The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival

by Huei-Yin Chen

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Devotion
Translator: Brian Hioe

Asian Documentary Filmmaker’s Manifesto

We, the Asian filmmakers present here, at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival’89, call attention to the sad absence of any Asian film in the competition. While this is not the fault of this festival, it puts into focus the fact that major obstacles exist in the making of relevant and interesting documentary films in the Asian region.

Our gathering here notes that the essential ingredients for quality filmmaking in our respective country are available:

There is no shortage of energy or passion for documentary films;

—There are enough, even if minimal, technical skills to produce quality social and personal documentaries;

—There are innumerable subjects and themes of universal and humanistic relevance that are crying out to be documented;

—There is no lack of filmmaking talents who can create audiovisual documentation from the point-of-view of our respective culture.

We ask then in earnest (without prejudice to our fellow filmmakers outside our region), why are the documentaries “of quality and of interest” that enter the international exchange of information mainly in the hands of those countries who have the material resources to realize these films?

We, note, with regret, that there exist many obstacles to the opportunities for our films to be produced and disseminated in the real world by political and market motivation. We acknowledge, with sadness, that these institutional roadblocks originate from a complex mix of third-world realities as well as international imbalances. We accept, with concern, that these cannot be eradicated overnight.

But we believe that these obstacles can be overcome only with concerted efforts by ourselves, the Asian filmmakers, for a start…with support from energies generated at international gatherings like YIDFF, committed to the belief that independent social and personal documentaries are invaluable to present and future generations.

Therefore, We The Asian Filmmakers present here, declare our commitment to maintain a network of Asian Filmmakers for the sharing of our vision, as well as our problems and solutions.

We dramatize here, our desire to plant the seeds for the renaissance of independent documentary filmmaking in our region. We affirm here with optimism, our determination to seek, develop and implement approaches to deal with the obstacles, so that future international events like the YIDFF will not be short on good Asian films.

We declare here, the SPIRIT of the independent Asian Documentary Filmmakers is alive! And will one day, soar with the wind!

[First signed and circulated in Japanese and English at the first YIDFF on 15 Oct 1989. First published in Japanese and English in Asia Symposium 1989, 62-63]

26 YEARS AGO, on October 15, 1989, a group of Asian filmmakers at the first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Yamagata, Japan published the “Asian Documentary Filmmaker’s Manifesto”. Participants in the festival included Kidlat Tahimik, Stephen Teo, Nick Deocampo, Su Chang-Kong, Manop Odomdej, Peggy Chiao Hsiung-Ping, Serge Daney, and others.

This was far from the first public manifesto of Asian filmmakers, but it was the first manifesto of Asian documentary filmmakers which became well known internationally. It is hard to say how many still remember it, but the Manifesto is far from being a relic consigned to museums. The difficulties facing filmmakers described in the manifesto still exist today, and so the words of the Manifesto still have relevance to the present.

11637842_10203074572145250_1151517853_nShinsuke Ogawa

Looking at it from another viewpoint, the Manifesto did not immediately bring about a wave of transformation in Asian film, but in regards to the broader spirit of the times, only directly brought about change within the Yamagata International Documentary Festival itself. From the second festival onwards, Asian documentary films were not totally absent from the competition section of Yamagata International Documentary Festival itself as they were at the first festival, a fact that had prompted the writing of the Manifesto to begin with. The Yamagata International Documentary Festival itself became a documentary film festival representative of Asian documentary films as a whole. Outside of Japan, some large documentary festivals devoted to Asian documentary film were born throughout Asia in the wake of the Manifesto, and as a result Asian documentary film slowly became more international thereby gaining more attention. As a secondary effect, a number of younger volunteers at the film festival became adherents of the so-called “Ogawa teachings”. This phenomenon is arguably reminiscent of the way Shinsuke Ogawa ran his Ogawa Pro.

But in reality, the concrete achievements of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival lay in the network of filmmakers that Shinsuke Ogawa established, extending across South Korea, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Phillipines, and other locations. This included Wu Weng-Guang, Peng Xiao-Lian, and Feng Yan from China, Kidlat Tahimik, Teddy Co, and Nick Deocampo, Kong Su-Chang, Bae Chang-ho, Kim Dong-won, and Byun Young-joo from South Korea (the last two individuals’s interaction with Ogawa was a factor in accelerating the establishment of PURN Production), and others. From Taiwan, Wu Yii-Feng and Ogawa prepared to collaborate to in order to train a new generation of young, talented documentary filmmakers, but sadly, Ogawa passed away not after too long, making Wu Yii-Feng the last person to interview Ogawa.

