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Yamagota International Documentary Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A man stands in front of a red car, from 'Metal and Melancholy', an alternately amusing and touching account of the struggle of impoverished cab drivers in Peru.

Japan's biennial celebration of documentary cinema, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, ended its fourth week long event on October 9, 1995, with gala ceremonies and cash awards of $61,000. The International Jury evaluating 15 competing feature-length documentaries was composed of Barbara Hammer (United States), Tracey Moffatt (Australia), Tarr Bela (Hungary), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan), and Kudo Elichi (Japan).

The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize of $30,000 went to Tsipi Reibenbach of Israel for her two-hour Choice and Destiny, a lovingly detailed portrait of her elderly parents, survivors of the Holocaust. The Mayor's Prize of $10,000 was awarded to Heddy Honigmann of the Netherlands for Metal and Melancholy, an alternately amusing and touching account of the struggle of impoverished cab drivers in Peru.

Three films won runners-up prizes of $3,000 each. Picture of Light (Canada/Switzerland), by Peter Mettler, seems to ask if mere celluloid can capture the breathtaking picture show called the Northern Lights of the Canadian Arctic. Father, Son, and the Holy War (India), by Anand Patwarden, shows us brutal religious atrocities, neighbor against neighbor, slashing and burning, provoked by ambitious zealots. Screen-play: The Times (Germany), by Barbara and Winfried Junge, spans three decades within the former German Democratic Republic. It may be the oldest long-term observation in film history; as such, it is a credit to the GDR's DEFA Studio, as an honest nonpolitical report on working-class life, concentrating on children.

Four American films were among the 15 competitors. Terry Zwigoff came with the much-written-about Crumb, about the underground comic­ book artist R. Crumb and his bizarre family. Helena Soldberg and David Meyer showed Carmen Miranda: Banana Is My Business, a profile of the Brazilian bombshell who exploded first on Broadway, then in Hollywood musicals; sadly, she was scorned in Brazil for debasing her native culture. The third Yank competitor was Hoop Dreams, by Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert. And in The House on Arbat Street, Russian-born filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya, who now lives in the United States, returns to the land of her birth to make a film about a once-elegant mansion, now a century old, whose inhabitants mirror the nation's many changes. None of these titles won prizes.

The remaining non winners within the international competition were an interesting mix. In Last Farewell USSR (Ukraine), Alexander Rodoyansky poses the question: As Soviet soldiers leave the GDR for their homeland, what has become of that homeland? Letter to Eros (Australia), by Josko Petkovic, looks at how Javanese trance dances-enchantments from the deep past-might be able to guide us in our modern delirium. Another Australian film, Lynn-Marie Milburn's Memories And Dreams, becomes a personal odyssey as the filmmaker follows a girl from wartime horror in Europe to Australia, using a mixture of documentary styles, fantasy, and poetry. The Eternal Traveler (Japan), by Hara Masato, is a four-hour road movie with a father and son; the narrative is provided by 100 haiku, experimental images that question "subject," "object," "relationship,” "place."

Also in competition was Relics: Einstein’s Brain (England), by Kevin Hull, which looks at what happens when idolatry gets mixed up with science. On his death, per his instructions, Einstein's body was cremated­ but his brain was secretly removed by Princeton scientists. Now, 40 years later, no study of the brain is complete­ indeed, it may be lost; a Japanese scientist begins the search. And from the other side of the globe came China's The Square, by Zhang Yuan and Ouan Jinchuan, dealing with Tiananmen Square, site in Beijing of the 1989 massacre of student protesters. Today you can get your picture taken by roving photographers, watch young soldiers flirt with the girls, fly your kite, even do your calisthenics.

The five international jurors, as filmmakers themselves, showed the festival their own work. Barbara Hammer screened her 1992 film Nitrate Kisses, "a poetic/stylistic meditation" about the hidden history of homosexuality. Tracey Moffatt came with her Night Cried: A Rural Tragedy, treating the tension between an elderly white woman and her adopted aboriginal daughter. Tarr Bela screened his seven-hour Satantango (1993), in which a Hungarian village­ and the villager's morals—begin to deteriorate; it was a hit at Berlin in 1995. The Thirteen Assassins (1963), by Kudo Eiichi, has been called "a masterpiece of the Japanese samurai film," in which the code of warrior honor is everything. And Why Don't We Sing? by Hou Hsiao-hsien (1995) chronicles the oppression of Taiwan by incoming mainland Chinese fleeing Mao's Red Army.

As did other festivals, Yamagata featured a retrospective salute to the cinematic art form on its 100th birthday (what will movies be like on their 200th birthday?). A program called "Seven Specters: Transfigurations in Electronic Shadows" showcased 56 titles during the week, documentaries long and short, old and new, 24 of them American. A sampling of American classic documentaries led off with Lowell Thomas's three-minute newsreels With Lawrence in Arabia and In Palestine with Allenby (1918); Grass (1925), by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in their pre-King Kong mode; Prelude to War (1942), from Major Frank Capra's Why We Fight series; and The Battle of San Pietro (1945), by Major John Huston, the director's personal print that survived the government's deletion of battle horror.

