By Adam Hartzell
Every year since 2000, the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) in South Korea selects three prominent directors and provides each with 50 million won (roughly $44,500) to put together a piece around 30-minutes in length, for the Jeonju Digital Project (JDP). While the Busan International Film Festival is the most prestigious of Asian film festivals, Jeonju has made a name for itself through the JDP. (The festival even makes an appearance as part of the meandering plot of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo's 2009 full-length feature Like You Know It All, where the film director character we follow in the film begins his sojourn at the festival.) The mission of the festival is less about promoting digital works and more about allowing directors a respite from the adjustments they might feel are needed to contort their visions into the logic of marketing and profit.
JIFF oversees all the time-consuming minutiae around production and distribution logistics, leaving the directors with full-authority over the film itself. The JDP is essentially about freeing artistic visions, a digital genius grant for world cinema auteurs. And all 33 films by 33 world-renowned directors made since the JDP began were screened in February at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, curated by Joel Shepard, providing a cinematic cornucopia of riches for the Bay Area.
The freeing of vision the JDP hopes to provide is exactly what Czech-born German filmmaker Harun Farocki found when he was included in the 2007 project. From that year's program guide: “Being invited by JIFF to make a short, I found the freedom to work without having to think about formats and standards. I can focus on what I want to convey and on how to do it. Work should be this way, but hardly ever is . . .” Freed from the constraints of commercialism, Farocki sorted through archival footage of those imprisoned in a Nazi transit camp in Holland in his short Respite, showing us why still many more stories need to be told about the Holocaust.
The JDP's roughly $45,000 budget is pretty small potatoes, though more when we factor in that filmmakers will be flown out to JIFF and accommodated while there. But the financial constraints can lead to a simplicity that transcends the budget.
For example, in American filmmaker James Benning's effective Pig Iron (2010, at right) a stationary camera documents the slow coordination involved in readying container trains for the transporting of molten steel. Gradually the film builds on you; the industrial sounds, the fireworks of the molten metal, the anguishing slow movement of the trains, it all leads to a document of necessary work which results in the infrastructure that surrounds us every day, from the cars we drive to the buildings where we work. Benning's extensive documentary filmography is sadly unavilable on DVD in his home country.
Equally simple was acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Jia's In Public (2001). His cameras were settled along nodes of public transit, from train stations to bus stops to bus stations, showing people waiting and people appropriating public spaces for other events. (The bus station triples as a pool hall and a ballroom dance floor.) The ending of this documentary has the camera wait on the travelers as they part a curtain to enter the bus station, as if each were taking a casting call, bringing a dignity to the everyday citizen that few films provide.
Some directors took on extra challenges within the financial constraints. Most effective was South Korean Bong Joon-ho's Influenza (2004). Filmed entirely with closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras throughout Seoul, Bong (the master behind The Host, Mother) initially has you wondering if you are not, in fact, watching a documentary edited from real CCTV footage. But you soon realize that he has orchestrated a complex surveillance network of a downward moral trajectory representative of the state of South Korea after the IMF crisis. It hits so many different tones - deep sadness, harrowing violence, but also uproarious hilarity - it feels like its own omnibus film within an omnibus film.
Equally masterful is Singaporean Eric Khoo's No Day Off (2006). Khoo focuses his short on the plights of domestic workers in Singapore by setting his camera on the reactions of a former Indonesian maid who here plays one on camera. Pairing her simple village with that of the opulent luxuries she can only dream of, we see the harsh disparity of this migrant's two worlds. A viewer may cringe at the yelling of the masters the beleaguered maid is tossed between. Khoo allows for an ending that provides a respite from the verbal harangues, but he still refuses to sentimentalize the state of this industry that also keeps his nation state of Singapore afloat.
Watching the JDP shorts in such quick succession provided for some fascinating double-features. Portugal's Pedro Costa's The Rabbit Hunters (2007, seen above) followed the lives of a select group of Cape Verdean immigrants in Portugal, while Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Expectations (2008) starts at the beginning of the immigrant journey (his Abouna is worth seeking out). South Korean Moon Seung-wook's and Canadian Denis Côté's contributions both take us into battlefields of very different sorts: Moon's full of pummeling paint pellets in Survival Game (2002) and Côté's surreal pursuit of unknown enemies in Les lignes enemies (2010). Tsukamoto Shinya utilized the mobility of digital cameras in his tight horror film Haze (2005) by constructing a tiny torture chamber, while in Dance with Me to the End of Love Chinese director Yu Lik-wai (cinematographer on some of Zhang Jia's acclaimed films) extended his science fiction vision into the confinements of a cavernous hotel.
Both Argentine director Matías Piñeiro's Rosalind (2010) and Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirvaev's About Love (2006) worked from the public domain, Shakespeare and Chekhov respectively. The deadpan expressions of love that Omervaev's two main characters display is reminiscent of the work of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. One of the characters is a physicist, which might explain (or maybe it's ironic) why there appears to be no chemistry, but only if you demand outward displays of affection for what brews internally between them. And, also shades of Kaurismaki, the final scene is all the more affecting because of the film's slow pace leading up to it.
Two other standouts are Hong Sangsoo's Lost in the Mountains (2009) and Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi's Daf (2003).
Rather than breaking up his focus between characters, or chaptering a single man's travels through ambivalent cities, Hong stays solely focused on the absurdity and repetitions of a woman. Sleeping with men she'll later say she deplores, we follow her folly within a network of people just as foolish and pathetic. Mountains (seen above) feels like one compact segment of the longer Möbius strip of films we've been watching Hong [Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare] weave for fifteen years. It is hilarious and perhaps even his best work to date
In Daf, Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, No One Knows About Persian Cats) constructs a narrative around the making of the eponymous musical instrument. (Think of a tambourine, except much larger and with the jangly bits on the inside.) The daf artisan's children all have various levels of blindness, and Ghobadi's direction leads towards the enhancement of other senses, such as the feel of wood and sheep skin and the sounds of the manual production process, all peaking to a finish of fine craftsmanship, both film and instrument.
Sadly, the crowds for the YBCA JDP did not pan out in the way the series deserved. There were screenings with about five people in the audience, with only a couple screenings close to 20. But the art theatre's mission is to provide opportunities for us to see filmmakers trying techniques and topics outside of the popular multiplex. Occasionally this brings packed houses, such as a Valentine's Day screening a few years ago for British director Isaac Julien's documentary Franz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996).
But even though the JDP shorts didn't bring in the same sort of crowds, YBCA fulfilled its mission in providing the rare opportunity to see so many prominent, talented directors in such short succession. Thirty-three in ten days is more than some folks get to see in a year.
Next month, April 3-21, the YBCA will present "Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries," a selection of six recent documentaries that expose the chaos and cruelty in today’s authoritarian China.
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