Uncertain Camera

28 April – 5 May 2009

Now in its 23rd year, the Image Forum Festival has long since established itself as one of the foremost venues for contemporary avant-garde Japanese film and video. Held every (northern hemisphere) spring, the festival is the hallmark annual event for Image Forum, an organisation which also operates an art cinema in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, produces and distributes DVDs by Japanese and international filmmakers, and offers classes in film and video production at its Institute of the Moving Image. The 2009 edition of the festival ran for nine days beginning on April 28 and comprised of 24 programs, an increase from 18 the previous year. The Park Tower Complex in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward once again served as the festival base, although this year an additional nightly screening at Image Forum’s home theatre in Shibuya was added to accommodate the expanded program. The festival was divided roughly in half between domestic and international productions, with the domestic films further split between the “Japan Tomorrow” program for films in competition, and “New Film Japan”, featuring recent work by established artists. While the focus of this year’s festival was squarely on the avant-garde and experimental work for which Image Forum is known, the festival also included documentaries, animated pieces, installations, performances and a significant number of narrative productions. The formal and stylistic diversity found at the 2009 Image Forum festival demonstrates a catholic approach to programming that was one of the festival’s strengths.

The international portion of this year’s festival contained a sidebar program entitled “The 20th Century Hasn’t Ended”, featuring recent films and videos that reflected on the previous century and its continued impact on the present. Included amongst this work was 7915km: On The Tracks Of The Rallye To Dakar by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Ostensibly the video is about the eponymous transcontinental off-road race, however the race never appears beyond images of tire tracks left behind in the desert sand. 7915km begins at a pre-race promotional event in Paris where the competition is packaged via trumped-up exoticism. Once the setting shifts to Africa the race immediately drifts into the background as the video becomes preoccupied with documenting the land and its inhabitants. Beginning in Morocco, Geyrhalter and his film crew follow the racecourse as it makes its way to Dakar, stopping along the way to speak with children in small villages, nomadic goat herders, UN soldiers in the disputed Sahrawi region, and men collecting money from abroad at a Western Union office. As the interview subjects discuss the race and the conditions of their own lives, the film establishes African-European relations as its primary focus. These interviews go a long way in conveying the video’s principal thematic concerns, but what lingers in my memory more than anything is the filmmaker’s unassuming observational approach and the unhurried shots of the quiet desert landscape. In 7915km Geyrhalter once again demonstrates the same compositional facility in filming landscapes that he showed previously in Our Daily Bread, and reveals a documentary style seemingly more informed by the films of James Benning than the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman.

Also included in “The 20th Century Hasn’t Ended” was Double Take, a new video by media artist/filmmaker Johan Grimonprez. Double Take places Alfred Hitchcock at the centre of its kitchen-sink collage charting the rise of “fear as a commodity” in the late-1950s through the mid-60s. The video combines footage from that period of Nixon and Khrushchev’s Kitchen Debate, the Sputnik launch, nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, and Folgers Coffee commercials with images of Hitchcock, represented through television appearances as the host of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”, excerpts from his films (particularly The Birds), and present-day footage of Hitchcock impersonators. These images are then overlaid with a voiceover narrative written by novelist Tom McCarthy and voiced by yet another Hitchcock stand-in. The narrative, a metaphor for mid-century US-Soviet relations, recounts a story in which Hitchcock meets his own double and begins with the instruction that “If you should meet your double, you should kill him.” Double Take weaves together fiction and nonfiction to form a historical construction that privileges the era’s essential qualities over chronology and causality. Hitchcock proves to be an ideal central figure for Double Take’s audiovisual mélange, and his films provide an apt reflecting glass for the tensions and anxieties of the Cold War era. Like all histories, Double Take speaks to the present as much as it engages with the past. The climate of fear it documents has obvious parallels with the world we live in now, a correlation further underscored in the concluding footage of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous speech about knowns and unknowns.

Hongara

There also were a few notable documentaries amongst this year’s Japanese entries. Hongara (Sacred Torch), winner of the festival’s Audience Choice award, follows a group of elderly residents in a small town in Shiga prefecture as they attempt to revive the town’s traditional festival after a fifty-year absence. Known as the “Hongarataimatsu”, the festival is defined by the large self-standing torches made out of pine, bamboo and dried rice plants. The video documents the elderly citizens as they undertake the year-long process of assembling the torches. Hongara intercuts footage of rice harvesting and bamboo cutting with scenes in which the town’s elderly residents recount memories of the festival from their youth. The final section of the video depicts the night of the festival as the town’s residents gather for parties, drink sake and beer, and parade through the town carrying lanterns and a giant taiko drum. Hongara slowly builds to the lighting of the torches, and the depiction of the citizens’ efforts to ensure the event’s success accentuates the significance of the occasion. The video concludes with the town’s residents watching as their collective efforts pay off and the torches blaze. The cheery tone of Hongara at times makes rural life seem a bit too idyllic, but the film does point to some broader problems in Japanese society where declining birthrates and a rapidly aging population have threatened many cultural traditions. The customs found in Japan’s countryside are particularly vulnerable given that many of these areas have experienced significant depopulation. In this context, the festival’s finale as portrayed in Hongara is particularly poignant.

