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Saturday, January 25, 2020

CCC 2010-2019 Decade Top10

This blog about Contemporary Contemplative Cinema is 14 years old in 2020, and cinema still gives us more contemplative films every year. (See Recommended CCC). If anything this narrative mode is getting bigger and wider. LEt's see what the CCC masters will show us for the new decade to come...

So here is my Top10 of the past decade 2010-2019 :

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "the turin horse"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "three sisters wang bing"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "a pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "no home movie chantal akerman"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "leviathan paravel castaing-taylor"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "an elephant sitting still"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "le quattro volte"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "inland sea soda"

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "under the skin"

  1. The Turin Horse (2011/Béla TARR & Agnès HRANITZKY)
  2. Uncle Boonmee... (2010/WEERASETHAKUL)
  3. Three Sisters (2012/WANG Bing)
  4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch... (2014/ANDERSSON) 
  5. No Home Movie (2015/AKERMAN)
  6. Leviathan (2012/PARAVEL/CASTAING-TAYLOR)
  7. An Elephant Sitting Still (2018/HU Bo)
  8. Le Quattro Volte (2010/FRAMMARTINO)
  9. Inland Sea (2018/SODA)
  10. Under The Skin (2013/GLAZER)

If you're still reading this blog, if you're still watching CCC, what are your personal Top of the decade, please leave a comment.

Related :

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Interview with Observational filmmakers Kazuhiro SODA & Kiyoko KASHIWAGI

On the occasion of the release of Inland Sea on digital platforms (25 November 2019), Rock Salt Releasing contacted me to review it and offered me to interview the filmmaker Mr. Kazuhiro SODA and his producer and wife Kiyoko KASHIWAGI. Both are working jointly since Mental (2008; Observational Film #2).You may find his other films on his website (at Laboratory X).  

Kazuhiro SODA used to be a director-editor of 20 min TV documentaries for the NHK, between 1997 and 2004 : a series of over thirty portraits of NewYorkers. But the intensive TV practice and timing was everything he didn't want to do. Thus he conjured up his "Ten Commandments of Observational Filmmaking" and went on to produce his own feature length films independently (self-financed, directed, edited and never scripted). Trained as a fiction director, his vocation for documentaries was initiated by the films of Frederick Wiseman. 
I could draw parallels between some of his films and Frederick WISEMAN’s oeuvre : Mental (2008) and Titicut Follies (1967), Theatre 1&2 (2012) and Ballet (1995) or La Danse (2009) ; Oyster Factory (2015) and Belfast, Maine (1999) ; Inland Sea (2018) and In Jackson Heights (2015).
He seems to enjoy filming the same areas twice, with films in two parts (on purpose or not) : Campaign (2007) & Campaign 2 (2013) about one of his classmate running for office in Tokyo, before and after the Fukushima disaster. Theater 1 & 2 (2012) a 5h40 epic on playwright Oriza Hirata and the essence of theatre. Oyster Factory (2015) and Inland Sea (2018) on the fishing town of Ushimado and its older inhabitants.

He's the author in Japan of 7 books (2 on politics and 5 on cinema).

I ask him about his formative years, his working process, about Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, Observational Films and Inland Sea. (This interview was conducted via emails on December 2nd 2019).

* * *

Questions to Kazuhiro SODA (filmmaker) :

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : How did you make the switch from religious studies (at Tokyo University, Japan) to the School of Visual Art (in NYC, USA) ? How do religious studies inform your documentary practice, if they do ?

Kazuhiro SODA : When I was graduating from Tokyo University, I didn't really know what to do with my life. But I had a vague feeling that maybe I've been wanting to be a film director. It's strange because I wasn't a cinema lover or anything, but for some reasons, I just felt filmmaking was something I've been wanted to do. And I was so young that I didn't really think carefully. The next moment, I found myself in New York to study fiction filmmaking.

For the graduation thesis paper at the University of Tokyo, I joined a cult group called Cosmo-mate to do a participant-observational study. I pretended that I was a believer of the religion, and used my body and mind to experience what the members of the group went through. In a sense, I'm still doing the same thing with my camera instead of using a pen.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : Was your experience as a TV director for the NHK (Japanese Public Network Television) between 1997 and 2005 the opportunity to learn how not to make feature films ? Or were all these portraits you made a learning curve to best approach subjects as you do now with « Observational films »?

Kazuhiro SODA : It gave me a lot of training. Between 1998 and 2001, I was a director of a 20 minute weekly documentary series called New Yorkers aired on NHK.

For this program, we had 4 directors on the rotation including myself, which means I needed to finish a 20 minute-documentary every 4 weeks. It may sound OK, but it's actually a very tough schedule.

In the fist week, I had to find a subject, do a pre-shoot interview, write a script, and get an approval from the TV executive. In the second week, I shot it on location. In the third week, I did the off-line editing. In the fourth week, I wrote narration, translated subtitles, picked musics, mixed sound, and completed the documentary. And the following week, I had to start the same process all over again for another show. I was doing this routine for 3 years.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : You cite Frederick WISEMAN, Tatsya MORI and Makoto SATO as your influences. What did you learn from them ?

