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It’s a bit out of the way, but Skip City festival makes up for the distance with great films and rare access

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Special To The Japan Times

The location for the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival doesn’t make it particularly easy for casual fans to pop in. The Skip City complex — which hosts studios for audiovisual production, as well as educational and entertainment facilities — is a fairly lengthy bus ride from Kawaguchi Station in Saitama Prefecture.

The “D” stands for “digital,” and since its launch in 2004, when digital films were still struggling to win acceptance from industry traditionalists, Skip City has served as an incubator of talent and a promoter of digital formats (which have now almost completely taken over said industry). Festival award winners include Kazuya Shiraishi (“Dawn of the Felines”), Ryota Nakano (“Her Love Boils Bathwater”) and Yuichiro Sakashita (“Any Way the Wind Blows”) —all of whom have gone on to have successful careers.

The award winners at the 14th and latest edition of Skip City, which took place from July 15 to 23, included Norwegian director Arild Andresen, who won the Grand Prize in the Feature Length Competition for “Handle with Care,” a drama about the rocky relationship between a widowed Norwegian man and his adopted Colombian son. Shot in Norway and Colombia, the film told perceptive truths about a taboo subject: A single father who cannot love his unruly young son and contemplates returning him to his birth mother.

My own favorite, however, was “China’s Van Goghs,” a documentary by the father-daughter team of Haibo Yu and Kiki Tianqi Yu about a Chinese man who has spent 20 years copying the work of the famed Dutch artist to make a living, and finally journeys to Amsterdam to see the real thing. Filmed in an intimate, observational style by filmmakers who had gained their subject’s complete trust, the film is a surprisingly moving portrait of a man who sincerely admires the artist some would say he is simply ripping off — and is both inspired and shocked by what he finds in Amsterdam, from the beauty of Van Gogh’s paintings to the unscrupulous business practices of his Dutch partner. I wasn’t the only one who liked the film: The jury, headed by internationally celebrated director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, gave the Yus their best director prize.

Other films that made the journey to Skip City worthwhile this year were Yoshio Kato’s “3ft Ball & Souls,” a surreal drama with a strong anti-suicide message that won the Skip City Award for best Japanese feature, and “On the Trail of My Father,” Marco Segato’s sparely told coming-of-age drama set in the Italian Alps in the 1950s, culminating in a nail-bitingly realistic bear attack.

Segato, a native of the Alps himself, took part in a post-screening chat session to talk about the bear scene, as did many other directors whose work was in the festival. In this way especially, Skip City offers fans and media types ample opportunities to get up close to actual artists. After all, once they make the journey to the wilds of Kawaguchi, where else are they going to go?