago there was the Awards Ceremony for the festival, and indicative of the evident tastes of the jury, and how out of synch it was with my own inclinations, the first prize (worth about $25,000) was a film I walked out of, finding it a somewhat sloppy TV-style doc affair – The Collaborator and His Family.  The other winners in the International Competition suggested more tilt along that line:   Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman’s rather glossy paean to the cosmos and Pinochet’s victims got runner-up, Distinguished Flying Cross, some honorary mention with some cash, and The Woman with 5 Elephants, a very nicely done by-the-book TV doc got something, as did Apuda, the Chinese film of long long takes of a father dying from which I also left.   It was clearly a jury that tilted toward the by-the-numbers film-making book, with some modest nods to very conservative modes of wiggling the rules, or so it seemed to me.

Following the diminished closing party and gathering at the festival watering hole, the Koumian bar, it was departure.  The next morning Iman Kamel, who made Nomad’s Home, and earlier in the week, after seeing my film had asked me to see her film and give my thoughts, came up to talk.  She’d Googled and up had popped my capsule review with its comment about “sloppy images.”   She was charming, and said some critique is better than the usual “nice film” or no comment, though the “sloppy” clearly bothered.  I explained I meant it for a handful of parts where a camera is rather waved around while walking, in telephoto, mostly out of focus though sometimes in.  These parts were clearly deliberate, as a kind of punctuation mark, but I felt they went on too long, revealed nothing, and didn’t work as intended.   The rest of the imagery was competent enough, but not more – and in a setting where the opportunity for a lot richer imagery could have been had, and appropriately to the content and context of the film.  Just her camera person (not her) didn’t have the eyes to get it.  And she, working with a group, didn’t guide it to a better place.    Try harder next time – get better camera person, whatever.   It was meant in a way to be lyrical but it didn’t quite fly.

Naoko Komuro and Iman Kamel

Overall I found the competition films rather disappointing – the made-for-TV work ranged from really manipulative or crudely done, to very finely mounted, but “for TV”; those not aimed at a mass audience were for the most part modest in their bending of the rules of engagement, and for the most part in my view didn’t work.  I suppose if I were in the jury, recusing myself regarding my own film, I might have pressed for Day Is Done , whatever my reservations the film left in my mind about the maker, his voyeurism and his implicating his viewer in the same.

When teaching or doing workshops, or in meeting younger filmmakers and encouraging them I tell them to enter festivals (but not pay entry fees), and keep their ego out of it. I tell them festivals are like rolling dice – submitting and then if you get in, the jurying.  Like dice, it has almost nothing to do with you.  While I was in Yamagata, I got two more rejections for Imagens – from the Florence Festival and Jihlava in the Czech Republic.  They joined a list of other rejections – Margaret Mead, NYFF, docLisboa, Bilboa, Mumbai, Busan and DocSDF in Mexico City.   I’m about run out of documentary festivals to try for it.  Whatever these places say, Imagens de uma cidade perdida is among my best films, which, whatever selectors think, seems to be the view of audiences which have been very positive.   Festivals?  Go figger…

Toshi Fujiwara translating Jon pontificating

I caught the train to Fukushima, to head for a hot spring resort for a brief break.   About 40 kms away is the Daichi nuclear power plant, three reactor cores melted down, oozing radiation.  Iizaka, the little town on the edge of Fukushima seems deserted – I don’t know if because it’s a week-day, or that people have decided it’s too close for comfort.  Seems like a ghost town.  And the particular one I am in is located next to a mini-power transmission thing – the taxi driver seemed a little bewildered that a foreigner was going there.  It’s almost empty.