Kazuhiro SODA : I enjoyed making TV documentaries for a few years, but I became frustrated with the way TV shows were being made. I began to think that we should not use any narration because the viewers are not so stupid. Also, I was not a big fan of this process of doing a lot of research to write a detailed script before shooting. The TV executives always demanded this process but I really hated it because I felt stuck with my own preconception and planning. It was hard to discover something I didn't know because I was bound to shoot whatever I already knew.

So when I accidentally watched Domestic Violence by Frederick Wiseman at the Film Forum in New York City, I was really shocked. It was a film that I've been dreaming to make! And he's been making such films since 1960's!

I have to say I was really ignorant. I didn't even take a single documentary class at the film school because I was only interested in fiction filmmaking back then. That's why I was making documentary shows without knowing Wiseman.

Since I saw Domestic Violence, I started my own private Wiseman Film Festival at a booth of New York Public Library. I studied his films shot by shot. I closely analyzed how they were constructed. I learned so much from his films.

Tatsuya Mori inspired me to actually make my own films. He was a TV director like myself and made his debut film "A" using a small digital camera VX1000. He showed that you could make a compelling, meaningful, cutting edge film without a big crew or a big budget.

I was influenced by Makoto Sato mostly by his books. He was a great filmmaker but also a great writer. His book The Horizon of Documentary Films opened my eyes on documentary filmmaking. Like I said, I had no formal education on documentary, but his book gave me that.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : Are you aware of « Contemporary Contemplative Cinema » , a family of films defined by « Plotlessness, Wordlessness, Slowness, and Alienation » ? With filmmakers (in the realm of behaviourist documentaries) such as Lisandro ALONSO, Chantal AKERMAN, Nikolaus GEYRHALTER, Vérena PARAVEL & Lucien CASTAING-TAYLOR (at the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab), Abderrahmane SISSAKO… ? You may find them very familiar to your work. Would you consider your « Observational films » a bit contemplative ?

Kazuhiro SODA : I know their works but I didn't know they were being categorized as Contemporary Contemplative Cinema. I'm a good friend of Vérena PARAVEL & Lucien CASTAING-TAYLOR, and I introduced their great films to the Japanese public by connecting them to my distributor Tofoo. They distributed four of their films in Japan.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : How much of your endless takes do you keep on the editing table ? How long is long enough for a shot in the final cut ? What does constitute an unworthy take ?

Kazuhiro SODA : There's always only one take because I don't ask my characters to repeat what they did. Every take is unique and the only one. The desired length of the shots really depends. Sometimes it needs to be 10 minutes long, but sometimes it needs to be 6 seconds long. It really depends on the nature of the shot and its context.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : Could you define the frontier between a distant observer and the Japanese concept of « Looking and Listening » that you often refer to ?

Kazuhiro SODA : The English word "observation" implies that you are kind of distant or a third party. But I don't really mean it that way when I say observation is important for documentary filmmaking. The Japanese word for observation is "Kansatsu". It means looking and understanding. That's exactly what I mean by observation.

"Kansatsu" is especially important today because we are living in this terrible culture of distraction dominated by smart phones and social media. We stopped looking and listening attentively. We've lost patience. We cannot stay in the moment. It's comical and tragic at the same time.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : How different is the experience for an audience watching « Observational films », scripted documentaries or classical fiction films ? What are the unique qualities an « Observational Film » can show that other documentaries can not ?

Kazuhiro SODA : I cannot really speak for the audience, but I think one of the unique qualities of my films is that they are shot completely spontaneously without any planning or agenda.

Many documentary filmmakers set their theme first and look for their perfect subjects which fit their theme, but my process is completely the opposite.

For example, we met Wai-chan on that shore by accident. He wanted me to shoot his catch of the day because he noticed I had a camera, and that's why we ended up shooting the first scene of Inland Sea.

As you can see, he was a charming person, and he said he was fishing tomorrow, so we decided to shoot that as well. Then we ended up following him to the fish market where the auction suddenly began. How can we not shoot that?

And among the bidders, we recognized Mrs. Koso because we always bought fish from her store. We realized that Wai-chan's fish go to her store, so we felt we should just follow her. So without knowing it, we ended up shooting this ancient, simple economic circle in Ushimado, and we realized that it was not sustainable anymore.

That's how one of the themes of the film emerged and discovered. It's very natural and organic. In a traditional documentary, the process is the opposite. They set up the theme first and find/use the characters to prove their theme. In that sense, the characters become like tools for the filmmakers. I didn't really feel good when I was making such documentaries for TV. I felt I was using my characters for my agenda.

About Inland Sea (2018) :

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : Are you attracted more to faces and hands or to the labor being done, the gestures at work ? Is it a dilemma to only pick one of the two at once with one single camera?

Kazuhiro SODA : Not really. I try to recreate what I'm witnessing with images and sounds, and that dictates my camera work. One cannot see many things at the same time. It's always one at a time. Thus I usually need only one camera. It makes sense to have only one camera.

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : You describe Kumi as a « hole » to explore, could you explain what you mean by that ?

Kazuhiro SODA : In Alice in Wonderland, Alice chases a white rabbit, falls into the hole, and experiences something magical and unexpected. The hole is a connection between this world and the wonderland. I felt like Alice when I followed Kumi to the hill. She was a connection to the other world, in a sense.

Question to Kiyoko KASHIWAGI (producer) :

UNSPOKEN CINEMA : Ushimado is the hometown of your (grand)mother – where you went on vacation with your husband Kazuhiro SODA (thus you decided to film Oyster Factory then Inland Sea at this location). Do you have childhood memories of this place ? How has it changed over the years until what we see in the films ?

