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The 5th Biannual YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

Two women from Werner Schroeter's 'Love's Débris' (Germany/France, 120 min., 1996)

The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, held every two years since 1989, took place October 6-13, one day longer than in previous years. Located about 200 miles north of Tokyo, the city of Yamagata is obviously committed to its festival, and the cultural attractions nearby complement well the profuse film screenings. An International Competition (consisting this year of fourteen films) receives consideration from a distinguished jury (usually five; four this year) for five prizes, ranging from about $25,000 U.S. for the Grand Prize to $2,500 for the Special Prize. This year, special screenings consisted of a Panorama of Japanese documentaries ("Pursuit of Japanese Documentary: The 1980s and Beyond"), also "Imperial Japan at the Movies" (more than 60 films), works by the jurors (Ning Ying, Robert Kramer, Shaji Karun), invited films (Byun Young-joo's Murmuring and Habitual Sadness; Vincent Monnikendam's Mother Dao the Turtlelike; Chris Marker's Level 5; and Personal Memoir of Hong Kong, two films from Stanley Kwan and Ann Hui), and "New Asian Currents," the primary showcase in the world for new and up-and-coming Asian documentaries. Yamagata has earned a rep­utation as a friendly but expansive film festival, and this year's offering of more than 170 films furthered that reputation.

In the festival of Competition films was Fragments Jerusalem, by Ron Havilio (Israel, 360 min., 1997), which won Yamagata's Grand Prize (named after Robert and Frances Flaherty and presented on the closing night in gala ceremonies). Born in Jerusalem, and now 47, Havilio spent his childhood in Paris, Istanbul and elsewhere, given his father's duties as a diplomat. At 18, he returned to Jerusalem, after university, becoming a photographer and construction renovator of old houses, all of which presaged this documentary on Old Jerusalem, those fragments that remain. Research and shooting for Fragments Jeru­salem began in 1986, and continued for 10 years. Meanwhile, Havilio has taught at the Jerusalem Film and TV School and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. He heads the Ailido Institute in Jerusalem.

Havilio is producer, director, scriptwriter, cinematog­rapher and narrator of Fragments Jerusalem—truly a personal film. The city's history and present connect intimately with his family, thus his film parallels the two, blending subjectivity and objectivity—as is the case for society and its individuals. Arthur Miller put it this way: "The fish is in the water and the water is in the fish." Structured through editing by Tor Ben-Mayor into 7 parts, the film starts with the rustory of Palestine and uses old drawings, photos, family and news footage, surviving artifacts of the many wars that raged over the hills and valleys there. Havilio explains: "As an adult, I sought to under­stand the world into wruch I was born. I felt the need to dig into the past, to follow the traces of my family, their private search for happiness in a violent changing city. I chose the personal path of filmmaking, recording my envirornnent. It was like fighting back oblivion—fixing images, faces, stories, fragments of life that would otherwise have been erased from memory. I made this film for my daughters, for my country—but I believe at the same time that the more private and local a film is, the more universal is its reach. Each of us may have a unique trajectory in this world, but we share the same transitory human condition."

Producer, writer, director, co-editor of Lines from the Heart (Sweden, 75 min., 1996), Christina Olofson has a dual career: her own films—one with the inviting title Women are a Risky Bet—and also her duties as President of the Society of Nordic Film Directors. As a member of the Swedish Association of Directors and the Federation of Europe­ an Film Directors (FERA), Olofson has been active in formulating the cultural and cinema policy of Sweden. Her Lines concerns late Swedish actress-director Mai Zetterling, who died in 1994. As a frame for her career-portrait of this remarkable artist, Olofson brought together in the south of France-in Christina Olofson Zetterling's home-three famous Swedish actresses who had appeared in Zetterling's The Girls (1968): Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom. The trio had also worked separately with Ingmar Bergman on many films. Their recollections, and excerpts from Zetterling's films, combine to make Lines a memorable addition to cinema scholarship.

