Feature image: ticket booth at the 2013 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.

This is not an article that seeks to survey the Asian documentary festival scene comprehensively or with neat generalisations. Through case studies of three documentary festivals of international magnitude in East Asia – in Japan, Mainland China and South Korea – I will briefly outline the festivals’ origins, historical trajectories and contingent, complicated connections. Instead of grand narratives, I favour small (hi)stories and disjunctive moments wherein filmmakers, film programmers, critics, researchers and audiences (volunteers) working in and through the force field of “Asia” comingle, interact and collectively create the creature of the film festival.

Although the first international documentary festival in Asia was not staged until 1989 at Yamagata, precursors to such exhibition impulses, or the eagerness on the part of documentary filmmakers in this region to engage their audiences in public settings at a grassroots level, could already be observed with the independent screenings mobilised by Japanese documentarist Ogawa Shinsuke among students and activists from the mid-1960s. Compared with the pioneering Yamagata festival founded by Ogawa, however, later events such as the Chinese indie festival Yunfest, in Yunnan, and Korea’s emerging DMZ Docs, were born out of decisively different documentary filmmaking traditions and industrial institutions (or the lack thereof).

It is in their differences that we try to grasp the ways in which these festivals dialogue with and relate to each other against the gradually homogenising Asian cultural economies; it is also in the splendid connections among the festivals and across their diversified actors, film communities and entities that we glimpse the creativities and discontents of Asian documentary cinema, as well as the entwined sociocultural histories that it has recorded, critiqued and has become part of.

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Japan: “Film Festival as a Living Thing”

All about Ogawa…

The earliest documentary film festival in Asia, the biennial Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) will celebrate its thirteenth edition in October 2015. Why the remote city of Yamagata in northeast Japan? And why documentary cinema? It would be impossible to give a proper account of the festival without mentioning Japanese independent documentarian Ogawa Shinsuke (1935–1992) and the filmmaking collective under his direction known as Ogawa Productions/Pro (1966–1994): at its peak the number of filmmakers in this collective reached over a hundred.

In 1972, when Ogawa Pro was on tour in northeastern Japan for independent screenings of their documentary series on Sanrizuka – works that chronicled the local peasants’ decade-long protests against the construction of Narita airport – the members temporarily stayed at the city of Kaminoyama in Yamagata prefecture. After establishing a close relationship with some locals there, including Kimura Michio, who would become a peasant poet and claim “it’s the luckiest thing in my life to have met Ogawa Shinsuke,”(1) Ogawa Pro made a surprising decision: they would relocate to Magino Village in Kaminoyama, also Kimura’s home village, where they started collective life in a borrowed farmhouse.

During their sixteen-year stay there, Ogawa Pro made seven documentaries, including A Japanese Village: Furuyashikimura (1982) and Ogawa’s last work, Magino Village: A Tale (1986). According to film scholar Abé Mark Nornes, the ambition or insanity of Ogawa Pro in terms of the scale of its “conception of documentary practice” might be unparalleled and even unthinkable for today’s filmmakers, given the fact that the Ogawa Pro projects were both time-consuming (they spent years living at the actual shooting locations) and expensive (they shot on film stock and had the additional burden of sustaining the everyday lives of the collective’s members). (2)

When the city of Yamagata (the capital city of Yamagata prefecture) was brainstorming event ideas to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the city’s founding scheduled to take place in 1989, Ogawa jumped at the opportunity to propose a film festival (there was also a suggestion for a food fair and other similar events). Preparing for the inaugural festival took over two years, with festival organisation offices set up in Tokyo and Yamagata. Ogawa not only sought support within the Japanese film circle by recruiting help from figures such as the influential film critics Yamane Sadao and Sato Tadao, he was also able to convince and collaborate with the Yamagata city government to secure their institutional backing, especially their sponsorship. (3)

