Food, folks and film: Yamagata festival dives deep into documentaries

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Contributing Writer

Once an obscure corner of a film world dominated by the fantasies of Hollywood, documentaries are now drawing more attention from both paying audiences and wider society. And the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, whose 15th edition unspools from Oct. 5 to 12 in Yamagata, has long been broadening awareness of the form in Japan and Asia.

Launched in 1989 and held biannually, the festival was not the most obvious candidate to become Asia’s most important documentary event. Located on the Sea of Japan side of the northern Tohoku region, Yamagata is hardly a filmmaking hub. But a core of dedicated professionals has made YIDFF not only a showcase for the latest documentaries from Japan, Asia and around the world, but also a venue for fans, scholars and filmmakers that generates discussions, publications — and new films.

“The Yamagata festival is known for the food, the sake and the exchanges that occur there,” says Haruka Hama, director of YIDFF’s Tokyo office. “People get together to eat, drink and talk about new films. And directors often get ideas for their next projects.”

YIDFF supports these exchanges with Komian Club, a nightly networking event for filmmakers and fans in a traditional Japanese restaurant that runs from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. “But people end up talking until dawn,” Hama adds.

Of course, the films themselves — nearly 190 in the latest edition — are the major attraction for the audience. One focus is the international competition, with 15 films selected from 1,146 entries from around the world vying for the festival’s highest honor, the Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize. Among the highlights are “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” the latest work by 87-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who is known for an observational style that has become hugely influential since his breakthrough half a century ago with “Titicut Follies” (1967) and “High School” (1968).

“If you’re asking for recommendations, this film is especially interesting,” Hama says.

Also on her must-see list is “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” by veteran Kazuo Hara. Best-known for documentaries such as “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (1987) and “A Dedicated Life” (1994) that profile extraordinary individuals, Hara has undertaken what Hama describes as “a new challenge” in this film about a lawsuit for damages from asbestos pollution in Osaka. “It’s a sort of legal drama,” says Hama. “The film closely follows the ins and outs of the case — something Hara has never tried before.”

Along with these and other films by giants in the genre, YIDFF presents films by new directors across a range of sections, including New Asian Currents, a showcase of 21 films from across the Asian region, and Africa Views, a program that highlights the emerging documentary scene on the continent.

“We treat both veterans and newcomers equally, not favoring one over the other,” Hama explains.

The festival is also dedicated to exploring the topical and controversial, minus the self- and state censorship often found at other Asian festivals. One example is Perspectives Japan, a section of documentaries about contemporary Japan, from the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (“Between Yesterday & Tomorrow Omnibus 2011/2016”) to the campaign of China-born, naturalized Japanese citizen Komaki Lee for a seat in the Shinjuku Ward Assembly (“I Want to Run for Office”).

Another is Politics and Film: Palestine and Lebanon 70s-80s, with 15 films mostly made in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in the 1970s and 1980s, when both countries were roiled by war. Featured are five films by veteran Arab filmmaker Jocelyne Saab, who is also serving on the competition jury.

Subjects of other filmmaker focuses are Toshio Matsumoto (1932-2017), an influential experimental filmmaker and film theorist best known for “Funeral Parade of Roses” (1969), a pioneering look at gay life in Japan, and Fredi M. Murer, a director who led the revival of Swiss cinema, starting in the 1960s. Among the 14 films in the Murer retrospective is “Alpine Fire” (1985), winner of the Golden Leopard prize at the Locarno International Film Festival.

For all its range and diversity, Hama says the festival is “easy to negotiate” for out-of-town visitors. The main festival venues — the Yamagata Central Public Hall, Yamagata Citizens’ Hall, Forum Yamagata and Yamagata Museum of Art — are within easy walking distance of each other. Also, most screenings feature English subtitles.

“There’s even a nice onsen (hot spring bath) in the city center that is popular with festival visitors,” Hama adds.

As this comment indicates, YIDFF organizers have tried to strike a balance between the serious nature of many of its films and the lighter, more entertaining side of a stay in Yamagata Prefecture.

“We don’t want to be too serious,” says Hama. In addition to the informal gab sessions at local restaurants and bars that are a festival tradition, YIDFF is presenting Africa Night!, a live DJ show on Oct. 8 that is part of this year’s African focus.

“It’s easy to get to know people here,” says Hama. “We don’t have a formal market and have no plans to make one. We believe informal communications between our guests are more effective. And more fun, too.”

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2017 takes place Oct. 5 to 12 at various venues in Yamagata. For more information, visit www.yidff.jp.