Jon as Max von Sydow by local artist Mochizuki Rie

Hayashi Yumika in Kantoku Shikkaku

Another few films.  One, Kantoku Shikkaku, by famed pink (porn) filmmaker, Hirano Katsuyuki.  A careless hand-held DV work of his star, and love, Hayashi Yumika, as they take a bicycle ride from Tokyo to the northern most island of Japan.  Along the way we get some bio-backfill of how he began in the pink business with her, she became a star, he fell in love (sort of), and as they take the journey to the north it’s been six years.  They fight, camp out, phone home, talk about their pasts, all of this done in sloppy wind-popping DV.   Despite the cinematic crudeness it is interesting because she is a weird one, as is her mother, and as is he.  They return to Tokyo, years pass, they see each other once in a while.  Dropping in for her 35th birthday she doesn’t answer the door, or cell calls, but what the hell, she’s nuts.  Returning the next day, more no Yumika.  The next day the same, and noting the dog in the apartment, they get a key from the landlord and find the stinking body.  Landlord flips out, as does Hirano.   He stops making films for five years, and resumes to finish this one.  As cinema, it is a piece of junk; as pathological evidence it is fascinating and sets off all kind of internal buzzers about this guy’s morality and ethics, about whether what happened is precisely because he is always acting for the camera (and forcing others to do so as well).   Whether the film works for him as a corrective for his evident guilt complex is as questionable as whether the audience’s interest is equally perverse and sick.

Guzman’s forgiving cosmos

And then saw Patrico Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, which I think has been released most places.  It is an elegant, perhaps too much so, film-essay on Chile’s recent history, Pinochet’s disappeared, coupled to a cosmic view using the Atacama desert, home to the world’s best telescopes thanks to its high dry air, and likewise home to Pinochet’s murders, preserved by the same atmosphere, as a fulcrum.  For the most part Guzman weaves these strands together effectively though here and there he gets bogged down in overdone visuals and maybe a touch too much National Geographic-type gloss in the imagery. Some of the visuals are downright hokey, and some of which owe too much to Star Wars‘ ideas of the cosmos rather than science’s astronomy.  He errs in tacking on a kind of “happy ending” which doesn’t convince at all.

And the last two, seen today as I came down with a nasty cold/flu of some kind:

Nomad’s Home on the Sinai

Nomad’s Home, by Iman Kamel, from Egypt.  A kind of lyrical essay which follows a Bedouin woman into the Sinai desert, and then moves to Cairo.  It mixes thoughts and information of this woman, Selema Gabali, along with things about the director.  The imagery strains to be lyrical, but is often simply sloppy.  Voice over, quotes and music and “sound design” all combine to overload the imagery with a weight it cannot carry.  Instead one feels the tension of trying to get the cinematic imagery to express something it can’t itself express.  The list of credits confirms the sense of a film made by a committee:  separate camera person, editor, co-author, sound designer, composer, and others.  It tries, but doesn’t really settle in to a coherent work.  Fortunately only 61 minutes.

Position among the cameras

And then Position among the Stars, by Leonard Retel Helmrich.  An HBO film starting in an Indonesian village, it moves to Jakarta, following a family.  I watched for about an hour getting more and more irritated at the transparently manipulative directing and camera-work, and finally, more or less disgusted, I left.  The director claims it is in the cinéma vérité manner, but the obvious intrusions of the director and the camerawork make this a dubious claim.   I would be more inclined to call it a cinema of lies, made particularly objectionable because of its faux pose as one of truth.

I missed one film in the competition, Nénette, by Frenchman Nicolas Philibert.   Something about an orangutang in the Paris zoo.  Maybe it will win a prize and I’ll get a chance to see it.

Nénette gazes at you, you gaze at Nénette

Tomorrow is the wrap up, ceremony, awards given.  First prize is $25,000 or so, then I think 10K and a few 2K.  I don’t think competitions are really appropriate for arts, but it seems to be the usual way of stacking things up.

Oh, and I neglected to mention my screening.  The first was to a relatively small audience, early in the festival. Only a few left.  (Later, over the weekend things picked up.)  The response seemed very favorable with a nice Q&A.  Second screening, with many more viewers, I didn’t stay for, but a back-of-cinema look just before it ended seemed to show very few left.  Someone said less than 10.  Nice long discussion, and as in Rotterdam somehow this slow, modest film really seems to work on people in a magical way.  Jurors too?  Tune in tomorrow….

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Short-wave tower, Yamagata

I decided on coming to Yamagata that I would try to see all the films in the competition – which means a small fraction of the films being shown.  I intended to actually try to see them, sit through them, like it or not, though conflicts in the schedule meant I had to miss something, so I decided to sacrifice John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail as he’d given me a DVD of it some time ago.   So, following those I saw the first day, it was off to the movies.

