TIFF’s programming director explains the festival’s direction

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Since 2007, when he took over as programming director of the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Competition section, Yoshihiko “Yoshi” Yatabe has been a point person in TIFF’s drive to elevate its status in the region and the world. A former film distributor, publicist and producer, Yatabe joined the TIFF staff in 2002 and has become the festival’s trim, energetic, habitually smiling face.

As a programmer, Yatabe tells The Japan Times, he does not distinguish between so-called indie and commercial films. “It’s not something I’m conscious of,” he says. “What counts is whether a film is good or not.”

But getting those “good” films, he admits is “not always easy,” especially when they are world premieres with major stars who might also be in demand from a bigger festival such as Cannes. “I don’t know if that (sort of film) is always such a good thing,” he says. “But I do know that I want a mix of young directors with a few proven veterans.” Not that he disdains world premieres: There are six in the 15-film Competition section, all from Japan and Asia.

This programming philosophy has held constant from year to year, but starting with TIFF’s 26th and latest edition (Oct. 17-25), the festival will introduce new and revamped sections, including Asia Future for films by up-and-coming Asian directors and Japanese Cinema Splash for local indie films with international appeal. It will also bring back the Special Screenings section for new Japanese and foreign commercial films and the World Focus section for films screened at major festivals that have yet to find a Japanese distributor.

“We had to do a bit of restructuring as a result of a decline in the total number of films we screen,” he explains. “I see it as a positive, though, not a negative. In the Asian Future section we’re really trying hard to uncover young Asian talent. I want to position it as a second competition that makes the festival more exciting.”

Meanwhile, Japanese Cinema Splash carries over the indie focus of its predecessor, Japanese Eyes. “One change is that we’re more actively trying to present these films to foreign festivals and buyers,” Yatabe says. “In other words, we’ve strengthened the character of the section as a showcase (of new Japanese films) for foreign countries.”

In addition to the Big Three festivals of Europe — Cannes, Berlin and Venice — which serve as out-of-reach role models, Yatabe says he is “conscious” of the Busan International Film Festival, which is held right before TIFF and has usurped its status as Asia’s premier festival. “For example, we have a regulation that if a film appears in the Busan competition, it can’t appear in ours.”

This rather limits the number of quality Korean films that Yatabe can program, so he was “extremely happy” to include “Boolgeun Gajok (Red Family),” a film scripted and produced by acclaimed Korean provocateur Kim Ki-duk, in this year’s competition.

The coup came about, he explains, because the Korean company that represents “Red Family” also offered “Beomjoe Sonyeon (Juvenile Offender),” Kang Yi-kwan’s hard-hitting family drama, to TIFF as a world premiere last year. It won a Special Jury Prize, as well as a best-actor award for young star Seo Young-joo. “They learned that good things can happen when you submit to TIFF,” beams Yatabe.

Sometimes factors out of TIFF’s control enter into its relationships with foreign film companies, such as Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands that occasioned widespread protests in China in the fall of 2012 that led to some films and director appearances being canceled. “Last year it was really tough,” Yatabe admits. The calming of the diplomatic waters allowed TIFF to invite Ning Ying’s “To Live and Die in Ordos” to the Competition. “Whether political problems exist or not, I definitely want to select Chinese films,” Yatabe says.

At the same time, Yatabe resists programming films purely on the basis of having a topic that happens to be timely: “For example, a lot of films now deal with the nuclear disaster (in Fukushima) or the (March 11, 2011) earthquake, but some of them are just not well made, even though they have an important theme. Those I don’t want to screen.”

Yatabe has one ultimate filter: “The film’s quality has to be the axis around which everything revolves,” he says. “Otherwise you get confused with all these competing voices around you.”

But TIFF also aims to be a festival that, as general director Yasushi Shiina said at a September press conference, “can be enjoyed by everyone,” so “quality” doesn’t necessarily equate with “art film.” “What’s really symbolic of this year’s festival is the programming of both ‘Adèle’ (‘La Vie d’Adèle [Blue is the Warmest Color'], winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year) and (long-running girl-targeted anime series) ‘Pretty Cure,’ ” Yatabe enthuses. “I can’t think of another festival with a wide range like ours.”

As for the future, Yatabe would like the festival to grow, perhaps by adding a couple of films to the Competition and doubling the size of the World Focus section — but not to the size of the Toronto International Film Festival, which screens hundreds of films annually. “If you have too many films, the care you can devote to any one of them becomes less,” he explains. “I want Tokyo to be a festival that’s not too big, that gives each and every film a high level of hospitality.”

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