Barbara Hammer was first in Yamagata in 1993, as Chair of the Competition Jury, when her Nitrate Kisses was screened. This year, Hammer returned with Tender Fictions (U.S., 58 min., 1995), of which she is producer, writer, director; also, she did cinematog­raphy, sound, editing and narration. She explained that her purpose with Tender Fictions was to examine various truths (plural) of the same event or situation, as perspectives change and shift; e.g., she narrates the film as "I" and "she" and "he." In Tender Fictions, as in her preceding work, Hammer explores homosexuality and soci­ety, assisted by images from Hollywood films, educational films and miscellaneous stock footage, with her voice-over using jokes and quotations from feminists and others. Her films are screened widely in the U.S. and in Europe.

Tu as crié LET ME GO (Canada, 98 min., 1997) is a mother's film about the murder Barbara Hammer of her daughter, who was trapped in a fatal spiral of drugs and prostitution. Director Anne Claire Poirier has shown great strength to convert her personal sorrow into this recital of her daughter's descent to death. Let Me Go is aimed at the many par­ents who become devastated by their addicted children... the film is also for youngsters seeking risky thrills, who think that drugs are cool and can free rather than enslave them, "as if dying to be free could be a reason for living."

Poirier co-researched the narration with Daniel Pinard, co-wrote the text with Marie­ Claire Blais, and provided the voice-over for the film. Trained as a lawyer, a veteran of Radio Canada and the National Film Board of Canada, she made short documentaries and fiction, including a series showcasing Quebec women directors: she directed one offering about the first French women to come to New France centuries ago. She has also produced a film about abortion Appointed Executive Director of NFB's French Production Studio in 1975, Poirier supervised work and made Mourir à tue­-tête, a fictional denunciation of rape as a "political crime of domiination." She made two additional fiction works, then returned to documentary with Ilya a longtemps que je t'aime, a montage of images of woman over a half-century of NFB production. She also directs plays and lectures at theater schools. In 1988, Poirier re­ceived the Albert Tessier Award from Quebec for her body of work.

Originally invited as a Competition juror, Werner Schroeter arrived unavoidably late in Japan and had been replaced by a standby juror. Nevertheless, he was a significant festival presence and introduced his Love's Debris (Germany/France, 120 min., 1996), winner of Locarno's Special Leop­ard. Its stars are once-famous operatic divas, with due asides to their lovers, husbands, children, whatever. Anita Cerquetti takes center-stage, the personification of collective diva-dom, with a ravishing smile and authoritative presence, now aged and long retired but not forgotten, a lively raconteur who sings along with her early recordings, recalling fondly those glorious days long ago. This theatrical assemblage is not mocked by Schroeter, who plain­ly admires them and their traditions. He gathered them into a medieval monastery near Paris, the furnishings and setting most apt for sweet reminiscence, with a bit of gossip.

Schroeter captures his film's theme in two sentences: "Everything we express with our voice results from our desire to come closer to another person. There is no voice without love, and the singing voice is the highest possible expression of love."

He explains his title by claiming that opera is all about love... but with time we must become old, leaving a residue, relics, burned-out coals where once there was flame and heat. The title of Schroeter's film sounds a bit too cold, although true. He has been a director of opera and plays since the early 1970s and is now 52 years old. Once a prominent figure of the German New Wave, that revitalized a once-distinguished German film tradition, Schroeter was always separated from his contemporaries, Fassbinder and Herzog et al., because of his highly stylized and extravagant theatricality (some might say "decadence"). In 1980, his Palermo or Woljberg won Berlin's top award, the Golden Bear.

Paper Heads (Slovakia, 96 min., 1996) was at the Human Rights Festival in New York last June. Written and directed by ex-coal miner Dusan Hanak, it is set in the present but takes as its target of ridicule the oppressive communist regime in Czechoslo­vakia from 1949, when WW II had ended and the Soviets held the country in an iron grip, until 1989, when the Berlin Wall and Marxist utopia collapsed together, turning Slovakia into an independent nation. Huge paper heads atop cavorting revelers is an old tradi­tion in central Europe, at street fairs, on holidays and the like. Grotesquely exaggerated, the faces of political figures and others become the occasion for fun, faces recognizable but caricatured, especially if the paper head delivers a pompous and flatulent speech. It's a popular public pastime for ventilating disgust with the corrupt authority—figures in society and in government—why don't Americans do that?

