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Back up the Mountains: Yamagata 2023

By Betty Stojnic

Yamagata film festival group

Courtesy of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

In the north of mainland Japan, Yamagata City sits in a low valley flanked by mountain ranges and farmland. Since 1989, it has been home to the oldest documentary festival in Asia, welcoming filmmakers from around the world to this naturally isolated basin. Held every two years in October, Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has not only accelerated the careers of auteurs like KAWASE Naomi and HAMAGUCHI Ryusuke, but has also become an important hub for the circulation of world cinema in Japan. The festival is known to prioritize creative and experimental films, a curatorial “bias” that has gained additional prestige since it became an Oscar qualifier in 2018. For its first on-site edition in four years, YIDFF returns with a long roster of Japanese and world premieres, an exhaustive NODA Shinkichi retrospective, and daily Q&As with international industry, all supported by local efforts to reclaim the event from COVID’s debris. 

Like most aspects of public life, YIDFF struggled under coronavirus lockdowns. For Yamagata, a city with 1.7% of Tokyo’s population, the festival had become a cultural mainstay, its momentum channeling into various other businesses and locales. While an online edition was put together for 2021, the choice of films revealed a sense of loss and uncertainty. SATO Koichi’s elegiac Pickles and Komian Club (2021) mourned the 2020 demolition of the pickled food store that housed YIDFF’s beloved late-night social venue, the titular Komian Club. Komian was the prime gathering spot for filmmakers, staff, press, and audience members to mingle without the implicit hierarchy of titles and badges, and its closure left many in the community feeling unmoored. Though Japan eased most COVID-related measures last year, YIDFF’s biennial schedule meant that it also skipped the 2022 rush of festival comebacks.

After such a long pause in its full format, the anticipation for YIDFF 2023 was understandably eager, if a bit trepidatious. Fortunately, a packed house greeted the opening film Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus, an immortalization of the recently departed composer’s final solo concert, directed by his son SORA Neo. Garnering similar enthusiasm from the audience, the International Competition boasted a number of films that had made the rounds in Berlinale, Venice IFF, Visions du Réel, and DMZ, but which could now finally be seen in Japan – Anhell69 (2022, Theo Montoya), Crossing Voices (2022, Raphaël Grisey and Bouba Touré), and Eastern Front (Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko), to name a few. Meanwhile, the New Asian Currents section took viewers from Portugal to South Korea with gripping explorations of family relationships and political conflict, such as Luo Luo’s Youth (Luo Luo) or Encounters on an Uncertain Spring (2022, Taymour Boulos). Several filmmakers re-edited archival material or original footage taken many years prior, overlaying themes of the personal and political with meditations on time, history, and memory.

One such film was TRINH T. Minh-ha’s What About China? (2022). The latest in her storied and celebrated career, Trinh’s film comprises Hi8 footage shot in the 1990s during her visit to rural southeastern China. The film resembles a standard travelogue, blending signifiers of “traditional” life—narrow village alleyways, rusty farm tools, carefree children, the corrugated faces of the elderly—into a palette of earthy beige, absent any dialogue with or between the filmed subjects. However, unlike the typical film essay, multiple people participate in the narration: Trinh’s voice is accompanied by several Chinese-born writers who reflect on a country that is both “over there” (as a delimited territory) and “over here” (in the psyche of each person, Chinese or otherwise). In her own words, Trinh’s goal is to speak not only about China, but nearby China. She wonders whether these thirty-year-old recordings retain their meaning in the present day, even (or especially) if the country has changed drastically in the intervening time. Yet, despite the multiplicity of voices, the viewer is left to wonder whether the grand notion of “China” is still being surrendered to the realm of diasporic cinema, where one’s distance from the “over there” inevitably takes center stage, even as Trinh attempts to close it. What About China? continually struggles against the exotifying nature of its travel essay format, sometimes to its detriment.

Decades-old footage made another appearance at the world premiere of FUJINO Tomoaki’s What Should We Have Done? Like Trinh, Fujino begins his film with a question, but seeks the answer in an “over here” that is so intimate it almost causes us to recoil. Over the course of twenty years, the director documents his older sister’s battle with schizophrenia, an illness largely ignored by their high-achieving doctor parents. Her condition deteriorates without medication, prompting Fujino to record his family’s claustrophobic get-togethers and shared meals. He engages them in exhausting conversations that lead only to dead ends, as his sister is preoccupied with her delusions and their parents resist any suggestion that she seek therapy. As the audience, we see Fujino grow from fearing his sister, to his fury at their passive parents, to ultimately finding compassion for his family, without absolving them of their mistakes. What Should We Have Done? teeters between being a genuine, desperate question and a resigned dismissal, finding its place somewhere in the middle—Fujino concedes that all decisions come with risks and sacrifices, but that they are better than doing nothing.