Kiyoko KASHIWAGI : Actually, Ushimado is my grandfather's hometown. My grandmother is from Hiroshima but left after atomic bombing in 1945, then my mother was born in Ushimado. My grandfather was from fisherman's family and he was a half fisherman. The community in Ushimado was (is) very tight, especially between fishermen. My grandfather passed away before I was born so I've never met him, but I grew up eating lots of sashimi because many fishermen brought the freshest fishes right direct from the sea to feed me when I visit my grandmother. I heard many stories about my grandfather from them. There were so many fishermen all over the town and I often got on board their ships. There were many kids swimming and playing around on the beach. My childhood memory of Ushimado was festive all year round. When I went on vacation with Soda in 2012, I couldn't believe how quite the town became. I didn't see fishermen, ships, even children.

* * *

Read also my reviews of :

Friday, November 15, 2019

Inland Sea (2018/Kazuhiro SODA/Japan-USA)

Opening sequence :

A brief black screen with the sound of water nearby, so that the film starts by titillating our ears first with a calming, soothing tonality. The soundscape lingers as the screen opens, in black & white, on an embankment with the setting sun straight ahead. Two old people, backlit beautifully, are busy working ; one crouching over a bucket full of water and the other bending over an entangled fishing net.
– Konnichi wa, says the cameraman off-screen as the old lady turns to the camera, and replies likewise. The film begins with a welcoming greeting (as we are casually introduced to who will become the two main characters of the film).
In the foreground, the old lady calls for Wai-chan in the distance. But she soon adds he doesn’t hear well. Cut to the reverse shot, looking back at the lady, and slowly panning toward the legs of the old man who has sit in the shade of a shack. Tilt up, revealing his head, hidden under a cap. Close up of his face, eyes down, from under his visor. He’s mumbling to himself, ignoring the camera. Cut to his hands mending a net by tying several solid knots. His wrinkled hands manipulate netting needle and scissors. Cut to the next shot as the old man cuts with the scissors (cut on cut). He raises the net, out of focus – as a nylon prison over his face – satisfied with his repair.
Now on his boat, he throws another net to the quay. Trice he repeats « it’s to catch rockfish ». A woman voice off screens asks a question twice, but doesn’t get an answer. He complains about the the price of nets, and how fishes are cheaper than the tools nowadays. At 86, fishing on his own... It’s dangerous. He should retire, he says. The cameraman films him at a low angle shot because he’s hunched over his net, his body folded in half. And we see the lovely tiny harbor of Ushimado behind him.
These were the first ever spontaneous takes of the shooting, without meeting, preparation, rehearsal or guidance. As per the filmmaker’s own « Commandments ».

Origin of the project

Inland Sea is the 7th « Observational Film » of Kazuhiro SODA since 2007. It emerged from the impromptu collection of side footage on location in Ushimado for his previous film Oyster Factory (Observational Film #6, 2015) [my review] – if you want to see these two main characters, from the opening sequence, in full colour and more, you should watch Oyster Factory. In fact Kazuhiro SODA was kicked out of the oyster factory after a week, so with two weeks left before his return to NYC, he decided to film a fisherman met on the waterfront. And from then on following several villagers, came to be Inland Sea.
Ushimado is the hometown of his mother-in-law, so he was familiar with the area where they spent vacations with his wife and producer, Kiyoko KASHIWAGI.

Observational film #7

This film comes after a series of documentaries in the same vein, following strict ethical rules : The Ten Commandments of « Observational filmmaking ». There was Campaign (2007) & Campaign 2 (2013) following a Tokyo University classmate who ran for office twice, once for the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), once for himself to address environmental issues due to the Fukushima disaster. There was Mental (2008) a formidable exploration of the daily lives of outpatients from a neighbourhood clinic ran by the one of a kind psychiatrist Dr. Yamamoto, a kind old man who provides the most humane services pro bono. There was Theatre 1 & 2 (2012) a 5h 42min long documentary on the essence of theatre, through the work of playwright and director Oriza HIRATA.
There was Oyster Factory (2015) and Inland Sea (2018). And followed by The Big House (2018) his first documentary outside of Japan, on and around the largest USA arena : Michigan Stadium, filmed with the help of co-directors and students from the University of Michigan.

The Ten Commandments of « Observational filmmaking »

All these films were made according to his self-imposed rules (à la Dogma 95) which he developped during his experience as a TV director-editor for the NHK (National Japanese television) and perfected during the writing of his book on Mental. See the page on his website for futher informations.
From his experience he learnt how to make documentaries in everyway unlike the fabricated « world » of television. He’d rather skip the research and script part, to focus on the spontaneity of his characters discovered on the spot. And, like Frederick WISEMAN, he favors long takes, without narration, titles nor music.
This reminds me of a graphic I made to explain all the obstacles to contemplation in traditional cinema, with a set of interdictions in forbidden pictograms.