Sadly, Ogawa passed away due to cancer when he was still developing a visionary project utilising the festival as a meeting place and training ground for a younger generation of Asian documentary filmmakers. For instance, the 1989 Yamagata festival held a five-hour-plus Asia Symposium in which filmmakers, critics, scholars and other film professionals from both East Asia and Southeast Asia participated. Hosted by Ogawa and Malaysian filmmaker Stephen Teo, this symposium allowed participants to give firsthand accounts of the situations for filmmaking in their own regions or countries. (4) In his brief opening speech, Ogawa claimed, “The most important thing is that this symposium should, at the end, without fail, give birth to something new and I will endeavour to make it such a meeting.” (5) Probably as Ogawa had hoped, since 1989 the YIDFF has provided a unique stage for Asian documentary filmmakers to network and to be stimulated by each other’s vision and commitment.


Asian documentary film festivals

Ogawa Shinsuke speaking at the inaugural Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 1989

As one of the pioneering auteurs of Chinese independent documentary, Wu Wenguang received a call from Ogawa during his stay at the 1991 Asian Film Festival held at Fukuoka, west Japan, where he was presenting his ground-breaking debut Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – zuihou de mengxiangzhe, 1990). With Ogawa’s help, Wu was able to extend his Japanese visa and had the opportunity to visit Ogawa’s studio during his short stay in Tokyo, before he could finally participate in the 1991 YIDFF the last edition at which Ogawa was present before he passed away.

After all these years, in his blog entries Wu still reminisces about the documentaries he voraciously browsed at Ogawa’s place, including works by Ogawa Pro and those by filmmakers such as Hara Kazuo. He recalls, “After returning to Beijing, my mind was occupied with Ogawa’s words and images of farmers crawling along fields fighting against the police. I felt I should immediately start my project about the Cultural Revolution, 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1966, Wo de hongweibing shidai, 1993). (6)

After Ogawa was gone, Wu continued to return to Yamagata to present his work and meet old friends. With 1966, My Time in the Red Guards Wu became the first recipient of the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize in 1993, the top award in the New Asian Currents part of the festival. Through his Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing, he has also introduced a diverse range of Japanese documentaries into Mainland China, including films by the self-proclaimed ‘anti-Ogawa’ documentarist Hara Kazuo.

Emphasising YIDFF’s connections with Ogawa is less about mystifying a central figure and crediting everything to a legendary founder, and more about tracing Ogawa’s vision and practice as something that underpinned Yamagata’s origins. It is also about placing the festival in the post-war history of Japanese documentary. It is to reflect upon the festival’s role throughout the upheavals and undercurrents of Japanese contemporary cultural history, which Ogawa Pro spent all those long decades faithfully documenting.

While searching for reference materials on the Yamagata festival, including reports, interviews and roundtable talks, I came to realise that a complete story of the YIDFF is interwoven with the memoirs about Ogawa on the one hand and anecdotes about the participation and support of audiences and citizens on the other hand. In a sense, YIDFF has extended Ogawa’s social practice in leveraging the power of documentary film(making) to engage the public, which at the same time has also helped to generate a small history of cinephilia. When the season comes, people travel all the way to Yamagata in order to watch films and volunteer for the festival. A young generation of passionate festival participants even formed a network named something like the ‘Unofficial Film Festival Support Group.’ They published the festival Daily News and facilitate screenings of Yamagata’s films around other Japanese cities. After the festival reshuffled itself into a non-profit organisation (NPO) in 2009, it was precisely these “unofficial” network members who took the lead in the new entity and kept publishing Daily News.

As a social project, Yamagata festival might resemble Ogawa Pro’s filmmaking projects in having become a ‘living thing’ (ikimono in Japanese): rooted in its own soil, it has developed its own network connecting organisations, people and places. Most importantly, it is nourished by and grows out of the joined force of people who have faith in it and are dedicated to it. Exactly because of these human networks, it possesses memory and radiates warmth. In their accounts of the YIDFF, many people talk passionately about a restaurant/izagaya called “Komi’an,” and it is a spot in town where crowds of filmmakers, critics, film-lovers and ordinary citizens mingle, drink and exchange ideas about films and life after the day’s screenings has ended – for all these years, Komi’an has remained one of the places where you can feel the charm and vitality of the amazing ikimono of the Yamagata festival.