For many people, Ogawa is already a symbol, an emblem of the highest ideal that documentary film can strive for, as an almost impossible to strive for utopian ideal. But what we can’t forget is Ogawa’s role in actively shaping this legend and the contradictory role of collective filmmaking in his work. Yet within his production company, though the goal of achieving a collective work attitude had great symbolic significance, it could at other times become an obstacle.

This also explains why Barbara Hammer encounters numerous difficulties in her attempt to demystify Ogawa Pro in Devotion:A Film About Ogawa Productions (2000). The central members of Ogawa Pro who worked with Ogawa for decades are largely absent from within Barbara Hammer’s interviews. Some of them chose to make a clean break with Ogawa Pro. Ties are cut. They are also forgotten in the remembrances of individuals, and so what we are left with is only Shinsuke Ogawa’s name in the legends and rumors, understandings and interpretations of the history of Ogawa Pro. How can a film production company be collective in nature, when on every production, they worked, lived and ate together 24/7, endured this for eight years, but on films there was only the company’s name? With over 100 people participating in the group, members came and went, there were members who stayed at Ogawa’s side for close to twenty years! The full details of this complicated situation is something that only members on the inside know.

What is clear is that “Ogawa Pro” and the idealistic utopian vision it offers, despite full of contradictions, truly turn a new page in the history of documentary film and establish the internal philosophy for the Ogawa system of filmmaking. In Ogawa’s late creative career, this collective practice of documentary filmmaking became a new ideal for Asian documentary filmmaking, and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival was the first step of this idea spreading. The goals of “finding young Asian counterparts to make films” and “wanting to see more Asian documentary films produced”, became part of the late Ogawa’s creative vision. But, of course, it remains that he is largely absent from “the history of documentary film” generated in the western world and is written of in relation to Japanese documentary film, without piecing together his place in the international arena. 

11212453_10203074573025272_2080031510_nWhy is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994)

We can’t totally say that there is direct inheritance, but if you examine the development of Asian documentary film through the development of artistic networks, what was shared was a connections and in 1989 Ogawa’s vision had the promise of distant echoes. Within these connections formed at the 1989 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, was that of Kidlat Tahimik and Ogawa, whose connection was particularly special. When Tahimik and Ogawa met, Tahimik was in the middle of making Why is Yellow the Middle of Rainbow?, also known as I Am Furious Rainbow. For three consecutive festivals at Yamagata, he brought different versions of the film to participate, with the hope of reconnecting with the spirit of Ogawa by Mount Zao once again, very much in the spirit of “searching for the place he belongs.” After Ogawa passed away, he added an image of Ogawa to the film. What is interesting is that Barbara Hammer’s Devotion has a segment with a member of Ogawa Pro explaining the collective mode of operation to establish desired shooting ideals, which is juxtaposed with an image of Tahimik—which indirectly completes the circle of mutual homage.

Tahimik and Ogawa both had an unusual film career. Tahimik’s film career began when he had the chance encounter of meeting Werner Herzog and playing a small part in his The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974). A few years after his acting debut he would make his directorial debut Perfumed Nightmare (1977) and win the FIPRESCI Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival, becoming one of the few Asian directors recognized abroad. Although the starting point of their ideas was different, in different ways, he and Ogawa’s oeuvre and production process, points toward a utopian vision for creative works. We can’t say if it was in coincidence or some sort of providence that in 1989 at the Yamagata International Film Festival, Kidlat Tahimik drew up the set of ideas he did in the Manifesto. He and the others present had the aspiration to search for new ideals for Asian documentary film, and Tahimik himself was unceasingly searching for a means to represent third world values and corresponding ways to represent that in film, as we can see in the dialectical process of his works.

The two of them had many shared points. The two of them believed that the process of producing a film and the finished product were equally important and also agreed that life and film had an intimate relation that could not be separated. Regarding more practical concerns, their works were also both extremely time consuming to produce. There are other parallels in terms of their lives. Tahimik moved to an indigenous people’s village to try and new lifestyle, much like how Ogawa moved from Narita to Magino in order to experience the life of farmers, though we can see how there are also many distinct points between their experiences.