Hanák intercuts the raucous parade of the paper heads with the quiet intense recollections from victims of the totalitarian regime. Also, he uses earlier stock footage of peaceful demonstrators, silently protesting the government, suddenly cut down by stormtroopers. "My film is an emotional collage about violations of human rights, against the regime that wiped out all elements of democracy. It was a government of terror and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people." Looking at the present, Hanák is apprehensive: "We have not yet managed to come to terms with our past. The struggle for democracy is not yet won..."

Homesick Eyes—the title tells it all—concems foreign workers from Southeast Asia who come north to Taiwan and Japan, to work at low wages, usually as unskilled labor, hoping to send money home to their famlies. Meanwhile, because of language and cultural differences, workers are isolated and lonely, tending to cluster in their own ghettos, thus getting some semblance of village life far away. Their plight is mirrored elsewhere—the "guest workers" of Germany, many from Turkey; those in the U.K. from the Caribbean or India; throughout Northern Europe, and in the U.S., southern California especially.

Directed by Hsu Hsiao-ming, Homesick Eyes is from Taiwan (85 min., l 997). Because Taiwan's economy is booming, importing workers is a necessity. They come from Thailand, the Philippines, some illegally from the Peoples Republic of China. Perhaps 500,000 such workers are now in Taiwan, working in factories, construction, as domestics and the like. They are Asia's new nomadic tribe.

Director Hsu Hsiao-ming also works in fiction. His features Dust of Angels and Heartbreak Island were both in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. He is a graduate of the World College of Journalism and Communications in Taipei.

As a Competition juror, Shaji N. Karun was invited to introduce his My Own as Information (India-Malayalam, 141 min., 1994). It is a pitiless depiction of the decline and disintegration of a once loving and united family, sliding into miserable poverty. Director Karun was born in India, studied at its Film and TV Institute in Poona, and became cinematographer for 30 features, one of which earned him the National Film Award for Best Cinematography in 1979. He has also produced many shorts and documentaries. My Own is Karun's second feature and, like his first, was praised at Cannes, Locarno and London. He is now at work on his third fiction feature.

Raymond Depardon's Africas, How Are You Doing with the Pain? (France, 164 min., 1996) was discussed in an earlier report of this magazine regarding the Berlin festival. In Yamagata, it received the Mayor's Prize ($8,200 U.S.). Depardon was director/cinematographer/soundman/narrator of the film. A still photographer at 12, at 18 a soldier-photographer in Algeria, documenting the French military's campaign to defeat the independence rebellion, Depardon went on to work in Vietnam, where the French endured yet another humiliating defeat. He photographed the upheavals in Europe and Israel, the Olympics, and he scouted locations for François Truffaut. Along the way, he was invited into the prestigious photo-agency Magnum, before making his first documentary in 1979. He later won the Cesar award for his 1981 Reporters. Two fiction works followed, both screened at Cannes. His voice- over for Africas begins: "This is not a road movie... not a piece of investigative journalism, but instead the sights and sounds of ordinary pains in Africa."

London Brief, a quickie—and sans dialogue—look at that beleaguered citadel of propriety, by Jon Jost (U.S., l 05 min., 1997), was scheduled for Competition but due to difficulties arrived late, and in video only; thus it could not compete. However, London Brief was screened separately and received "Special Mention" from FIPRESCI, the international film press federation.

Jost's father was a U.S. Army officer, thus the family moved about in the years after World War II, to Japan, Italy, Germany. Son Jost dropped out of college in 1963, at the age of 20, began making social-protest films, defied his draft board, did two years in federal lock-up and, on release, re-joined the young film radicals who formed Newsreel, a militant collective of idealists and media activists who produced, distributed, exhibited, etc. Since 1973, Jost has made wide-ranging films on politics and art. His Plain Talk and Common Sense was screened at Yamagata in the festival's first year, 1989. The Museum of Modem Art in New York has toured all of his films as "Jon Jost­ American Independent."