CCC & Observational Films

This is where Kazuhiro SODA’s « Observational Films » might meet the minimum (technical) profile forContemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC) : Plotlessness / Wordlessness / Slowness / Alienation…
Plotlessness corresponds to his Commandment #3, #7 & #8. Wordlessness (doesn’t mean without speech altogether, but rather laconical and natural conversation) corresponds to #8. Slowness corresponds to #5, #6 & #9. And Alienation (with the caveat : distanciation of characters does not mean complete separation but the natural boundary we experience with strangers in real life) corresponds to #1, #2 & #7.
CCC is not necessarily documentaries made guerilla-style, like advocates his « Ten Commandments »… although these are conditions to produce a free and independant film form that film companies eschew. But the natural, free-wheeling, patient, extensive types of images resulting from his method correspond more or less to what other CCC filmmakers record in their films. Natural like Lisandro ALONSO, because the approach to the characters is genuine and direct. Free-wheeling like Naomi KAWASE, because she lets things happen in front of the lens and goes with the flow. Patient like Raymond DEPARDON, because he takes time to meet people and makes his camera become invisible. Extensive like Alexander SOKUROV, because he register hours and hours of footage.
For one thing CCC is not a homogenous stylistic block, it is more a general regimen of images that contrasts with everything else on the theatrical circuit. And it is a family of filmmakers who share the same spirit of dailylife rhythm and extended takes.


Observing, interpreting, observing, interpreting…

The rapid succession of these actions on location, defines in situ the framing of his images : Observing first ; interpreting second... Always going from on to the other, to and fro, in order to nurture and combine one another. The quick-witted interpretation that succeeds each passive observation leads to a transformation into an active observation. Thus the images reflect what is taking place on site. If the observer wonders what the onscreen characters are glancing, or addressing, the camera moves automatically toward this off screen space, with a continuous reverse shot, sans cut. The frame chiefly shows on screen what the audience wants to see at the right moment.

Observing, listening

If « To observe & to interpret... » governs the framing of each sub-part of a shot, what instructs his directing style is another motto, two conjoined verbs again : « To observe & to listen ». The cameraman doesn’t frame static shots on a tripod but engages with the motion of the people on a mobile hand-held camera that interacts with the action, the words and the gestures.

Looking and Listening

Observational doesn’t mean distant or detached. The filmmaker must be part of the world he captures and describes. In Japanese, there is this concept of « Looking and Listening », two words combined to generate a « participative observation ». The matter is to look deeply, but to be attentive and reactive to what is going on, and what is being said.

Participative Observation

Here is another mantra of Kazuhiro SODA that explains his unique style of filmmaking. This is the combination of all these aspects of filmmaking : framing, directing, editing. After his first « Observational Film », he realised his observational style had to be participative.

Five Portraits in-situ in circle

Wai-chan (MURATA-san). First character, an 86 year-old fisherman who drives his boat, all alone, at night, like a hero ! He’s the first person contacted – the raison d’être of this documentary. He lays his net in the day, pulls back up his net at night (before the fishes die), sort out the rockfishes from the shrimp, and goes to the local fishmarket. There he auctions his catch. And KOSO-san – the only woman – buys some fresh assorted seafood as the sun rises...

KOSO-san. Back at her store, she preps, weights and condition the fishes under clim film. Then she drives her pick-up truck around town directly to her faithful customers. She calls herself a « late-stage eldery » (75 years-old and over). She’s been doing this job, alongside her husband – until he passed away – for more than 55 years straight. One customer at her shop is KUBOTA who came to collect offal (fish heads rejects)...

KUBOTA. Back at home, always accompanied by her son, she cooks the fish heads with rice. The heads are cut up in close up. Her numerous cats seem fascinated by this cook. Sure enough, the food was prepared for the cats. Some stray cats from the neighbourhood. As the filmmaker chats up with them outside their house, in a narrow alley, passes by MURAGIMI in a haste, embarassed by the idea of disturbing the documentary shooting...

MURAGIMI. Enticed by the KUBOTA family advice, the filmmaker follows this way, where people attend a flower festival. On his way, he finds again MURAGIMI crouched on the side of the path. She visits the neighborhood cemetery, up hill, to tend to her old ancestors tombstones overtaken by grass. Precisely on the day of the Chrisanthemus flowers contest. From this vantage point we can see Wai-chan’s boat entering the harbor. Call back to the seafront, where Kumiko is talking to an old lady friend on the embankment...

Kumiko « Kumi » (KOMIYAMA). Last story but first character on screen (she says « good afternoon » in the opening sequence). So the film comes back full circle by following this singular lady around, down on the shorefront. She is quite a character, full of pernicious comments, gossips and bizarre stories. She knows everything and guides the filmmaker and his wife up and down hill, from one extremity of the port to the other, and back, according to promises of great shots for the film...

Villagers directors

Kazuhiro SODA goes with the flow of real life. Following character after character, upon chance encounter, to their full extent, after exhausting the slow time spent with them, he assembles a formidable array of slices of life. He lets villagers direct the « show » at their will. Some appear camera-shy, some seem uncomfortable, some feel uninteresting. All want the best for his documentary.
Thus we hear « why don’t you go there ? » « Why don’t you shoot this or that ? » « Look ! » « Show this on camera instead »... And amused, confounded, complicit, he follows suit, aiming the camera in the right direction, chasing their footsteps. He also keeps those underachieved moments with camera adresses, these neutral transitions in the final cut, because they are integer part of the process of filming a documentary, moreover full of truth and sincerity.