Several of this year’s entries utilised digital still photography to explore unconventional forms of animation. In Goshima Kazuhiros’s Uncertain Camera the filmmaker rapidly cuts back and forth between photos of an object taken from slightly different positions. Images of a brick wall, table, and chairs shimmer and vibrate with the slight changes in camera perspective, which has the added effect of creating an illusion of depth. Goshima’s technique effectively destabilises the objects that appear in the frame, and the concreteness of objects and space are transformed into something far more mutable. In Aliquot Light, a second video by Goshima, changes in lighting are used to create a sense of motion. In this video, objects such as geometric shapes, mirrors and pieces of glass are positioned in the centre of the frame and photographed using a single light source placed in a variety of positions. When these images are edited together, the central objects act as an axis for the dance of light and shadow that flickers around them. Ishida Takashi, whose Film of the Sea was a highlight the previous year, returned to the festival with a new video entitled Reflection. Both videos are set in a gallery space and combine painting with time-lapse photography techniques. In Reflection, Ishida transforms a bare white gallery wall into an expanding canvas of colour and texture. Using the light from an adjacent window as his guide, the filmmaker repeatedly traces the contours of the refracted sunlight as it moves across the wall over the course of a day. Ishida eventually fills the wall with richly textured rectangular patterns and employs a palette of yellow, blue and reddish brown that echoes the changing sunlight and the colours of an adjacent brick wall. At the end of the video, the colourful designs gradually recede from the gallery wall as it returns to a field of solid white. While Reflection is a far more modest project than the visually stunning Film of the Sea, it makes effective use of similar animation techniques to create a sensitive portrait of light and motion.

Circle of Water

Other notable videos in the festival were Dé-sign 20—La Matière de Mémoire by the filmmaking duo known as Visual Brains, A Labyrinth of Residence by Saito Nasca, and Circle of Water by Son Wookyung. Dé-sign 20 is about the disappearing voices of people who lived through the wartime era. The video’s impressionistic approach combines beautifully rendered images of landscapes, flowers and other plant life with a voiceover in which an elderly woman recounts her memories of the wartime era. The juxtaposition of the audio and visual elements in Dé-sign 20 suggests that memories of the war exist not only in the minds of survivors, but have become part of the physical and psychological landscape of the country. In A Labyrinth of Residence the filmmaker investigates the patterns and forms found in a large apartment building. Utilising both macro and micro views of the structure, Saito creates grid-like patterns that are further emphasised by the video’s monochromatic colour scheme. The video’s rapidly changing symmetrical images eventually transform the monotonous architecture into a study of pure geometric forms. Also impressive was Son Wookyung’s Circle of Water, which traces the movement of water through three chapters: waterfall, stream and sea. Circle of Water seamlessly combines computer graphics and video as it morphs back and forth between recognisable images and pure abstraction, often occupying a liminal space between the two. The video begins with a computer generated stream of white lines flowing outward from a central point in the frame against a solid black background before transforming into cascades of water and mist at the bottom of a waterfall. The second part of the video documents the flow of water, highlighting its undulating quality through the manipulation of focus and speed. In this segment, the screen is slowly divided into a field of deep blue above a field of green and white, its structure and pure colours reminiscent of Rothko paintings. In the video’s final section, the filmmaker uses slow dissolves between images of the sea, sky and shoreline, each remaining in a constant state of flux until the video concludes with a final shot looking out from the shore toward the horizon. As she had the previous year with the equally remarkable Circle of Life, Son achieves a painterly appearance through her skillful application of digital tools, sensitivity to texture, and deft use of colour.

Gisei

Finally, this year’s festival also included a retrospective presentation of films by Donald Richie. Primarily known as an author and critic, Richie has lived in Japan for over 50 years and has written dozens of books about Japan, Japanese culture and Japanese cinema in particular. The book he co-authored with Joseph L. Anderson, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, was one of the first English language books on the subject and remains a foundational text in Film Studies departments in the west. In addition to his writing, Richie has also directed numerous experimental films, which he began making as a teenager in Ohio. The festival presented four of Richie’s films, all made in Japan between 1959 and 1968. War Games features a cast of small boys who act out rituals of masculinity and death by the seaside. The film examines group dynamics as conflicts arise amongst the boys. The film’s commentary on group inclusion and exclusion has a particular resonance within Japanese society where even the language varies significantly depending on whether one is speaking to an insider or outsider of a given group. The solemnity of War Games is nowhere found in Cybele, a later film that refashions the story of a Greek goddess who kills her lover into an absurdist naked romp. The film is set in a garden and begins with a group of men engaged in repetitive acts of buffoonery. When a goddess arrives, the men strip her naked before she seizes control of the group, tormenting her minions by leading them around with strings attached to their penises and inserting bundles of burning incense into sensitive regions. Eventually the goddess grows weary of the group and proceeds to execute her followers, castrating one and skewering another with a long stick of bamboo, until the film ends with her lying atop their lifeless bodies. Rivaling Cybele in terms of decadence was Gisei, a film originally shot on 8mm in 1959 but presented here on video in a revised version from 2008. Its title meaning “victim”, or “sacrifice”, Gisei features an early performance by Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the founders of the avant-garde performance and dance style known as Butoh. Set in a large open courtyard with an industrial backdrop, Gisei’s performers move through the space in a highly stylised manner, their gestures and movements reminiscent of traditional Japanese theatre, festival dancing, and drag-foot zombie shuffling. Like War Games and Cybele, Gisei also documents ritual acts and the film plays out as a depraved passion play with one of the performers subjected to an escalating series of degradations. The film provides a window to the development of Butoh’s performance style, and its transgressive content mirrors that of early Butoh performances. Though rarely screened, Gisei is an important document of the thriving avant-garde scene in Japan during the 1960s, and the film’s presentation was one of the highlights of the festival.

When compared to the festival’s more recent avant-garde selections, Richie’s films were a bit of an anomaly. The contemporary work included in the festival was largely devoid of the wanton excess found in some of Richie’s films. However, Richie’s films are not merely historical curiosities from a bygone era. Instead, the films continue to exude a vitality that has not diminished over time. As many of the films in this year’s festival reflected on the continued effect of historical traumas on our contemporary lives, Richie’s films were a welcome reminder of the past’s ability to inspire as well.

Image Forum website (in Japanese only): http://www.imageforum.co.jp/festival/