Director Nick Deocampo reveals rus own personal struggles in his Private Wars (Philippines, 65 min., 1996). The film concerns public wars—the atrocities of the Japanese occupation of World War II, when Deocampo's grandfather was tortured and killed; also the political turmoil of the anti-Marcos period, culminating in his ouster; and the current guerrilla insurgency in the back-country against the incumbent post-Marcos regime, called by some a travesty of democracy. But Private Wars combines these elements with questions like: Why did Nick's father abandon his family, when Nick was just a boy, dooming them to dreadful poverty? and, Where is he now? Deocampo's search for truth takes him far afield, a hopeless search perhaps, and yet some connections are made-his father may be among the current insurgents. Thus, Nick's odyssey becomes a miniature of the filipino people's legacy: "Plunging into my personal history, I realize that my sufferings parallel those in the rest of society. Making this film then becomes an act of healing—with the act of looking comes understanding and forgiveness ."

3+1 (Japan, 82 mm., 1997), is a performance documentary, non-stop, allinoneshot, a film-recording from backstage dressing rooms to the audience to the stage, a technical tour de force with a minicam that manages to achieve also a multi-level structure and continuous liveliness. Director Qkj Hiroyuki has an extensive background in live performances and experimental video. He states that his 3+1 contradicts the spirit of conventional performance documentaries, where we are bombarded with glitzy digital imagery.

Winner at Yamagata of a nice cash award in 1993, for his Zoo, Fred Wiseman returned th is year with La Comédie­ Française, ou l'Amour joue (U.S., 223 min., 1996), again copping a cash award, the Competition Jury's Special Prize ($2,500 U.S.). This film is the first of Wiseman's 29 works to be shot outside the U.S., also the first entirely in a foreign language. It is a continuation of his interest in institutions, this time the world's oldest continuing theatrical repertory company. 126 hours were shot during 11 weeks in Paris. Topics comprise rehearsals, performances, meetings, casting calls, costume design and fitting, scenery design and building, ticket sales, press interviews, workshop chores, rigging and storing, budget maneuvers, contract discussions... plus and also et cetera.

First organized in 1680 by Louis XIV, the King's Acting Troupe underwent various shifts in fortune and misfortune, including the French Revolution, emerging intact at last in 1799, united at a fixed abode, the Salle Richelieu of the Palais-Royal. In 1812, Napoleon decreed such and such by which the company had secure financing, subject to certain regulations that proved livable. Since then, the Comedie-Française has built a repertory of 3,000 plays and gives 700 performances per season, using also two satellite locations. Its annual subsidy is now fixed at one per cent of the national budget, regarded as a huge sum. As a stable theatrical institution of great international prestige, the Comedie-Française has become France's national treasure.

Wiseman's prolific career was discussed in the September 1996 issue of this magazine, and his newest—Public Housing­—was screened at the New York Film Festival last October.

Complementing the Competition line-up was one of the special series held during the festival, the New Asian Currents showcase, with offerings from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz, Iran, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Mongolia, China, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Macao, Taiwan, Japan and the non-Asian countries of Hungary, Lithuania, the U.K. and the U.S. Only a few of these can be mentioned here.

Children Only Once, by Ditsi Carolino and Sadhana Buxani (Philippines, 50 min., 1996), is a moral lesson for us adults who know that we were children only once, yet too often we forget: we permit the exploitation of child labor that denies a childhood to millions of children, particularly in Asia and Africa. This film reminds us... Thus reminded, then what?

Children Only Once concerns the small children in the Philippines who work in excruciating conditions, in slaughterhouses, sugarcane fields, and on the harbor docks, adding a few pennies to the family income. Scenes of the children's joy at the end of the day, released from work, express theessence of childhood and emphasize their fate. A statement by the two young women who produced this film is so powerful, yet so simple and direct, that it appears here intact: "You can't film the eyes of these children without looking deeply into your own. You see the line of responsibility that links us all. The kids we interviewed are articulate, both child like and mature for their age. The hard life they lead—we marvel at how openly they share their lives and thoughts with us. By simply being themselves, the children generate a tremendous amount of empathy from viewers who are invariably moved by their strength and stoicism, their resilience and humor."