Outside of what Ogawa said about his motivations in regards to beginning with the intent of “making a good film about farmers” and “becoming a farmer himself”, on the surface it appears that Ogawa’s decisions were irrational and impulsive. Many people had no way to understand this sudden impulse, and turned away from him. However, in retrospect, his decision of moving to the suburbs, far away from the politics, seems to relate with the diminishment of student movement and the overall changes in the environment of producing documentaries in Japan at that time. Also, Ogawa actively sought to become a farmer during this time would become a part of his legend.

The process of film production became more time consuming than before, including attempt to record the entire process of growing rice, and in-depth research into farming techniques, leaving behind many manuscripts, notes, and research material. Doing this under a state of isolation from the world, Ogawa Pro was taking a large risk. But on the other hand, if we look at it from the opposite perspective, for Ogawa—whether it was a collective way of life, immersing one’s self completely in the protest movement, or going to the fields to become a farmer—these were all ways of aspiring to the ideal state of the documentary form from every angle. 

The trajectory of Tahimik’s career founded a path for new ideals, as we can see from his films. For him, to get closer to indigenous peoples, the way of doing so was a process of retrogression as a way of finding the ideals of the third world. Yet this wasn’t simply an aspiration of “searching for roots”, or “returning to nature”, but rather to prove within/to/from the first and second world that the existence of third world values already existed, and that the values of the third world were better than the values of the first world and second world. He believed that the essence of the third world was international, was not confined to regional boundaries, and with its possibility of becoming universal in nature, it has the potential of solving the challenges faced by society nowadays. With these preconditions, the colors of his utopia was projected into the past as a means to renew the collective way of life for the present, to return to the collective was to learn in order to pave a path for its re-creation.

11650864_10203074588865668_1495865684_nPerfumed Nightmare (1977)

Concerning this, I want to return to Tahimik’s Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow. Actually, it should be noted that Tahimik was not inattentive to politics. The chapter “We are Furious Yellow” in the film documents 1980 the political shift in the Phillipines in 1980, “yellow” originally representing the movement of the people against the Marcos government, then becoming a symbol of hope and triumph after the dictator left. But then when democratization happened, yellow became the representative color of Corazon Aquino, when the people’s government looked forward to by the people was a failure of utopian hopes, yellow became an intermediate color of stagnation. The impression Tahimik leaves is of uncertain, winding paths, leading us forward with his characteristic steps. Tahimik puts the difficulties of politics as reflected in culture as reflection, as we can see in the chapters “We are Colonial Red White and Blue, “We Are Dis-Harmonious Disney-color”, “We are Powerless Black”, “Indio-genous Brown,” and finally, “We are Glorious Rainbow.”

Tahimik’s homage to Ogawa can be seen in “Indio-genous Brown,” which ceaselessly emphasizes the wisdom learned by Ogawa through the process of growing rice of searching for the “place where one belongs.” Kidlat repeatedly stresses the importance of connection to the land in “Indio-genous Brown”, and tries to learn this from indigenous peoples. This is Kidlat’s understanding as echoes with Ogawa’s, and this confluence of ideas that may be the significant reason for this resonance. If we are to discuss the most significant similarity between the two of them, it is that in the process of artistic struggle, while eagerly pursuing utopian ideals, they extended to this to their everyday lives.

Here, Ogawa’s films became a part of Tahimik films, the two people’s influence on the world has an intimate overlap and intersection. When the film reaches “Indio-genous Brown,” it is already approaching its conclusion, the chapter “We are Glorious Rainbow.” But it is not right to say that it is the conclusion of the film either, rather that we should instead say that the unceasing motion of the film itself continues to produce new conclusions. Tahimik form of liberation lay in accepting of the possibilities of various circumstances, and the temporal duration of the movie becomes a form of “third world time”, and the film becomes itself a form of utopia. In examination of Why is Yellow the Middle of Rainbow? as a whole, between politics and culture, Tahimik continually searches for answers in a process of becoming, and imperceptibly is in dialogue with the documentary of Ogawa in a dialectical process of discussion; as a result, film history in the process of its happening is documented in the film itself.

No more articles