“Going my way”

It is also tempting to position the YIDFF onto the global topography of documentary film festivals. Here I want to rely on a comparative framework to look at what exactly sets the Yamagata festival apart. A convenient example would be the annually held International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which was established only one year earlier than the YIDFF in 1988.

In her contribution to a 2013 anthology dedicated to the YIDFF, Yamagata’s programmer Fujioka Asako imagines a conversation between an Asian documentary auteur named “Wang” and a European festival programmer known as “Thomas,” wherein she offers a critical reflection upon the euphoric boom of European documentary film festivals such as IDFA. (7) In this imagined talk, Thomas draws attention to the fact that IDFA has grown into a mega-event with an increasingly large budget: each edition lasts for 11 days, showcases around 400 films and the number of visits exceeds 200,000 (250,000 in 2014) – ten times that of Yamagata’s audience. Like many other comprehensive international festivals that have embraced and developed a strong presence in the marketplace, IDFA has also jumped on the bandwagon and installed a documentary film market, “Docs for Sale” (established 1996), and the “IDFA FORUM” (established 2007), a co-financing/co-production market specifically designed for pitches from Europe.

Compared to the gargantuan IDFA, YIDFF proves to be a resolutely different creature. Unlike the European metropolis Amsterdam, Yamagata may never impress visitors as a vibrant “global” cultural centre, despite the latter’s ambitious regeneration plan to build itself into a UNESCO-accredited “Creative City of Visual Culture.” The Yamagata festival seems to carve out an anti-model against the grain of the new festival economies that invariably incorporate an alluring funding scheme and a dually focused market imperative, which usually includes both a market for trading accomplished works and a market for pitching projects. For Fujioka, however, the current situation that film festivals in Europe have to run on shrinking budgets, partially resulting from the widespread financial crisis, might suggest upcoming transformations of such a business model.

My intention here is not to privilege the current Yamagata model as something “better” or “more authentic,” yet its lack of a market discourse and its stubborn commitment to exhibition throughout these 25 years not only speaks about its self-positioning or “Going-My-Way” style (as “Thomas” would call it) in the international festival system, but also provokes us to rethink how we make sense of the “trends” or “anti-trends” in international film festivals, and how it is possible for a local festival to engage the global grammar with vernacular idioms without necessarily being totally subjected to homogenisation, upgrading in competition, and growth into a larger, more spectacular event. As such, the seemingly peripheral YIDFF model might be one of the most idealistic in keeping to what it has been in terms of scale and structure, and trying to define its productivity in terms of programming explorations instead of the generation of new industrial agendas.

With this said, the YIDFF is indeed facing practical challenges in engaging two disparate yet overlapping communities. One is local, especially in Yamagata city. Partially because the festival as an NPO still receives government funding (annually JPY150 million, or USD1.24 million), it has to include more public-oriented activities that contribute to local community building and even the city’s current regeneration projects via cultural enterprises.

Another is the wider film community that has been closely knitted together on the platform of Yamagata. For instance, the festival is not without pressure in finding audiences for its films and vice versa. Although the festival doesn’t feature a market, in organising touring exhibitions of Yamagata entries across Japan and overseas, and/or supplying (Japanese) subtitled international documentaries for various screening events nationwide, it actually plays an important role in introducing and circulating excellent documentary work both within and beyond Japan.

Yunfest, the People’s Republic of China: “It is a Period Full of All Kinds of Possibilities”

A festival that is no more?