Havana Suite

While I missed the first 20 or so minutes, having carelessly gone to the wrong cinema, saw one of the juror’s films, Cuban Fernando Perez’ Havana Suite.  It is a kind of mosaic of the prosaic in Havana – following the daily lives of a handful of characters – a young boy with something like Downs syndrome and his father; a ballet dancer, a man who emigrates, a woman who sells peanuts, and a handful of others.  Stitched together in a passing-of-a-day manner, morning to night, the film holds together nicely, and evokes a sense of Havana, worn down by America’s embargo and, if my reading-between-the-lines is correct, a critique of a failed revolution.  The sense of loss – of lives ground down – is palpable, as is the sense of hope.  A nice film, if lacking something indefinable to make it a truly great one.  Here’s another view.

Armadillo

Then in competition was a Danish film on their troops in Afghanistan, Armadillo by title, directed by Janus Metz.  It follows a handful of soldiers from their preparations in Denmark, with their families as they leave for their “peace-keeping” role, and onto their stationing as newbies at Forward Base Armadillo, out in the boonies of Afghanistan.   Very nicely shot, with a kind of intimacy that clearly demanded the trust of the soldiers for the two cameramen, one being the director, it revealingly shows the kind of brotherhood that military life imposes, from the crass pornography and crude macho behavior that is part and parcel of war, onto the boredom of patrols in which little happens, and then into sequences of vivid combat.  And then to showing blatant war-crimes which the soldiers enjoyed, and the brass then tried to cover up.   We also get ample glimpses of the distorted relationship of the soldiers with the Afghani’s who chronically suggest they should leave.    I had a major problem with the film’s use of sound, what with a huge pounding bass being used to hype the audience as the men went out on patrol, along with other places where I felt music was needlessly used.  I would much have preferred the real sounds to this superimposed and bombastic use of sound.  I knew it was coming when the opening credits included “sound design” which for me invariably seems to mean sound is used to make a mess of things.

Apuda

And then, going to a Chinese film, Apuda (He Yuan), ostensibly an ethnographic documentary, I spent an hour of a scheduled 2 and a half, watching very dark quasi-Rembrandtesque images in a cottage in Yunnan province, where a man lies still, gets up, laboriously helps his father get his pants on, and his father goes outside.  Done with very long takes, it was stultifyingly boring for me and I gave up thinking it would shift gears.  Some compared to Pedro Costa, but I think it is a superficial comparison as Costa animates the world he shows with artfulness; here the images are as inert as the characters.   Long shots in and of themselves reveal little – there’s something more needed.

So, having liberated a few hours, I went to take in some of Gianvito’s Vapor Trail, a long 4 hour item dealing with the US military’s contamination of the former Philippine bases Clark Air Force base and Subic Bay Naval base.  Along the way we get a didactic course on Philippine history, Spanish and American imperialism, and other matters of history and politics.  While interesting, I found what I saw too heavily dressed as a lecture, and the cinema side to me was too loose and aesthetically lazy: long shots of activists giving talks, driving in cars, casual street scenes, none of which really snapped for me as well-conceived or thought out, all a bit too rushed and casually edited.  I’ll give the DVDs a look when I get back to Seoul but I doubt I’ll have reason to alter this critique.

Vapor Trail (Clark)

Next in line for me was a Swiss film, The Woman with the Five Elephants, by Vadim Jendreyko.  A very nice, if utterly conventionally done film, its topic is an 85 year old woman,  Swetlana Geier, who works as a translator, and is famous as one.  Her story is sketched out, and life in the process intervenes, with her son injured and then dying from a accident, which prompts Geier to make a journey back to her Ukrainian homeland, for the first time since 1943.  Getting the back-story it turns out she was, after a fashion, a collaborator with the Nazi’s, a matter which the film largely skirts.  She’s a charming woman, with a sparkle in her eye and mind, and the film is well-shot, paced, and, as said before very standard fare cinematically.  And it made the process of translating/writing interesting to see and entertain.   It even has German TV’s ubiquitous voice-over giving information the cinema missed.  I liked, but, sorry, no cigar.