The filmmaker who doesn’t cut out « camera address »

The « camera address » – looking directly into the lens for an actor – is the staple of Cinéma Vérité and La Nouvelle Vague. Jean-Pierre Léaud in the last shot of « Les quatre-cent coups » (The 400 blows, 1959, Truffaut), or the eponymous character in Monika (1964, Bergman). In documentaries, it is far more prevalent, even though most documentarians prefers to cut them out, for it stresses too much attention to the cameraman, and distracts from the narrative. Frederick WISEMAN, for instance, remains invisible behind the camera : never he utters a comment or a question, never he’s seen on camera, never he keeps the camera address in the final cut. He lets the images speak for themselves sans intervention from the filmmaker.
But Kazuhiro SODA doesn’t mind. He welcomes these little incursions of reality like a moment of complicity with his characters and his audience as well. He believes « observation » has to be « participative observation » ; meaning the involvement of the filmmaker-cameraman on location, amidst a crowd of people aware of the camera in their environment, is matter of fact and should not be concealed on screen.

Hands and faces

In particular, Kazuhiro SODA is fond of framing hands and faces as he films people who talks to him or just work. He films the hands manipulating objects or accomplishing a task. He films talking faces, listening faces, quiet faces, thinking faces.

Labor at work : an unspoken language

After the 5 minutes one-sided laconical chatter with Wai-chan (who is hard of hearing), from the opening sequence, the film goes wordless for 8 minutes, as the fisherman drives his boat out in the bay to lay down his net until he comes back at the harbor. A segment only animated by the sounds of the engine and the waves. Another 16 minutes wordless interlude – only briefly interrupted by a couple questions – while the fisherman retrieves his fish-full net at night. This is a powerful statement from the filmmaker who offers images free of commentary. Therefore he lets the audience swim solely in visual cues, without interferences, to simply enjoy the bare unspoken beauty of sounds with images and images with sounds.

Cycle of fishes

We first see the fishing net being repaired on the embankment : a testimony of previous fishing. Then the fishing net is lowered into the opaque sea. And it is only a few hours later, at night, when the boat comes back that we see the actual fishes caught – ensnared – inside the net, as it is slowly pulled from the dark waters. With some difficulty the fishes are disentangled one by one and thrown into a bucket of water. They flap around in an empty basket or spit out a jet of water in a full bucket. Before the first light of dawn, the seafood is sorted out by spieces, one basket each. At the fish cooperative, trays of seafood are weighted and auctionned for the retailers. The shopkeeper then cleans up the fishes and sells them at the shop or on the road from the back of her pick up truck. The fishes are cooked by one customer and fed to the stray cats. A long way from the sea to the mouth of these felines. A shorter way is illustrated later on, with a cat catching a fish rejected by a line fisherman on the pier.

Connections with Kazuhiro SODA filmography

Mental (2008) : Presence of Dr Yamamoto (from the Chorale Okayama clinic) at the oyster bar
Peace (2010) : feeding stray cats
Oyster Factory (2015) : cooked oysters (from the Hirano Factory) at the oyster bar. Presence of Kumi and Wai-chan two characters first met in this film.

Comparison with CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema)

Leviathan (2012/Véréna PARAVEL, Lucian CASTAING-TAYLOR/FR-UK-USA) video excerpt
This couple of filmmakers from the Ethnographic Sensory Lab in Harvard, made an extraordinary performance art piece by strapping 10 « Go-pro » cameras to a fishing ship : to the mast, to the cables, to the forehead or the chest of a fisherman, to a pole plunged underwater… As many surveillance cameras perched to peer and survey each move of the fishermen and women, each activity on deck, each process of the labor chain. No narration, no interview, just the cadence of images colliding with one another making sense of a fragmented whole.

Profil Paysan (2001-2008/Raymond DEPARDON/FR)
Former photographer, DEPARDON filmed a series of three documentaries on the aging rural world of French peasants, each three years apart : L’approche ; Le quotidien ; La vie moderne. There we follow the daily lives of old peasants and their successors when present. He films them with a static lens, at work, in the fields, at home, in a very intimate yet respectfully distant way. He lets them, taciturn introverts, talk to the camera with their own words, and collects memories and despair.

Desertification : The twilight of Ushimado

The little town of Ushimado is getting older. People are aging and passing away. The youth and families are moving to the cities. Seafront houses are empty because nobody takes the sucession. Even the cemetery is deserted because families bring their tombstones with them closer to the city where they live. This is a problem of the countryside towns : only the eldery rooted in Ushimado for so many years, all their life and many generations past… This town sees its last days since in a few years, when the eldery have vanished for good, there will be nobody to inhabit these houses, to work those jobs, to eat and drink, to walk around the pier, to fish, to smile and laugh in the twilight…

A dedicated ascent to the Hospital

BONG Joon-ho : « The scene in which one of the subjects briefly takes over the film – bringing the camera with her to finally tell a story she probably had never told anyone – was so calmly stunning, raw, and emotional. It didn't feel forced or manipulated. It just seemed like something very naturally walked into the filmmaking. It's an art of documentary filmmaking. »

Indeed this sequence, with Kumi, toward the end of the film, is a piece of art. It starts on the embankment in the harbor, where Kumi and Wai-chan always hang out. Kumi, as usual is pointing at somewhere else, up hill, behind them, to drag the shooting there with her. « You should film the hospital » The filmmaker is first reluctant to go, but eventually follows along, for what will become the best scene at the heart of the film : a 10 minutes of confession non-stop, after a couple of minutes of walk.