On March 21, 2015, the day of the spring equinox, Beijing Film Academy’s Professor Zhang Xianmin, who is more widely known as a producer, programmer and critic of Chinese independent films, whimsically launched a campaign in support of Yunfest on Weixin (a mobile app widely used among the mainland Chinese population that integrates functions of both “WhatsApp” and “Facebook, known in English as “WeChat”). Within hours, Zhang had re-tweeted dozes of photos sent to him from all over the world by people who are familiar with the Chinese indie film scene, with each of the pictures entitled “South of the Cloud” (yunzhinan), the Chinese title of the film festival. If it were not cancelled by the government in 2013, March 21, 2015 would have been the opening of the seventh edition of this biennale event, Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival – or Yunfest – in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province in southwest China.

Asian documentary film festivals

Poster for the cancelled 2013 edition for Yunfest

Zhang’s light-hearted online project reminds us of the current dire situation that most of China’s pioneering independent film festivals are enmeshed in, including Yunfest and festivals in Beijing (Beijing Independent Film Festival, established 2006, and China Documentary Film Festival, established 2003) and Nanjing (China Independent Film Festival, established 2003). Having emerged since the early 2000s, these grassroots-level festivals emphasize programming and showcasing contemporary independent films from mainland China. Despite the fact that they usually take place without seeking the authorities’ permission, governments at various levels are not ignorant of their existence. The tension between the two parties often escalates into confrontation when the overall political environment worsens and the cultural policy tightens, wherein a vicious cycle repeats itself: the festival is forced to cancel (and may move underground), and in the worst situation all the films are confiscated and the venue shut down by force, as was the case with the 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festival. Yunfest on the other hand, despite its self-imposed cancellation in 2013 under official pressure, has slipped into prolonged dormancy, for lack of better description, since rumours circulate that the festival might revive in the near future.

Nevertheless, the “independence” of these grassroots festivals should not be essentialised; rather, it is always situated within their networking with other actors, people and entities, including the cultural authorities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In some cases, local governments are even willing to collaborate with these grassroots film festivals in one way or another, given the fact that an already existing film festival could be conveniently co-opted/incorporated into the scheme of developing the local cultural industry, which has become the mantra of the central government’s cultural policy. Therefore independent festivals often strategically position themselves at the juncture of the Chinese independent cinema’s community building, the municipal/provincial governments’ policy framework of boosting cultural and creative industries, and the constant surveillance and regulation in the spheres of cultural production and consumption by the party-state.

Grasping the significance of independent documentary film festivals begs a review of the development of the PRC’s independent documentary making, which emerged in the late 1980s as an extension from the richly woven tapestry of China’s relatively liberal art and culture scene of that decade. As a film movement, it also grew out of post-Tiananmen China’s sociopolitical conditions, with the outburst of creativity in image-making testifying to the drastic process of urbanisation and city-making nationwide.

While the early wave of independent documentary’s enfants terribles like Wu Wenguang, Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue were once affiliated with work units (danwei) such as TV stations or state-owned film studios, and somehow managed to accomplish their first projects with equipment loaned from the TV stations and so forth, in the 2000s the popularisation of digital video (DV) and relevant digital filmmaking technologies have further revolutionised the mode of production and even the aesthetics of independent cinema. And they have enabled more amateur filmmakers, broadly defined here as people who are not professionally or systematically trained at film institutes, to participate in the film movement with renewed sociopolitical agendas. Independent filmmakers leverage DV as a lightweight, powerful weapon to engage with the ongoing transformations of Chinese society and the lived experience of ordinary Chinese people at various levels; what they have recorded and borne witness to also constitutes a history that complements and contests official narratives.

Turn to independent documentary

The inaugural Yunfest in 2003 celebrated the overarching leitmotifs of anthropology and ethnography, mostly because this event was originally masterminded by several Kunming-based anthropology scholars and graduate students who were affiliated with Yunnan Provincial Museum, Yunnan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences (YASS) and the East Asia Institute of Visual Anthropology (EAIVA), the first visual anthropology institute in Asia that was collaboratively run by Yunnan University and German institutes.