Generational tragedy found further expression in films about political violence and its far-reaching consequences. Screened for the first time outside of South Korea, KIM Kyung-man’s Until the Stones Speak (2022) delves into the aftermath of the Jeju Incident of April 3, 1948 (“4/3”), when tens of thousands of people on Jeju were killed or imprisoned on false accusations of rebellion against the state. Now in their nineties, five women who suffered under these charges share their experiences after decades of government censorship. The aging interviewees discuss the abuses they endured when the uprising was quashed, recounting a level of bloodshed that is irreconcilable with their feeble voices and bodies. These testimonies are paired with wide shots of Jeju’s stark mountainous terrains, where many of the island’s inhabitants fled during the rebellion and subsequent massacre. Unlike the previous films, Until the Stones Speak does not contain any retrospective footage, because it is ultimately not a retrospective film. The victims testify not only to past crimes, but also to the pain they experience to this day—a “bad shoulder” incurred from the beatings, the traumas they inadvertently passed on to their children, and the long-standing injustice of 4/3’s suppression in public discourse.

Until the Stones Speak

Until the Stones Speak. Courtesy of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.

YIDFF returnees HATANO Shuhei and ODA Kaori also explore the intersection of personal and political histories in their latest works, screened jointly to a full theatre. The world premiere of Hatano’s Radiance represented the culmination of his project to film every day for a year, starting from April 2020. In the resulting short, each shot lasts no more than a second, whizzing past us as we piece together the director’s family life from a gale of tender, domestic images. Radiance is most compelling when it moves beyond the diaristic voiceover trappings with its waist-high camera placement and impressionistic style, evoking the gaze of Hatano’s daughter by taking us on a journey through her candid encounters with the world. Oda’s GAMA, on the other hand, plunges us into the abysses of the gama, Okinawa’s limestone caves that served as refuge spots for locals fleeing the American military during the Second World War. A cave guide, MATSUNAGA Mitsuo, leads us through the gama in a slow-paced, almost clinical commemoration of one of the most gruesome chapters of Japan’s final months of war. This seemingly antithetical double bill encapsulated the leitmotifs of YIDFF’s program—examining the personal and political, past and present—while revealing the permeability between these concepts.

The same held true for the award winners, who also shed light on high-stakes political struggles through first-person narratives. The Grand Prize in the International Competition went to Payal Kapadia’s Cannes L'Œil d'or winner A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), in which the narrator documents the turbulence of India’s student protests via a series of letters to her estranged former lover. The Visit and the Secret Garden (2022) by Irene M. Borrego secured the Mayor’s Prize, while Losing Ground, an anonymous film about the 2021 coup d’état in Myanmar, earned the New Asian Currents Ogawa Shinsuke Prize, named after one of YIDFF’s founding figures. The Citizen’s Prize, YIDFF’s audience award, went to Nausheen Khan’s Land of My Dreams, a recollection of the women-led Shaheen Bagh protest against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. Opening one month after YIDFF, IDFA is the next stop for several of Yamagata’s highlights; those in Europe have another chance to see Losing Ground if they missed it at Visions du Réel, while GAMA screened two times in its international debut (before Oda pulled the film in solidarity with Palestinian filmmakers), cementing Oda Kaori’s status as one of Japan’s most traveled and globally renowned young documentarians.

YIDFF awards ceremony

YIDFF 2023 Awards Ceremony. Courtesy of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.

Still, if the decision to name the audience award the “Citizen’s Prize” is any indication, YIDFF is committed to its marketing as a primarily local event with a global reach. This strategy is implemented by most city-sponsored organizations, albeit somewhat half-heartedly: an event is local because it takes place in a location, and it’s global because a (carefully tallied) number of international visitors arrives at that location. YIDFF, however, refuses to settle for the bare minimum; the event list brimmed with tea ceremonies, imoni (Yamagata’s signature stew) cookouts, film digitization demonstrations, dance performances, food stalls stocked by local businesses, and film criticism workshops in Japanese and English. While a rich side program isn’t groundbreaking on its own, its sheer variety relative to Yamagata’s size gave the impression of total mobilization—a remarkable feat considering the hardships of the last four years. 

In fact, it took only to open the bespoke YIDFF 2023 venue map for attendees to find evidence of the festival’s endurance. In the dense grid of streets and cinemas, a triumphant orange dot marked the location of the New Komian Club, where filmmakers and fans could meet once again to inaugurate the event’s full-scale return. While nonfiction filmmakers and their audiences are used to wringing their hands over the societal and economic threats to their community, YIDFF’s revival is a testament to the resolve needed to keep that community active and democratic, as well as to the fact that a dedicated audience can repay that resolve many times over.

Betty Stojnic is a film studies researcher based in Japan. She is currently working towards a PhD in Global Screen Studies at Nagoya University and the University of Warwick, specializing in Japanese cinema and animation.