DIFF 2019: Japanese director Kazuhiro Soda explains his Ten Commandments of documentary filmmaking
Dharamshala International Film Festival 2019 screened Kazuhiro Soda's 2018 documentary Inland Sea, and also had a masterclass by the documentary filmmaker.
One of the masterclasses at this year's Dharamsala International Film Festival was by the Japanese documentary filmmaker and author, Kazuhiro Soda.
He broke through on the international festival circuit with his debut, Campaign (2007), which followed the election campaign, in Kawasaki, Japan, of a candidate with no political experience, but backed by the prime minister and his Liberal Democratic Party. Since then, Kazuhiro Soda has made a number of short and feature documentaries.
Mental (2008) observed an outpatient mental health clinic in Japan. Peace (2010) looked at the daily lives of people and cats in Okayama city. Theatre 1 and Theatre 2 dive not just into the world of Japanese playwright/director Oriza Hirata, but also investigate how art can survive in an increasingly capitalistic society. Oyster Factory (2015) looks at the shortage of labour in the Japanese town of Ushimado due to the rapid decline in population.
The reason I felt it was important to tell you, briefly, what these documentaries are about is to give you a sense of the breadth of Kazuhiro Soda's range. And yet, these varied subjects are united by a single guiding philosophy. These are all "observational documentaries", which means that the filmmaker looks closely at the reality in front of him.
"What's so great about this?" you may wonder. Doesn't every documentarian "look closely at the reality in front of him"? But with Kazuhiro Soda, it's more than what seems obvious because he doesn't base his films on assumptions and preconceptions he has formed before beginning to shoot. He encourages his audiences, too, to do something similar: actively use their eyes and minds, without just going on the few lines of the synopsis in a festival brochure.
He has formalised these methods into a Dogme 95-like set of rules, which he calls his Ten Commandments. They are on his website, and they are: (1) No research. (2) No meetings with subjects. (3) No scripts. (4) Roll the camera yourself. (5) Shoot for as long as possible. (6) Cover small areas deeply. (7) Do not set up a theme or goal before editing. (8) No narration, superimposed titles, or music. (9) Use long takes. (10) Pay for the production yourself.
He said, "These policies were conceived based on my frustrating experiences as a television documentary director before I started making films." As a television director, he was asked to do a lot of research and write detailed scripts (including shot lists) before the shoot, and he felt shackled. This process made it difficult for him to discover anything beyond his imagination and expectations because he was bound by his own knowledge (from the research), his preconceived notions, and plans.
In television, he was also forced to explain everything to the viewers by including narration, superimposed titles, and music, all of which, he felt, prevented the audience from really "observing" what was on screen. He said, "I found that these practices prevented me from making documentaries with eye-opening discoveries for both the audience and myself." So he chose a form where he is guided by his curiosity more than anything else, and this curiosity is of the "purest" kind because he ensures that he literally knows nothing about his subject (other than, of course, the broad generalities of, say, how elections work, in the case of Campaign).
KF Watanabe wrote, in mubi.com, that Kazuhiro Soda's approach is rooted in the existential inquiries he explored as an undergraduate majoring in religious studies at Tokyo University. “Why do we live? Why do we die? And if we all die, why do we bother living?"
That's why his documentaries dive deep into what gives these people's (his subjects) lives "meaning". His 2018 documentary Inland Sea, about the twilight days of Ushimado (also the setting of Oyster Factory) and its people, was screened at Dharamsala. We see the 86-year-old Wai-chan, one of the town's last remaining fishermen. In the mubi.com interview, the director said he noticed him fishing and saw how delicately he was maneuvering the boat. "That was my discovery. If I just stayed in a wide shot, that’s very hard to convey or translate (for audiences). That’s why I insert a close-up: so that delicate maneuver can be witnessed by the audience as well. Also, when he started laying out the nets, you cannot stay in a close-up to show the relationship between the sea and Wai-chan and the boat, so you have to go wide." So it's about whatever piques his curiosity, spontaneously, and makes him feel this should be conveyed to an audience. "It’s really a constant observation, interpretation."
The cynical cineaste may point to Dogme 95, the manifesto created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, which also had a number of "rules". (As with Kazuhiro Soda's Ten Commandments, these rules had a name that hinted at religious undertones: Vow of Chastity.) Some of these rules were: Shooting must be done on location… The camera must be hand-held… The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)... Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden… Genre movies are not acceptable… And so forth! But in a 2015 Guardian interview, von Trier admitted, "I don’t think there’s anyone still working based on those rules." Indeed, what was his last film, The House That Jack Built if not a riff on the serial-killer "genre", containing a number of murders!
But while fictional filmmakers may find rules constricting, the documentary form is more accepting of constraints -- because it's not about executing a story you've written earlier as much as evolving a story with the help of what's in front of you. It's about preserving a moment.
Kazuhiro Soda said, "Why do we make documentaries? I think one of the reasons is that we want to preserve this moment, and it’s such a powerful medium because you can record not only images and sound, but also time. It’s very close to how we experience our world. Our camera tends to be aimed at what’s disappearing. Peace also started that way. When I was in (my wife) Kiyoko’s parents’ home, Kiyoko’s father was feeding some stray cats. The relationship between him and the cats was so… to me, so divine. I wanted to record it."
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Twitter.
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