Questions asked of Yamagata are worth repeating here. Why a film festival in the peripheral, second-tier city of Kunming? And why its initial focus on anthropology? Half of the PRC’s officially recognised ethnic minorities live in Yunnan. And its rich ethnic landscape has also proven valuable for studying globalisation at the local level, especially in terms of the minority communities’ transformations in the modern world, privileging Kunming as one of the best locations to launch anthropological research. Accordingly, the first Yunfest presented a retrospective on ethnographic documentarist Yang Guanghai, one of the pioneering documentary filmmakers taking part in the state project of making “scientific documentaries on minorities” between 1957 and 1979.

Nevertheless, the inaugural edition was more than a showcase of ethnographic films. In its main competition, for which the Yunfest assembled a line-up of 22 films out of around 90 open call submissions, we could spot works from the new voices in Chinese independent documentary: Feng Yan (Dreams of the Yangtze River, 2002), Ji Dan (Gongbu’s Happy Life, 1999), Zhou Hao (Houjie Township, 2002), and Hong Kong’s Tammy Cheung (Rice Distribution, 2002).

According to Yunfest’s programmer Yi Sicheng, in the early 2000s, people who were organising grassroots cinéphile activities nationwide (mainly screenings at alternative venues such as café, salons and university classrooms) gradually came to the realisation that they could also launch grassroots festival-like events to circulate and exhibit an increasing number of independently produced films, given the fact that officially run cultural platforms hardly offer opportunities and outlets to showcase such new works. (8)

The second edition of Yunfest in 2005 shifted its focus to Chinese independent documentary. This edition not only saw more submissions from the independent sector, which encouraged the festival to drop the keyword “anthropology” (renleixue) in its Chinese title to include a wider spectrum of selections – its competition section also presented a full line-up of works shot with DV, indexing the new dynamics underpinning the technological ecology of the PRC’s independent cinema.

Ethnography centred projects did not disappear from Yunfest, but this strand transformed into a socially engaging sidebar of “Participatory Visual Education” after 2003, showcasing works made by villagers from mountainous regions and ethnic communities with DV cameras handed to them by research NGOs and NPOs. Yi Sicheng believes that documentaries produced from within these local communities should also be considered part of the Chinese independent cinema: they have presented significantly complementary/comparative edges for rethinking filmmaking.

Upon its establishment, Yunfest was already envisioning itself as a “professional” (zhuanye) film festival. Its programming structure was fashioned on Yamagata’s. The profound transnational linkages between these two Asian film festivals deserve further explorations: despite the sociopolitical milieu that underpinned and distinguished the mechanisms of the festival at Yunnan, to some extent Yunfest and Yamagata mirror each other in fulfilling the “anti-trend,” by playing less market-oriented roles in regional/global film festival economies and revolving more around cinéphile culture.

They also paid tribute to each other. 2005’s Yunfest built its retrospective “Flashback” section around Japanese documentaries, presenting a juicy line-up of seven films by auteurs such as Ogawa Shinsuke, Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Minamata: The Victims And Their World, 1971) and Mori Tatsuya (A, 1998), accompanied by an introductory article written by YIDFF’s Fujioka Asako in the festival catalogue. In the same year, the YIDFF also presented a side event entitled “Yunnan Visual Forum in Yamagata,” which highlighted Yunfest’s dually focused themes of visual anthropology and independent documentary.

The Yamagata-Yunfest alliance was reinforced by occasionally launching the workshop-like documentary “dojo” (originally a Japanese term referring to the training ground for martial arts) respectively at Yamagata and Yunnan, wherein both the Japanese and Chinese participants spent days living together (Ogawa style) with veteran filmmakers and other film professionals (scholars, programmers and critics) from both countries. They would exchange ideas through group filmmaking exercises and wonderful drinking sessions. When having their dojo at Furuyashiki village in 2009, where Ogawa Pro made A Japanese Village: Furuyashikimura (1982), the Chinese filmmakers might not have expected that Ogawa’s old friend Kimura Michio would be among the villagers and staff who drank saké with them.

