Circle of Life

27 April – 6 May 2008

Located on a side street in a busy shopping district, Image Forum has long served as a locus of activity for the Tokyo film community. This multi-faceted organisation’s endeavors include operating a theatre specialising in experimental and arthouse cinema, publishing a film journal, and offering classes in film production at the Image Forum Institute of Moving Images. Of equal importance to this work is the long running Image Forum Festival, now in its 22nd year, which continues to be one of the premier showcases for formally adventurous contemporary Japanese cinema. The festival’s success is reflected both by its longevity and its recent expansion. In addition to the primary festival in Tokyo, there are ancillary presentations in Kyoto, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Yokohama, and, as of last year, Sapporo. At a time when audiences and theatres in much of the country are dwindling, Image Forum Festival’s success is no small feat.

This year’s festival was held in the Park Tower complex in the Shinjuku neighbourhood, away from Image Forum’s home base in the Shibuya ward. The festival was spread out over ten days beginning on April 27 and included 18 programs, half of which were devoted to contemporary Japanese films and videos in competition while the remaining programs were comprised of international selections chosen by the festival organisers. The work in this year’s festival represented a wide range of divergent forms and styles. Mixed in with films and videos falling within the shifting boundaries of experimental cinema were documentaries, narrative films, and a significant number of animated pieces. Despite the formal variety, the most obvious consistency was the overwhelming number of pieces that were created on digital video. The predominance of DV work in the festival seems barely worth mentioning as this is old news by now and can be witnessed at festivals around the world. What is of greater interest is how the material qualities of film-based cinema and cinema’s pre-digital legacy hovered over the festival and were addressed in some of the more significant new works.

Jun’ichi Okuyama’s Index Movie was one of the videos that reflected on cinema’s past, in this case the filmmaker’s own. Now in his fifth decade of image making, Okuyama has created an extensive body of work that includes films, videos, expanded cinema presentations and performances. In Index Movie Okuyama combines footage from 30 films, videos,and performances with shots of the filmmaker speaking in direct address as he raises questions about his own sustained interest in the medium. Included amongst these clips is footage of an early Okuyama film performance titled Human Flicker that employs two 16mm projectors, hand-held fans, and projected still images of an eye. Okuyama manipulates the fans to alternate between the two projectors and create the illusion of an eye opening and closing at various rates, a technique akin to a manual version of Ken Jacobs’ Nervous System. Clips from later work explore the sonic potential of film projectors. In one installation piece Okuyama creates droning feedback loops by connecting the sound inputs and outputs of multiple projectors, and in another performance he attempts to “play” a projector as a musical instrument. Seen together, these clips reveal an artist committed to exploring the material qualities of film and the perceptual phenomena of cinema. While there are parallels between much of this work and that of the aforementioned Jacobs, Tony Conrad,and Malcolm Le Grice, there is a playful quality to Okuyama’s that is distinct. As an introduction to this artist’s work it was one of the festival’s more significant revelations.

Another festival highlight was Ishida Takashi’s Film of the Sea. The video begins in a white-walled gallery space where a single 16mm projector sits in the middle of the room projecting B&W footage of waves gently rolling in. From this starting point, the gallery space is transformed into an animated canvas as water seeps from the screen and spreads out across the floor in tributaries of blue and white paint. Water lines rise and fall on the gallery walls and the projection screen shifts and collapses, as the space becomes a site of constant mutation. Film of the Sea was originally designed as a triple-projection installation piece, but at the Image Forum Festival it was presented in a single projection version. In spite of this diminution, it was still one of the more visually stunning pieces in the festival.

Other festival entries utilised film fragments to examine the physical qualities of film and the medium’s ability to evoke memories. In Makino Takashi’s video DIARIES, scraps of film are digitally layered, resulting in an exploration of textures and tonalities. The colour in the video is largely desaturated which further emphasises the shifts in contrast, scratches and dirt that characterise hand-processed film. Occasionally an identifiable image will emerge, but the video is primarily composed of layers of abstraction. The soundtrack for DIARIES is equally dense and Makino makes full use of video’s wider frequency range and stereo imaging. 2008mm by Tezka Macoto also employs a seemingly forgotten piece of film, but where DIARIES was a maelstrom of image and sound, Tezka’s piece has an elegiac tone. In 2008mm a woman dressed in black vinyl sways left and right while holding a super 8 camera. The singular movement captured in the footage is repeated and overlaid on top of itself through a series of multiple exposures and dissolves. This process effectively transforms the image from a document of an ephemeral moment into an expression of longing and a representation of a mutable memory.