From the director’s statement : « In Japanese noh theatre, there is a popular form called “mugen noh,” in which a traveler meets a ghost who tells him what happened at a specific site. »

This moment is like an oracle.

Related :

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Oyster Factory (2015/Kazuhiro SODA/Japan-USA)

Opening Sequence 

Up close, a white cat basking in the sun on the pier, then it walks off screen. Painterly framing of the Ushimado bay, with micro islands in the distance, and a tree branch striking the foreground of the frame top like a Japanese etching. Another view of the bay from higher ground, with the sea cluttered by oyster farms and a boat crossing at mid-screen.
Now the camera is handheld onboard of a fisherman boat, looking in at an oyster rack approaching. It’s made of bamboos. Cut to a crane flying off of one of those racks. Face of the fisherman through the windshield of his driver cabin. The fisherman is walking on the bamboo rack without leash or safety gear, wearing a yellow vinyl overall finished with boots. Whip zoom on him crouching to untie one rope. Several shots of him retrieving the ropes.
Back on the boat, the hydrolic crane is pulling out of the water a bunch of ropes tied together, revealing clustered oysters hugging the ropes as the ensemble elevates in the sky, slowly moves over the deck and is promptly dropped into a rusty wire crate. Then slowly raised again in the air and violently dropped again to free the oysters tightly secured to the ropes. One last time dropped from high up in the same long take. A drop of mud splashed in the corner of the lens. Whip-zoom to the fisherman piloting the crane in the background to put the splash out of focus. He’s now approaching with a stick and starts beating the ropes to unleash the oysters left attached.

– It may splash, says the fisherman as he rakes his stick between the ropes hanging down.

Cut to another batch of ropes being pulled out of the sea in a similar fashion. Whip-zoom on the clusters of oysters covered in algae and mud, dripping down heavily, with the fisherman in the background. Once again he beats down the persistent oysters glued to the ropes, in close up, with the ropes in the foreground barring his face. He operates all this by himself, alone on the boat (the cameraman being an unparticipating companion). Cut to two static shots of the bay from higher ground and a trucking of a boat passing by, against the sound of waves lapping on the beach.
9 more quick shots taken from the boat approaching the harbor against the noise of an engine. The fisherman on the quay, tying up his boat to a mooring bollard. Opening credits on a black screen.

Origin of the project

Kazuhiro SODA and his wife (and producer), Kiyoko KASHIWAGI, use to spend vacation time in Ushimado, hometown of Kiyoko’s mother. On a dare, he decided to film there, for three weeks, a fisherman he met on the seaside. Upon shooting him, some times later, having arrived from New York, the fishing season was over and the fisherman was starting to care for another activity of his : aquaculture. So the fishing documentary became about oyster farming by necessity. This is how Kazuhiro SODA proceeds to pick and film a subject without preparation nor script.

Companion piece : Inland Sea (2018)

Alongside Oyster Factory, which shooting only lasted 1 week out of the three required, Kazuhiro SODA decided to continue to film the area, on a whim, until his planned return to NewYork. This side project became a documentary on the local population of the small harbor of Ushimado : Inland Sea, released three years later. In this new film, we meet again, in depth, two figures appearing in Oyster Factory ; as well as the vernacular cycle of the local fish commerce.

Observational Film #6

Since 2007, Kazuhiro SODA makes « Observational Films » following a strict set of rules of thumb, and Oyster Factory is the sixth of them. Observation as mantra both for the filmmaker and the audience. « Observation and Interpretation » are guiding his framing; « Observation and Listening » are guiding his directing. These rules he calls the « Ten Commandments of Observational Filmmaking » Interesting remarks about the making and post-production of a guerilla-style documentary, such as « no research », « no script », « shoot as long as possible », « no narration », « use long takes »… These principles are the customary routine of CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema). See the (Technical) Minimum Profile here 

Hirano Oyster Factory

Next to « Toyota Seafood », there is a huddle of ancillary oyster factories implanted in the harbor all assembled together around the Hirano Oyster Factory, directed by Watanabe. They are perched up there on the pier, between the sea – the Inland Sea – and the town – Ushimado – in direct liaison between oysters and consummers. The oyster farms are dispersed racks anchored in the bay, around the Mouse Island. The boat comes and goes between the farms and the harbor at harvest season. Docking next to the factories, the boat empties its three metal crates of oysters forthwith into the wall of the chucking room, where oysters are opened and reserved. Promptly carried around in a bucket they are unloaded by the hundreds onto a cart that wheels straigth to the nearby collective warehouse (because they cannot be frozen),where all the neighbors work in unisson. They are then transferred by truck to the Okayama Fishery Cooperative.

The cycle of oysters’s life

Buying seeds. Farming at sea. Harvesting. Chucking. Storing oysters in buckets with frozen water bottles. Moving them to the cooperative. Cleaning the workshop. Cleaning the buckets and water bottles. Cleaning the vinyl aprons. Collecting and cleaning shells. Cleaning the mud. Cleaning the crates. Cleaning the boat. Repeat.
Kazuhiro SODA doesn’t film the cycle in its chronological order, but rather accumulates daily footage, day after day, in situ. This disparate aggregation of tasks and practices develops nonetheless into a mirror of this local industry. And we piece together, in after thought, like a mystery game, the process in the right order, after seeing it done over and over, at different factories and on different days. True observation puts the spectator in the pilot seat, engaging with the natives and forming a portrait of each recurrent character, each at a precise place on the chain.