The Woman with Five Elephants

And, then I tried, but gave up exasperated in about 20 or so minutes, a French film titled What is to be done?  Set in a neighborhood of Alexandria, Egypt, it follows the dim fortune of a man whose house is chronically flooded by a few inches of water.   The shooting was competent, if nothing more.  And the interaction was for me deadening.  It runs 2 and a half hours.   Like Apuda (but not nearly so self-consciously composed) this film seems to be one of the styles evoked by digital media: long takes, using the camera just like a film camera, just showing things.  And showing.  And showing.  And aside from the inescapable matter of framing, and time, there seems little sense of artfulness involved.   I find this kind of supposed cinema dreary and lazy, as if simply by picturing something, it makes it “art.”  It doesn’t.  And it doesn’t make it “life” either.  Even if the pictures are “beautiful” and some things happen.  Art demands a lot more, though just what that “more” is is difficult to nail down.   The economics of digital media have opened this pandora’s box.  But perhaps practice makes perfect and those doing these will learn after a while.   The criticisms I make here of these two films I can well imagine coming from someone regarding my own film, Imagens de uma cidade perdida.   Though I’d not agree and point out the differences I perceive, and apparently many viewers share.

Embrace the River

And now just saw another competition film, Embrace the River, by Nicolas Rincon Gille.  Shot in Columbia it rather schematically tells of a river myth, a supposed spirit-being, Mohan,  which lives in the Magdalena River.   This is used as a rather clunky guide line, with obvious set-ups of people talking about Mohan and their imaginary encounters, or stories they have heard of it.  Shots of people on carved out boats, fishing and swimming in the river, all rather National Geographic in slick HD looks.  While the setting was ripe for something creative with the camera, it sticks to tried and true and lacks any creative spark, the camera used like a 35mm film one.  The flow then segues into stories of corpses in the river and goes through a long passage of talking bodies, mothers standing and telling about the paramilitary groups coming and taking their sons to kill them and dump them in the river.   The shots are static, long, compositions a bit rigid.  Occasionally the women weep.   Then a few more shots in the river and that’s it.  I found the film boring, its structure too fixed, and the end result rather as  lifeless as the corpses dumped in the waters.  I would have walked out but it was only 73 minutes, so….

Update: next morning went to The Collaborator and His Family, (Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash), from Israel.  It is about a Palestinian collaborator moved to Tel Aviv, and his family.   I lasted about 45 minutes.  While the “story” was of interest, the cinema was grab and go chasing the (alleged) reality, with pedestrian hand-held shooting.   Again, in my view, a lazy and careless way to deal with what could be an interesting topic.  There are about 6 billion other such interesting topics, and it is in how one reveals them which elevates matters to be worthy of one’s time and interest.  No go for me here.

It’s been a while since I was last here – 2003 – when I attended in competition with Oui Non.  Yamagata is a documentary festival, and they have had me here now 5 times.  I’m told that’s the most anyone has been here.  For me it is a kind of little homecoming, though I find it hard to perceive of myself as a “documentary” filmmaker.  I think of the films of mine they have shown here, very few other documentary festivals would consider them as proper “documentaries”: Oui Non began as a fiction and remains one, and is rather “experimental” in its aesthetics; 6 Easy Pieces, which won a prize here, is similarly far removed from normal doc modes and methods; London Brief most would consign to the “experimental” ghetto.  Likewise Plain Talk and Common Sense, shown here at their first festival, in 1989.   In their opening ceremonies they mentioned that it had been 22 years since then, which reminds that the clock is definitely (and defiantly) ticking.  Since that first festival Yamagata has grown as a town, and as a festival, now being regarded certainly as the premiere documentary festival in Asia, and up with the best anywhere else.

Image from opening film, a rather charming TV documentary made in Yamagata in 1963, about immigrant farmers going to Tokyo to work in a bread factory over the winter.  Very nice and so unlike anything that could be made today.

This year’s festival seems subdued, clearly impacted by what they have recurrently called The Great Eastern Earthquake.  Fukushima is only 100 kilometers away, over a modest mountain range.  While Yamagata itself did not suffer serious damage in the earthquake, the neighboring areas to the east were devastated, and for some time Yamagata was a place for refugees to stay.  Clearly their economy, as all of Japan’s, has taken a severe hit.   The festival organizers, in their opening ceremony and remarks, were happy that those of us who came did so – it seems some or perhaps many of the filmmakers did not come.