Respite

Two notable international selections sifted through the detritus of history to address far more painful legacies. Harun Farocki’s Respite (part of the Jeonju Digital Project film Memories, which also features works by Pedro Costa and Eugène Green) utilises footage shot at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands that was used as a way station for deportees being sent to Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. A Jewish inmate shot the footage on orders from the SS camp commander who wanted a film to show to camp visitors. As he has in previous films such as Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki adopts an exegetic approach to this archival material. Shown in silence, Farocki intercuts the footage with intertitles that open these images to a multiplicity of readings. The footage itself is relatively benign since the atrocities found at other Nazi camps largely did not occur at Westerbork. However, as the intertitles remind us, Westerbork was only a transit camp so the horrors of the Nazi regime lurk just outside the frame. Farocki interrogates this footage further to find images that serve a dual purpose. Within the images of diligent workers and demonstrations of productivity, Farocki finds acts of self-affirmation as the inmates had begun to construct some semblance of lives of their own in the camp. The intertitles additionally propose metaphorical readings for the archival footage, and images of the camp’s industrial recycling facility become a grim reminder of the Nazi’s mechanised methods of murder and the plundering of bodies. The film ends with a sequence of inmates boarding a train. This is the second time this sequence appears in the film, however this time Farocki isolates the sole close-up from the sequence; an image of a young girl aboard the train, her face flush with fear as she awaits for the train to depart for Auschwitz where she will be murdered.

Military Court and Prison by Taiwanese artist Chien-Jen Chen also examines a legacy of internment and repression. In this case, the artist uses the eponymous structure to evoke Taiwan’s era of martial law and the political prisoners once housed in the facility. Located near Chen’s boyhood home, the military court and prison was no longer in use and in a state of transition when the video was made. The Taiwanese government had begun renovating the building in 2004 to convert it to the Taiwan Human Rights Memorial. This transition serves as a catalyst for Chen’s investigation into the memories that still haunt the facility. In Chen’s video the building is frozen in time and all clocks have stopped at 11:55, five minutes prior to the building’s closure. The men and women who populate the facility remain trapped in this moment, their silence and slow movements further emphasising their spectral quality. Utilising long takes, glacial camera movements, and a minimalist soundtrack Chen’s video evokes a sense of stasis and isolation. In the video’s final sequence the cast of students, workers, activists and unemployed labourers are identified by name and profession, and the video notes that some cast members were unable to appear “due to legal restrictions”. The intended cast was to include several undocumented workers who had been detained by police just prior to filming. The notation of their absence raises questions about whether new forms of social control have supplanted the methods of the martial law era.

The films and videos that received awards at this year’s festival were a bit of a mixed bag as some of the celebrated work got by more on charm than substance. Nevertheless, there were a few standouts. Aoyama Kayo’s document of rural life Facing Nature Pre-Ordained This is Yamane Block No.4 received an honourable mention award at the festival. The video is set in a farming village in the northern Tohoku region of Japan, an area known for its harsh winters and considered by most Japanese people to be inaka (backwoods). Facing Nature Pre-Ordained follows Watanabe Sakuko and her family for the better part of a calendar year as they cultivate tobacco and raise cattle on their small farm. The video has a casual feel that is established by the easy rapport between the filmmaker and the elderly Sakuko, and the filmmaker’s disregard for linearity. The video moves chronologically through the seasons, but the filmmaker skips between isolated moments and scenes will suddenly shift from day to night. The video contains scenes of harvesting tobacco and rice, backyard barbecues, summer fireworks and a cattle auction, but mixed in with these images are moments that are more purely cinematic. The filmmaker will occasionally shift away from her subjects to shots of a bright blue sky, a slug crawling across the ground, or a series of dissolves between shots of tobacco hanging on racks to dry. These moments are given an equal weight and transform the video from a character driven portrait into a rich pastiche of rural life.

Unconscious

Other noteworthy award winners were Son Wookyung’s Circle of Life and Nakajima Yusuke’s Unconscious. In Circle of Life Son uses glass and ice as distorting lenses to create a circular frame. Light bends around the contortions of the lenses and bleeds off of the edges of the distorted frame. Slow shifts of focus and dissolves are deployed to subtly alter the landscapes and slice-of-life moments featured in the video. Circle of Life moves through a series of tableaux of workers in a hothouse, a children’s soccer game, and a dancer, and the re-framing of these moments establishes a portal through which the world can be seen anew. Unconscious was the Grand Prize winner at this year’s festival and it is hard not to applaud the perversity of giving the award to one of the shortest entries in the festival which breezes by at four minutes and manages to feel considerably shorter. The video begins with a slow pan down to an image of water dripping from the end of a pipe. This opening is followed by rapid shots of liquid in constant motion, and the frame is filled with a flurry of activity. The pace is accelerated through rapid dissolves between an array of percolating liquids with a colour scheme that could only be described as toxic. The video’s frenzied tone succeeds at pulling the viewer into its whirlpool of motion only to spit you out again moments later. In spite of this brevity, Unconscious was impressive and worthy of the accolades it received.

The final night of the festival featured a retrospective presentation of some of Tony Conrad’s key works from the ‘60s and ‘70s including The Flicker, Straight and Narrow and Film Feedback. Now between 30 and 40 years old, the visceral punch of these films remains undiminished. The screening of these films at the festival’s conclusion served as a reminder of cinematic possibility and also threw down the gauntlet for future filmmakers. While nothing in this year’s festival equaled the singular experience of Conrad’s best work, the festival did demonstrate that there is still a significant amount of high quality work being made in the margins of Japanese cinema culture.

Image Forum Festival website: http://www.imageforum.co.jp/festival/

About The Author

Brian Coffey is a writer and filmmaker currently living in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.