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.
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.