Documentaries at the margins of modern life


Special To The Japan Times

There is no film festival in Japan quite like the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF).

Going against the current of easy entertainment and mind-numbing CGI, the festival is a solid, seriously cinematic event held in Yamagata every two years. From its inception in 1989, YIDFF has dedicated itself wholly to challenging documentaries from Japan and around the world.

In the year following each YIDFF, the festival travels to Tokyo. This year it will run through Dec. 19 at K’s cinema in Shinjuku, with a selection of films also being shown at Josai International University’s Kioicho Campus on Nov. 28-29. The event, titled “Documentary Dream Show,” is a welcome opportunity for Tokyoites to sample some stimulating documentaries from emerging and established talent, all dealing with the rather convoluted theme of “Playing with Memory and Reality — Toward the Ocean of Documentary.”

You’ll learn two things from this year’s YIDFF. Globalization has yet to fully encroach on the vast range of ways humans live, and secondly, it also offers no antidote to the fear, strife and discrimination that often accompany diversity.

At the 2013 festival in Yamagata, a huge draw was the “Another Side of the ‘Arab Spring’ ” section, featuring six titles dealing with one of the strangest, most complex political events of our time, and a number of those films will be coming to Tokyo.

The good news is that almost all the films have English subtitles, but for details and festival information, visit Here’s a list of 10 films at the festival worth checking out:


German director Philip Scheffner investigates a true story: the death of two Romanians whose corpses were found in the middle of a cornfield on the border between Germany and Poland. The German police would like to put the deaths down to shooting accidents; the Polish police are too busy to bother. Scheffner tries to reconstruct what happened, whodunit style, through extensive interviews and repeated visits to the crime scene. Showing 3 p.m., Nov. 28.

Tour of Duty

Written and directed by Korea’s Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae, “Tour of Duty” focuses on three prostitutes who wander the ruins of an abandoned red-light district just outside a defunct U.S. military base. Sometimes embarrassed but mostly sad and nostalgic about their pre-prostitution days, the women’s monologues lay bare the reality of living in the shadow of a foreign military base. Showing 2:30 p.m., Nov. 30.

Mrs. Bua’s Carpet

Vietnam’s Duong Mong Thu points her lens at Mrs. Bua, whose life has been one of endless toil and labor. Mrs. Bua’s neighbors in the village are kind and treat her with respect, but she still suffers from the traumatic memories of being tortured by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, when she was a newly married bride. Screening with a talk by the director: 6 p.m, Nov. 30.

Char . . . The No-Man’s Island

The “Chars” are sandbank islands on the Ganges, with India on one side and Bangladesh on the other. Chars are fragile and hazardous — a cyclone or hurricane may wipe out an entire island, forcing the inhabitants to relocate to another Char. Director Souvrav Sarangi spent 10 years filming the Chars and the life of a boy named Rubel, who matures from a child into a teenage smuggler — often the only livelihood available for residents of these tiny islands. Showing 4:30 p.m., Dec. 2.

Motherland or Death

Cuba might be a last frontier or a revolutionary’s paradise — either way, it’s veiled in mystery. Russian director Vitaly Mansky attempts to shed some light on a nation that still refuses to bow to capitalism, one where people live under the national slogan of “Motherland or death.” Each citizen has their own interpretation of that slogan, though, because Cuban communism never stomped out Cuban individualism. Showing 7 p.m., Dec.3.

The Target Village

The villagers of Takae in Okinawa have been living in a nightmare. During the Vietnam War they were forced to perform in anti-guerilla combat drills by the U.S. military, and now they’re being sued by the Japanese government for daring to protest against the construction of a massive helipad that circles and threatens the entire village. Directed by Okinawan Chie Mikami. Screening with a talk by the director: 6 p.m., Dec. 1.

Once I Entered a Garden

Israeli writer and director Avi Mograbi visits an old Palestinian friend to reminisce about the days when their two nations coexisted without borders and constant warfare. They swap stories and share some love letters from former girlfriends, waxing nostalgic and pondering on the future. Showing 6:30 p.m., Dec. 2.

A World Not Ours

Director Mahdi Fleifel was a Palestinian refugee before moving to Denmark and starting a new life envied by many back in the Palestinian territories. But for him, home is still the refugee camp where he grew up. Fleifel visits regularly to reconnect with family and friends, and this film documents their meetings and conversations. Winner of YIDFF’s International Competition section in 2013. Showing 2 p.m, Dec. 5.

It Was Better Tomorrow

In 2011, Tunisia was in the midst of a revolution. While wandering the streets, director Hinde Boujemaa meets single mom Aida and her physically disabled son. Broke and homeless, Aida squats with her son in various abandoned apartments until she’s forced to move out. The revolution doesn’t do her any favors but her will to survive is extraordinary. Showing 10:30 a.m., Dec. 10 and 19.


The Afghani directing duo of Malek Shafi’i and Diana Saqeb started filming in 2009, when “the country was steeped in hope and we had so many plans for the future.” The duo met and talked with women, encouraging them to speak up and look forward to a day when being a woman in Afghanistan will no longer carry connotations of tragedy or stigma. See this film for and insight into how the situation has unfolded for Afghan women over the past five years. Showing 6 p.m., Nov. 30.