Experimentum Crucis was co-written and co-directed by Taras Popov and Vladimir Tulkin (Kazakhstan , 53 m i n., 1996). Their film is a merciless study of youth imprisoned and without hope. This is grim reality at the bottom of society.

Popov served as videographer and co-producer with Galina Kuzenbayeva. Trained as a psychiatrist, for 11 years working with young adults and teenaggers, he began late to use the videocamera, empha­sizing kids in isolation, material that became the basis for this film. His colleague Tulkin, a graduate of the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema, is now a leader of Kazakh cinema and TV.

The two directors stated that their film is "a portrayal of a universal and timeless dilemma, it's led to heated debate in the film world and among professionals in prison work. The film provokes powerful feelings of anger. The experiences of these young offenders, their eyes and expressions, correspond with those of the Holy martyrs: the religious references serve to remind us that these boys are caught in an historical process, because when societies disintegrate, it is the innocent and the weak who suffer, victims of the breakup of society in the same way that the Bible tells us . . . . Even the childhood of Jesus Christ may have contained some of the pain and desperation of these children. Their only hope for justice is through this film."

Anand Patwardhan, from India, has visited Yamagata twice before, the last time in 1995 with his Father; Son and Holy War, a protest against the deeply ingrained social injustices of the caste system and the winner of a "Special Prize." For his new We Are Not Your Monkeys (1997), he was producer, director, videograph­er, editor and co-writer. It is a short of only five minutes, and Yamagata usually eschews short films, at least in the Competition: but this may be the optimal length for certain kinds of quick satiric attacks. Let Anand tell it: "For over four thousand years a brutal caste hierarchy in India claimed divine status to justify exploitation. The 'higher ' caste dehuumanized the lower, depicting them as 'untouchable ' yet living off their labor... The lower castes were explicitly denied the right to education. Today people of lower caste are shaking off notions of divine inferiority. Our film and song, 'We Are of Your Monkeys,' give a lower caste perspective to the ancient Hindu legend of Ramayana, long misused to reinforce the caste system."

Work and Work, by Fuad Afravi (Iran , 42 min., 1 996), documents a way of Life, a way of work, of ancient origins. In a remote desert village of Iran, a 70 year-old blind woman, who must support her infirmelderly husband, pains­ takingly weaves elaborately designed tapestries, called djajim, with precise rhythmic motions. At night she and her man, who likes to smoke his pipe while sitting on his donkey, engage in lov­ing, humorous banter. Her djajim tapestries are used also as rugs, bedspreads and mats. Carpet-sellers in tum take her work to mar­ket, there to sell or barter in a ritual contest with buyers that has been played for centuries, in which buyers bluff their competitors by escalating their bids; by custom the blind woman gets an assured sum. Other aspects of village life are shown by Fuad, the young director, demonstrating his respect for the ancient. Work and Work received the Award of Excellence within the New Asian Currents competition, cited for "capturing the environment and unique sense of time surrounding the old couple, while extracting abstract concepts of aging and death. This traditional lifestyle is fading away mercilessly."

A major event of this year's Yamagata was the screening of Kato Tai's The Ondekoza (1981, 107 min.), both opening and closing the festival in a magnificent 35mm color print with quadrophonic sound. This "nearly forgotten masterpiece" is about drumming, primarily the huge taiko drum: the mighty sound, the rapid movement of the strong arms of the athlete-drummers, the sweat streaming down their bodies, the camera close enough to record sinews and muscles, the entire bodies of seven drummers in perfect unison... here was clearly a spellbinding film, the approopriate opening and closing event for Yamagata '97.

The next Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival is scheduled for October 1999. For information, contact the author of this article (214 W. 65 St., #3W, New York 10024-3914; phone/fax: 212-877-6856) or write the festival by e-mail at

GORDON HITCHENS is Contributing Editor to International Documentary. He was founding editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a stringer for Variety, he has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspapet: A former faculty member at C.W. Post/ Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.