Best of times, worst of times

Despite its affiliation with provincial research institutes such as YASS, Yunfest needed to finance itself independently with overseas cultural funding (such as the Ford Foundation, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and the DOEN Foundation), and occasional sponsorships and donations from enterprises and individuals. Yi Sicheng confessed to me in interview that he and other festival staff were basically volunteering (they have full-time jobs in educational or research institutes); besides filling in forms and applying for limited cultural/educational funding opportunities, they had a difficult time winning sponsorship from organisations and entrepreneurs because of the festival’s grassroots status and the political significance of its independent line-up. (9)

For Yi, the “best of times” for Yunfest arrived, even if only briefly, even if only as an “illusion,” when the second festival was able to showcase all the films at the provincial library located in central Kunming, with all the screenings open to the public free of charge. Yunfest therefore also expanded the discursive space of independent documentary to accommodate a much more heterogeneous viewership, which was even inclusive of audiences who might have hardly known anything about documentary cinema prior to the festival. The slow-paced, bohemian milieu of the city, and its distance from the political centre of Beijing also generated a semi-liberal atmosphere in which the guests could network and exchange ideas in a more relaxing, intimate way. For independent filmmakers, they could simply enjoy the festival as a low-profile carnival, together with colleagues from all over China who could really relate to the isolation and frustration they had suffered throughout the creative process. In 2009, the Fourth Yunfest was even able to arrange screenings of domestic independent documentaries at three local multiplex theatres, something unprecedented for a Chinese independent film festival.

In the summer of 2014, when I asked Yi “what this film festival would have been like if it weren’t cancelled,” he chose not to give me a direct answer. It is intriguing that he echoed Yamagata’s “going-my-way” logic by arguing, “The most challenging thing is not to develop it into something bigger but to keep it small, so that you can keep your independence, and to be faithful to what you were originally pursuing.” He reminded me of the fact that Chinese independent documentary filmmakers, as well as independent festival programmers, might work within the most harsh political and financial environments, yet their creativity has been never curbed or killed – instead it grows and has been constantly renewed. Yi then turned to me, “The greater the force that suppresses it, the stronger the force that bounces back… without that suppressing power, the creation itself might also turn to a different direction.” He continued, “This is the condition that I am working with, which I believe is the most precious stage of my work, because it is a period full of all kinds of possibilities.”

DMZ International Documentary Film Festival, South Korea: A Festival in the Process of Becoming

DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs) is actually not taking place in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, but in the city of Goyang (previously also in the city of Paju), almost 40 minutes’ subway ride from central Seoul. As the tenth largest urban centre in Korea, Goyang impresses as a well-planned satellite city with blocks of modern exhibition centres (KINTEX) and shopping malls. Actually, the festival’s main multiplex theatre is located in a mall surrounded by sparse residential quarters and expansive undeveloped land.

The sixth DMZ Docs in 2014 showcased 111 documentary films under three major competition sections: International Competition (12 films), Korean Competition (9 films) and Youth Competition (Korean short films by students), besides its variously themed sidebars. Despite the festival’s too generalised core concept of “peace, communication and life,” this 2014 line-up incorporated some of the most exciting 2013–14 productions from all over the world to highlight refreshing methodologies, daring experiments and pressing issues in documentary cinema, as if the programmers were trying to bombard festival-goers with a heterogeneous set of selections in order to leave “what counts as a documentary?” an open question.

DMZ Docs’ timing is revealing about its positioning within the East Asian film festival landscape, specifically in relation to the biennial YIDFF and the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival (or TIDF; established in 1998, it takes place biannually in May, with a competition section). Although like Yunfest, DMZ Docs was invented during a new wave of festival-making throughout Asia in the 2000s, the Korean festival takes advantage of its status as a late-comer and fully leverages the neoliberal government’s policy in boosting regional/local cultural economies.