This morning I saw at 10 am a first film, from Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach, titled Day is Done.   I found it completely absorbing, despite its self-chosen restrictions.  Made from a compilation of 35mm footage shot over a period of 15 years, largely from the window and roof of his loft-like space in an industrial neighborhood of Zurich.  The imagery is often strikingly beautiful with rich skies, rain, snow, and dramatic light shifts over the same cityscape imagery.   The sound track is a mix of telephone answering machine messages, coupled with sections of a mix of songs, used somewhat aggressively, the verbal content being used to prod the film’s seeming message along.  The film, as read between the lines, could readily be titled “Self-Portrait of myself as an asshole.”   Indirectly it paints a picture of Imbach as a voyeuristic, self-involved, irresponsible person.  Part of its fascination is in this self-exposure, but also in his seemingly obsessive voyeurism, and his ethical utilitarianism.  Using the tape recorded messages as a major part of his content, the voices of friends, bankers, ex-wife, son, father, businessmen and others are clearly manipulated to form a jig-saw puzzle of Imbach’s life at this time.  His father talks, gets ill, dies.   His affair with his wife comes, along with a child, and goes.  A number of evident lovers talk and disappear.  His career zooms along with nice notices.   The visuals are repeated shots across the city, with a prominent modern industrial chimney shot again and again, with planes taking off or landing at the nearby airport, birds, snow, rain, light and dark.  Other images show trains zipping by in time-lapse which often changes speed and exposure in the shot; the camera jerks around finding its image.  Down on the street below he obsessively tracks in hyper-telephoto a woman who goes into the same door; he catches other drama there – some fires caught on fire, a major motor-bike accident, a club opening opposite, lovers wildly kissing.   A few sequences take the viewer out of this confined viewpoint – a visit to his mother, his (ex) wife, his child at the beach – sort of home-movie.    The film is often gorgeous.   And “T”, as he names himself, appears periodically next to his camera in the reflection in a window.

From Day is Done, by Thomas Imbach

I am not sure it is a good film – for me it began to wear out its welcome perhaps 20-30 minutes before it ended, though it was not then boring at all.  What made it fascinating was the internal cross-fire in your own mind as you questioned the ethics of using the answering machine tapes; the somewhat lurid-feeling and repeated shots of the girl walking down the street; the constant sense of voyeurism compounded by T’s evidently irresponsible behaviors with his friends, family, wife and son.   Combined with the repetitive imagery, these all collided into a rich internal intellectual stew in my mind, and which in a sense were clearly intended to be provoked.   At the conclusion there was a kind of sour emotional sense of questioning whether one should “like” a film by someone who seemingly is a lout if a person.  An old conundrum:   good artists can often be lousy humans.

The girl

Whatever my reservations, it was a film which I enjoyed, felt was a good wedge to press the viewer to think for themselves, and certainly made me wish to see some of his other work, documentary and fiction.

Still from Travis Wilkerson’s Distinguished Flying Cross

The other film I saw today, also in competition, was Travis Wilkerson’s Distinguished Flying Cross.  Running just an hour, it consists of a set-piece of Wilkerson on one side of a table, his brother across from him, and his father at the end.  Rigidly composed, and with a few other shots of a close up of a beer glass, and of his brother’s profile inserted for a slight change of pace, this shot is interrupted frequently by very brief title cards, usually accompanied with a percusive sound or noise.  Wilkerson’s father essentially tells the story of his Viet Nam days, and of receiving his Distinguished Flying Cross medal as a helicopter pilot.  Four or five times this tableau is disturbed by longer sequences of somel minute’s length of Viet Nam combat footage taken by soldier cinematographers.  One of those sequences is strewn with VC corpses.    I found the story-telling less than engaging, in part owing to the distanced and rigid imagery, which was amplified by the sons’ less than lively presence.  Also the miking/EQ made it a bit difficult to understand as the bass and boominess of the room managed to smother the sound frequently.   Cumulatively it didn’t seem to add up, in part because the story Dad had to tell was ordinary military stuff, and failed to arouse much emotional contact one way or another.  The tepid applause at the end suggested I wasn’t alone in this view.  Travis is participating in the Far From Afghanistan omni-bus film I am taking part in, so this criticism is diplomatically touchy, but I think honesty is always the best medicine – especially for artists among themselves.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