Slow pace of daily life

The ingenious cameraman masterfully captures a monotonous labor with poignant dexterity. He follows effortlessly in the footsteps of various colourful characters, mingles with everybody, enters their homes… His enticing camera, which records direct sound synchronously, projects us inside an underestimated world, little known and self-sufficient. Interspersed by « pillow shots » (à la Yasujiro OZU) of still life, landscapes, building corners, abandonned tools, the scenes and days unfold like a treasure trove of compelling activities and genuine behaviors. One shot after another, the vicissitudes of a millenary tradition manifest before our eyes at an unhurried pace. The faces tell a tale of sudden mutation. A microscopic metamorphosis, with each discerning minute, transitionning old habits to reluctant new ones.

Work and Talk

People do not sit down for an interview in « Observational Films »… unlike with Errol Morris’s Interrotron, with a lot of talking heads. Preferably, Kazuhiro SODA’s immersive style of documentary catches off guard the people at work, while they are busy doing other things. Busy hands : loose tongues. We might not get eye contact all the time, but the conversation is more natural, unrestrained and relaxed. Hollywood has the « Walk and Talk » to show protagonists busy while delivering exposition dialogue. « Observational Films » have « Work and Talk » to capture the speech in its natural habitat, its ordinary context.
One of these lasts 3min 30sec, when the filmmaker questions Watanabe about the tsunami and his move to Okayama prefecture, in Mushiage, as a nuclear refugee. Watanabe washes the rusty crates full of mud, and shares about his painful past. As one of the Chinese worker just quit, Watanabe feels compassion for someone who is away from home, like him.
Again with Watanabe, another day, this « Work and Talk » long take reaches 5min of confessions as he and the cameraman walk around the truck.
Not only that, but Kazuhiro SODA films extensive takes of the « action », whether they are talking or not, whether they are working or not. And he keeps the down times in the final cut. These intermediary moments without conscious activity, but where a lot happens : hidden body language, meaningful pauses, suggestive faces, demonstrative expressions…

Tsunami refugees

Watanabe, who is one of the main character of this documentary, used to work in aquaculture in Miyagi prefecture, before the 2011 Tsunami hit Fukushima on this coastline. They had to move out because the government declared their land restricted area, and the consumption of oysters forbidden. From his own admission, he moved first and foremost because his kids could not live in an irradiated zone. But he’s not a « nuclear refugee », insists his boss, Mr Hirano, he’s a « tsunami refugee ». This only superficially removes the stigma. Watanabe was removing debris in Miyagi. He moved to Mushiage (Okayama prefecture), not far away from Ushimado. He’s now directing the Hirano factory, and will succeed to the owner who is retiring.
In another scene we learn that oysters seeds from Miyagi are banned in Okayama, because of the rumors of nuclear radiations. Ironicaly, they buy them instead from Hiroshima !

The workshop contraption

This family factory, partly mechanised, partly manual, is pretty ingenious. With the simplest means. Fresh from the sea, the oysters collected are carried through a motorised conveyor belt into the main room of the factory built on a raised floor and split in two halves. In the middle of the room stands high a double wall within which is stored the live shells shut closed. Each wall, on either side, is pierced with trap doors to catch the oysters pouring in from above. And a man can walk between these walls to scather the oysters towards each hatch. The oysters are picked up onto a counter, through the hatch, one by one, by the workers who are seated on the raised floor. And underneath is another motorised conveyor belt collecting the emptied shells, between the two walls, dropped by a hole in the counter. Thus the course of the oyster : in come the full shells, out come the empty shells. These shells are then automatically cleaned up outside and evacuated by trucks (probably recycled and sold).

Chucking Oysters

Oysters have sharp shells. Workers wear thick gloves. Shells are muddy. Work is messy.
This is hard work. Arduous and repetitious. Workers in this agrarian region are getting old. The rural exodus of the youth depletes the workforce for local businesses. The next generation hates this backbreaking job, and prefers one of a salaryman. Mostly eldery female workers, they have the skills to chuck oysters at a breakneck pace ! The rare younger helping hands struggle to keep up. The eldery are kneeling on the floor, Japanese-style. The youngsters are seated on their asses.
One hand picks up an oyster, pivots it in the right direction (mouth to the palm). The other hand plunges a pointy knife, or a hook, between the two calcified valves. And with a twist of the wrist, it breaks open the mollusc. The mantle is delicately but swiftly scraped and dumped into a bucket. At the bottom of each bucket sits a frozen water bottle to maintain a cool temperature. The empty shells are soon discarded downstairs. And the reiterating operation begins all over.