Upon its establishment, relying on substantial support from the cities of Goyang and Paju (of Gyeonggi Province, which also partakes in the festival’s organisation), DMZ Docs has ambitiously fashioned itself as an international cultural showcase, which fits well into the mayor of Goyang’s vision of developing the city into “a mecca for broadcasting and visual media in the northeast in the near future.” On the other hand, in advocating a seemingly universally-compatible message about peace and reconciliation, the DMZ festival is not without its own political agenda: let us not to forget the fact that the demilitarised zone itself symbolises the South-North confrontation and testifies to ongoing Cold War on the Korean peninsula. As sharply pointed out by the 2014 festival guest, media scholar Catherine Russell, while espousing film projects exploring North Korea-centred issues that fit into the South’s imaginary of a “motherland,” the government-backed DMZ festival does not take these topics further nor encourage more critical questioning of the actual political conditions on the Korean peninsula. (10)

Geopolitical issues aside, what essentially distinguishes DMZ Docs from YIDFF, TIDF and Yunfest might be the “DMZ Project Market” (DPM), established in 2013. Developed from the festival’s previous grant initiatives, DPM best illustrates the neoliberal connotation of a “film project” by assembling the full industrial cycle for a potential project, with its segments DMZ Pitch (presentation sessions for selected pitches), Project Meeting (consultations with industry professionals), Docs in Progress (evaluative discussions for previous funding recipients), DMZ Talk (themed panels) and finally, DMZ Docs Project Screening (showcasing finished DPM-funded projects).

Importantly, the pitching platform at DPM generates coproduction opportunities for Asian documentaries, with the geographical underpinning of “Asian documentary” broadened and redefined. For instance, 2014’s DMZ Pitch included Chinese auteur Wang Bing’s new documentary project Shanghai Youth (under the “Asia” section). A Chinese-French coproduction, it was granted funds. Overall, DMZ Pitch in 2014 awarded grants to 15 projects, amounting to 325 million Korean Won (USD306,000) of funding.

Nevertheless, the industrial model of the DMZ Docs does not necessarily homogenise the event’s “going-my-way” impulses. On consecutive nights during the festival, in a small tent area near the mall, cinéphiles were consoled with late-night snacks and alcohol, paid for by one of the festival organisers personally (different hosts swiped their own credit cards on site!). During these night sessions, festival organisers, volunteers, guests and audience members were able to share a table and indulge in a wonderful camaraderie fostered onsite. Among the volunteers each night was the familiar face of actor Cho Jae-hyun – best known for his performances in many of Kim Ki-duk’s films, from Bad Guy (Nabbeun namja, 2001) to the recent Moebius (2013) – who is actually the festival director. Reminded of the liminal state of DMZ itself, I consider DMZ Docs a festival in a state of becoming: it is still experimenting in establishing the connections between its visionary line-up and audiences, as well as between cinéphile power and the forces of the market.

Negotiating the market, making connections

When the inaugural Yamagata festival was held 26 years ago, not only was there not a single documentary from Asia in its competition line-up – the idea of “Asian documentary” and its “network” mostly involved anxieties about the lack of mutual understanding and interconnections among filmmakers across the region (specifically in the context of East Asia). Asian (documentary) filmmakers nowadays no longer have to desperately rely on a symposium to be informed of filmmaking conditions in neighbouring countries – festivals like the YIDFF, Yunfest and DMZ Docs have grown into crucial regional platforms for networking various actors, particularly in connecting filmmakers, films and audiences. The evolution of these festivals on the one hand testifies to the amazing growth of Asian documentary cinema, however unevenly developed; on the other hand, the festivals engender aesthetic, political and industrial parameters by which to chart what Asian documentary cinema has been and will become.