And then I had my own screening, first one, of Imagens de uma cidade perdida.   It was shown with an NTSC conversion of my PAL original, and apparently played off a Blu-Ray disk.  The cinema is very large and likewise the screen.  I must say it looked gorgeous, rather better than I thought it could, and sounded equally good.  The audience was not very large, and I think about 20-25% left after about 60-70 minutes.   Of those that stayed the applause was generous, and many came to a talk session in the lobby that went on 30 minutes or so, by which I’d guess the response was pretty positive.  Owing to a mistake of my own the version they saw was minus a few minutes of subtitles which should have been there, but….  My own error in sending an incorrect tape with no subtitles,  and while I said I’d send the correct one to festival they said they could take off the DVD I’d sent, which turned out to be an older one which I’d sent before changing the subtitles.  Not fatal, but, well, stupid. The price of haste when traveling.  Or an unraveling brain.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Tomorrow I’ll find out if the thin attendance (in the audience, at the festival HQ) is owing to it being the first day, or it being a weekday, or if instead it is because the reverberations of the earthquake/tsunami and the fear of radiation.  I’m told of the 15 invited filmmakers, only 8 or 9 are attending.  In any event I recall in my previous visits much more hustle and bustle surrounding the festival, and my guess the seeming quietness this time is owing to the disaster of last February.    Of which I will get a close look after the festival as I’m arranging to go visit some of the area devastated by the tsunami.

Tokyo scenes

Tokyo time, meaning a bit fast.  Arrived, settled into cheapo New Koyo “hotel”, cheapest in city.  A room just big enough to roll out futon, 3 showers for 75 rooms, but kept clean, quiet, and beats paying twice the price for not much more.  If going to Tokyo, if you don’t mind roughing it a bit and being a bit on edge of town near Minowa, check it out.  http://www.newkoyo.com.  Then it was on to two days of workshop, 18 participants, a handful of whom had past experience, the rest from nothing to something.   Came out very well for the brief time available, and they made some very nice things.  I was very happy about it.   Happier making still was that the person who’d invited me seems to have liked what he saw, and tomorrow we talk about a possible job here – a bit of teaching, and overseeing a large project of making a kind of big portrait of Tokyo.   If it works out I’d get some time to live here, which I’d like – Tokyo is very interesting.  It just costs a little fortune to be here, so an income is a requisite for a longer stay.  Find out tomorrow.

For the last decades Japan has been in a “malaise” – its economy supposedly limping along, cramped by economic factors which I suppose may be so, but looking at Tokyo it is difficult to sense.  Despite crippling earthquakes, the tsunami and nuclear meltdown not far to the north of the city, to all appearances it is a very wealthy place, and kept in meticulous cleanliness, everything precise and, well, Japanese.  A design sense seems a DNA implant in everyone, whether seen in their clothes – I saw a young hip-hop kid decked out in his “dude” best, and while the pants drooped to halfway between his ass and knees, they were held up with yet another layer, and each element in the ensemble suggested a conscious choice of Jap-ghetto style (except in our sense there aren’t any ghettos here) – in how tidy and neat everything is, however mundane, or even in the only hint of the “malaise” to be seen, little clusters of homeless encampments, kept tidy and orderly by their inhabitants.

Japanese workman’s paint job

Most culture’s I have been in would just slop the paint on with no masking; here the guy is being meticulous – it’s a little wall/fence of a public park, just the most ordinary thing, and look at the care taken.  That’s Japan.  Of course not everything is like that, but most things visible to the public are.

Meantime back in America, it becomes more obvious with each passing day, for those who didn’t already know, that our press is totally in the pockets of corporate powers, and is doing all it can to censor and suppress information about the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, which have now spread to numerous other cities.  That the American press eagerly reported from Tahrir Square, from Libya and Syria, but has done the opposite with this protest reveals all too much about it’s real nature, and that it is utterly subservient now to the forces of Wall Street and the corporations which Wall Street symbolizes.   And, seemingly, like the clumsy behind-the-curve behaviors of the middle-eastern governments, our system likewise – despite having just reported on exactly the same thing – seem to discount the effects of the internet as a means to do an end-run around media censorship and repression.  And stranger still, they don’t seem to realize that in their repressive actions they reveal their true nature and imagine this will not, as it did in the middle-east, rebound against them.

As the mass media in America is doing its best to ignore, distort, suppress and censor the Occupy Wall Street events, as well as those now occurring in other cities, I encourage readers here to spread the word.  See here for more on a national scale.   And for a grim look at the nastier reality of what is being confronted see this, from a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Not your usual hippie long hair ranter and raver.   What he writes is terrifying precisely because it is so true, and while I suppose most Americans would deny what he states, that is what is so awful about it.

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