« China is coming. »

This decaying workforce needs new blood. And the Japanese don’t want to do this anymore. One employee, Watanabe, calls it a « hard, dirty and dangerous work » , he later adds « People who come here are kind of losers, aren’t they ? ». The next best thing is to hire help from abroad, in this case, from China. And the local community is not ready for this « invasion ». Japan, being one of the most homogenous ethnicity in the world, is not acquainted with foreign visitors, let alone labor force from their arch enemy : China. They are afraid. One standbyer confides « Chinese are terrible, they steal anything they see ! »
The neighboring city has 200 Chinese workers. And there is a total of 10 in Ushimado. However, the Hitano Oyster Factory has ever employed indigenous workers, despite, is getting ready to accomodate two new Chinese aids. On the calendar is noted « Saturday the 9th, China is coming ». Not even « The Chinese workers are coming », but that deprecative metonymy…
At the factories nextdoor, there are already a couple of Chinese expatriate working on the line. The Chinese language is not subtitled, so the foreigners stay at a distance, behind a language barrier. And with their rudimentary Japanese, they hardly interact with the filmmaker or others. Regardless of English.

More than a factory

This is an idiosyncratic microcosm of Japanese society, with a dozen Japanese figures surrounding half a dozen Chinese expatriate workers. This multigenerational bunch spans all ages. From a toddler carried on her mother’s back at work ; to young girls playing around the facilities ; to teenager worker from China ; to young adults, married, ready to take over the succession ; to older men from the neighborhood ; to 65 year old bosses about to retire ; to eldery workers on the line… Kazuhiro SODA’s camera alternates the viewpoints, jumping from one person to the next.

Assorted points of view

Watanabe, father of four girls, the nuclear refugee who empathizes with the Chinese expatriates.
The Hirano family old boss who is retiring, and hands his family business to Watanabe
Hirano junior (salaryman) who would « never » succeed to his dad.
The bubbly daughter-in-law of the Toyota factory who is interested in the world.
The Toyota factory owner who has opinions on the state taxes on succession.
The A/C repairman with racist views on Chinese immigrants.
The cameraman and his wife, from NYC, who have seen the world outside of Japan.


We find recurrent themes that have been treated in previous « Observational Films » :
LDP (Liberal Democrtatic Party) political poster from Campaign (2007)
Mental health problems (attributed to a Chinese quitter) from Mental (2008)
Feeding stray cats from Peace (2010)
Nuclear meltdown consequences from Campaign 2 (2013)
Shiro the cat, Kumi and Wai-chan from Inland Sea (2018)

Contemporary Contemplative Cinema documentaries

We could contrast Oyster Factory with Frederick WISEMAN’s Belfast, Maine (1999) where he films a mechanised line in a canned sardines factory. Or compare it to Niklaus GEYRHALTER’s Our Daily Bread (2005), a wordless documentary on agricultural industries in Europe. With a succession of symetrical static shots filming the robotized food collecting, calibrating, processing and conditioning. But « Observational Films » are not from a cold surveillance camera, and much more immersive and reactive to the workers being filmed.


Out of nowhere, when the time for the new Chinese employees to arrive came, the shooting of the documentary is interrupted by Hirano, the old boss. Seated back to the camera at the counter, without stopping his oysters chucking, unwavering, he utters these damning words. According to him, the shooting may offend them and you never know what could happen… You’d need to get their permissions first, and the permission of the agency. Will the documentary stay at a stand still ?

Comedic relief

The documentary is peppered with touches of laughters – often the filmmaker’s own infectious laugh.
An old lady asks for the fish price, twice, with a puzzled look on her face because she gets no answer, before realising she was asking the cameraman ! She then walks away in shame but also amused, followed by the laughing filmmaker.
Another impromptu scene : we see the chucking workers laugh without knowing what is the fuss all about. Then a guy walks in from behind a wall, approaching bent over, looking into a plastic tube, without a word. « What are you doing ? » asks the filmmaker. As he realises he’s being imitated, he bursts in laughter with everyone else.
A long scene where Watanabe and his wife pay for the prefab house bought in for the new Chinese workers. Money goes from Watanabe’s hands, as he counts the bills one by one, in stacks of tens, to his wife’s hands, who counts again ten bills by stacks, and in the hands of the seller, who also counts the bills by tens. Ultimately, the salesman counts the number of stacks and counts again and counts again : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… Everyone, eyes on the stacks, notices there shouldn’t be a 7th stack. There is too much money ! Everybody laughs out loud nervously.
The daughter-in-law of the Toyota Seafood is interviewed while she is preparing a miso soup for lunch. Pots and lids fall on the floor. The filmmaker laughs. She asks « What is so amusing ? You’re not going to use this ? » Concerned about coming out well on screen, she asks « Am I doing OK ? » between each question asked...
To the Chinese workers, recently arrived, the filmmaker asks « Speak English ? », then again in Japanese. But they reply « Yes. No. » in a laugh.
The cat periodically tries to come in the house of the filmmakers.

Shiro the cat and the circadian rhythm

Kazuhiro SODA can’t help but film cats when he sees them. And they stay in the final film. On the seafront, there is a white cat with a bell, roaming around, looking for food and petting. Everybody calls him « Shiro » (white in Japanese). He opens the film. He’s the punctuation of each new day passing. We see him at night, or in the morning, in between two days of shooting. So every time we see the cat’s frolicsomeness we know another day of shooting went by.

Repeat Viewing

The characters in the documentary are not named on screen, but at one point or another they stand out with a particular conversation or a gag. Therefore their personality is imprint in our brains. And with a subsequent viewing, it is easier to notice their presence in the background, or in a crowd. Thus connecting different scenes together and tying the relations, geographical and interpersonal, between all onscreen characters.