Understandably, what cannot be exhausted in this piece are many local-audience oriented documentary festivals, or small-scale digital cinema-centred festivals which aggressively program documentaries across East Asian cities, such as Za Koenji Documentary Festival (Tokyo, established 2010), Kobe Documentary Film Festival (Kobe, established 2009), China Documentary Film Festival (Beijing, established 2003, merged into Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2012) and Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival (Seoul, 2007–12). While these emerging festivals have developed their own models celebrating diversified artistic visions and innovative filmmaking methodologies, they cannot maintain themselves as pure cinephilic events, but need to negotiate and relate to the realities of local-national cultural politics and neoliberal economies in one way or another, just as we have demonstrated with the cases of Yamagata, Yunfest and DMZ. If we dream of a diversified East Asian documentary festival scene, which allows space for smaller, more specialised festivals to coexist with mega events, it is in the different connections established within a specific festival and among the festivals that I look for hope.


This article would not be possible without the great help from Hata Ayumi and Masuya Shuichi from the YIDFF, Yi Sicheng from the Yunfest, Wu Wenguang, Zhang Xianmin, Cong Feng and Fujiki Hideaki. I would also like to thank Abe Mark Nornes for his wonderful monograph on Ogawa Shinsuke.


  1. See Kimura’s contribution to Tokushou: Nichijou Wo Toru! Yamagata Kokusai Dokyumentari Eigasai (Special Issue: Shooting Everyday Life! Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival) 2 (Summer 2013): p. 68.
  2. For a more detailed account of Ogawa Pro’s conception of documentary practices, see Abé Mark Nornes, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. xv.
  3. The festival only became an independently run non-profit organisation in 2009.
  4. Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige couldn’t make it for political reasons, so Taiwanese film critic Peggie Chiao Hsiung-ping introduced their films instead.
  5. Quoted in Erikawa Ken, Stephen Teo and Yano Kazuyuki, eds., Asian Symposium 1989 (Yamagata: Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Organizing Committee, 2007), p. 4.
  6. Wu Wenguang, “Yingxiang biji: yi ge ren de jilupian” (Audiovisual Note: A One-person Documentary), Blog.sina.com (June 9, 2012), trans. Ma Ran, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_8203e0da010159r2.html
  7. Asako Fujioka’s contribution to Tokushou, pp. 93–98.
  8. With this said, it should be pointed out that PRC has a state-sanctioned documentary festival, Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (GZDOC), which originated in an international symposium (plus exhibition events) on documentary cinema in 2003. GZDOC has set up a pitching platform for international projects since 2004. Festival official site: www.gzdoc.cn
  9. Man Ran, Interview with Yi Sicheng (Kunming, 2 September 2014).
  10. Catherine Russell, “DMZ International Documentary Film Festival: Film, Peace, and the Cold War Industry,” Synoptique: An Online Journal of Film and Moving Image Studies 3: 2 (Winter 2015), http://synoptique.hybrid.concordia.ca/index.php/main/article/view/84

Additional References

Festival catalogues of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival 2003–2013, DMZ International Documentary Film Festival.

Festival Details

Yamagata International Documentary Festival
First edition: October 10–15, 1989
Latest edition: October 8–15, 2015. Biannual.
Location: Yamagata city, Yamagata prefecture, Japan
Programs: International Competition (The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize); New Asian Currents (Ogawa Shinsuke Prize); Perspectives Japan; Cinema with Us.
Official site: www.yidff.jp

First edition: March 21–27, 2003
Latest edition: March 21–27, 2013 (cancelled). Biannual.
Location: Kunming, Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China
Programs: Film Competition (Bronze Prize; Mask Prize; Black Pottery Prize; Audience Award); Youth Forum; Participatory Visual Education; Flashback; Media Mélanges
Official site: www.yunfest.org/

The DMZ International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs)
First Edition: October 22-26, 2009
Latest edition: September 17–24, 2015. Annual
Location: Goyang City and Paju City, South Korea
Programs: Competition Section (International Competition; Korean Competition; Youth Competition), Non-competition Section (Global Vision, Asian Perspective, Korean Docs Showcase, Passage), Special Section, DMZ Project Market (DMZ Pitch)
Official site: www.dmzdocs.com