More recent U.S. history and social protest were evident in Kevin Rafferty and Jayne Loader's The Atomic Cafe (1982), an antiwar tour de force satirically using stock footage; Emile de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig (1969), dated now and lacking intellectual depth, but its irreverent anti-Vietnam War stance contributed to the United States' finally withdrawing some years later; and Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman's Silverlake Life: The Viewfrom Here (1993), in which two lovers in Los Angeles die of AIDS, the murderer among us.

Also within "Seven Specters," Robert A. Nakamura contributed two compilations on AJAs—a new term, for "Americans of Japanese ancestry," that may be replacing the now-standard term Japanese-Americans. Nakamura's Moving Memories (1993) compiles pre-war home movies of family life among Americans of Japanese ancestry, depicting school events, sports, work, nice people on the front porch of wooden houses, smiling and posing for the camera. His Something Strong Within (1994) indeed depicts inner strength as these Americans of Japanese ancestry find themselves uprooted during World War II, deprived of their homes and businesses and farming land, and transported by American police and soldiers to desert internment camps, where here and there a few managed to shoot covertly on cheap 8mm cameras. In addition, "Seven Specters" featured a parcel of home movies by Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and William Wyler, coming to Yamagata courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a grab-bag of avant-garde personal shorts by Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Marlon Riggs, George Kuchar, Sadie Benning, Alan Siegel, Chuck Workman, and Morgan Fisher.

European titles within "Seven Specters" included Lumière Brothers and Their Cameramen (France, 1895-1905), a 93-minute compilation of 104 Lumière actualities, including the first film ever shot in Japan. The screening, followed by a sumptuous buffet, aptly opened the festival and debuted the city's enormous new cultural center, called Big Wing, which houses the Documentary Film Library of 750 film titles and 850 books and reference works relating to the art of the documentary. These materials are available to scholars and others at no charge, in both Japanese and English.

Other European documentary classics shown included Borinage (Belgium, 1933), a seminal use of film­ as-social -weapon, depicting poverty among miners and launching long, brilliant careers for its directors, Joris Ivens and Henri Storck; and Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933), combining a deeply ironical look at an indifferent Catholic Church with muted scorn for fatalistic acceptance of dehumanizing poverty. Seeing Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), one realizes that few films have had the long-range impact of this work by Vertov's Kino Eye young experimentalists, exuberantly optimistic about film and about the regime, filled with dazzling innovation galore-a true masterpiece.

World War II, of course, was well represented among the European classics with such films as Luten to Britain (Great Britain, 1942), Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's short morale film, made as the Luftwaffe rained down death, and Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (France, 1955), still the best film about the Nazi extermination camps.

Japanese documentaries within "Seven Specters" included Himeda Todayoshi's Ainu Wedding (1971), a rather condescending film on the Japanese aborigines; Russo-Japanese War Remembrance (1905), a surviving five-minute fragment from that war, providing Japan with the heady realization that the white man, a major European power, can be defeated and humiliated by Asians; Sending Off Our Students (Never to Return) (1943), by the Department of Education, depicting as a joyous event—a holy crusade­ battalions of high school boys marching off to fight the Pacific war; Imamura Shohei's Karayuki-San: The Making of a Prostitute (1973), a portrait of a woman compelled to serve as a whore for the Japanese military, one of several Shohei films on Japan's war crimes; and The 12th Tokyo May Day (1931), a seven-minute leftist newsreel about a massive May Day protest from Japan's prewar proletarian movement.

Within the "New Asian Currents" sidebar, a jury of two, Wong Ain-ling of Hong Kong and Tamura Masaki of Japan, evaluated 34 titles from 14 Asian nations, plus three co-productions with western countries. The Ogawa Shinsuke Prize of $5,000, named for Japan's late documentary leader, went to Byun Young-joo of South Korea, for Murmuring (1995), an unsparing report on Korean "comfort women," kidnapped and com pelled to be sexual slaves to the Japanese army during the war.

Another sidebar, "Japanese Documentaries of the 1970s," featured 44 titles and symposia. Of these, seven films spanning a decade, aU directed by Ogawa Shinsuke, traced the struggle of Japanese peasants to preserve their land and their ancestral cemeteries from the bulldozers and developers of the Narita Airport. Another seven films, directed by Tsuchimoto Noriaki over four years, dealt with industrial pollution and the Minamata scandals, which led a legacy of crippled and severely retarded children. Other 1970s documentaries were on the arts, religion, education, and social change.

Eleven titles figured in "Special Invitation Films," including the American Song Journey, by Arlene Bowman, on our Native Americans. The Kobe earthquake, when 6,000 died, figured in Aoike Kenji's A Human Town. Alexander Sokurov's five-and-a­ half-hour Spiritual Voices (Russia) provided "spiritual voices" of young Russian soldiers at the front during the Tadzhikistan civil war. Seven titles totaling two and a half hours, made between 1967 and 1992, came from the extraordinary Artavazd Pelechian of Armenia, acclaimed as "the man who reinvented the meaning of 'editing' and 'montage.'"

A special closing-night treat was the Walter Ruttmann classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Germany, 1927), with a new score composed and conducted on stage by Timothy Brock and performed by the Yamagata Symphony Orchestra. Berlin is one of four new Brock scores for Weimar Republic silent films being rehabilitated by film scholar David Shepard of the Los Angeles -based Film Preservation Associates, who was present in Yamagata. Video distributor of the Brock-scored films is Don Krim's Kino International. New York. More are planned.

Gordon Hitchen is a film writer based in New York City. He was the founding editor of Film Comment.