Documentary’s Sense of Reality

VERTAALD DOOR TRANSLATED BY TRADUIT PAR Stoffel Debuysere, Elias Grootaers, Yuichiro Onuma, Geert van Bremen, Ingeborg Verplancke, Britt Stuckens

Sennen kizami no hidokei – Magino-mura monogatari [The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Story] (Shinsuke Ogawa, 1986)

I think Nippon koku: Furuyashiki-mura [“Nippon”: Furuyashiki Village] is basically an interview film. That’s what I thought to myself. We’ve been using this form since Sanrizuka – Heta Buraku [Sanrizuka – Heta Village]. What we wanted to try to do in “Nippon”: Furuyashiki Village is to scientifically analyze rice. So far that hasn’t been shown in a film. The story of the women is entirely an interview. That’s why the structure is clear, right? That is because we were involved with the villagers over a period of only two to three years. Perhaps the single part that stands out is the segment about the charcoal burner. That part is not an interview, right?

Because the people in Furuyashiki who burn charcoal had disappeared, our crew, including our photographer Masaki Tamura, had no other choice than help with the burning of charcoal. Although it was a short period of about three years, time was concentrated thanks to this mutual labour, and this resulted in a powerful experience of time.

Let me give you a concrete example. Because it is a short shot, most people will probably not notice it. But there’s a scene in the mountains in which the charcoal burner throws down wood from a snow-covered slope. This is very dangerous. And if you would be hit, you would die. Yet Tamura’s camera didn’t use a telephoto lens. Because it’s so dangerous, you would normally stand on the other side and shoot the scene with a zoom lens; but he shot the wood tumbling down the slope with a close lens, from below, resembling the perspective of a human eye. The question is how that was possible. Without their closely shared experience of time, I don’t think the charcoal burner would have allowed the cameraman to stand in that position, as it would be dangerous. If he would have been there with his wife, he would have allowed her to stand there, as she would know exactly where the safe spots are. In other words, considering the position of the charcoal burner, the direction in which the wood is thrown, and the confidence he gained through three years of experience, Tamura sits on the snow-covered mountain slope with his camera, knowing that no wood is coming his way, even in the worst of cases. And as the charcoal burner knows well that Tamura has gained this knowledge, he can feel at ease throwing the wood. That’s the kind of relationship it is. When the locals see this kind of shot, they immediately understand. Even if it seems a bit gratuitous, it was a very important position for us.

Until now I have filmed everything synchronously. And what was very interesting this time, while making Sennen kizami no hidokei – Magino-mura monogatari [The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Story], is that I mostly refrained from doing that. We often add sound in the studio; we call that foley. The scenes of the rice plants are almost entirely created that way. Because we thought it was frightening, we couldn’t do that at the time of “Nippon”: Furuyashiki Village. That film was entirely synchronous. When you no longer know what to do while editing, you can justify it with synchronously recorded sounds from the moment of shooting. Filmmakers probably won’t say that so often, but strangely enough you partly feel more secure when working with synchronously recorded sounds. I have been doing that for more than twenty years on the editing table and, like piled up rubbish, I somewhere started to have doubts. And when this time I listened to the sound we recorded synchronously with a one-point microphone, it was certainly not the sound we had actually heard in the rice fields.

While using a microphone the orientation and the recording angle are extremely limited. It is more severe than with a lens. When you shoot with a standard lens close to the human eye, you end up with something more or less close to reality, right? Such standard microphones also exist, but you end up with a totally different sound. Many strange things occur; the dynamic of the sound goes missing, the close sounds enter much louder and the distant sounds disappear, and so on. In reality, our ear is hearing and organizing many sounds at the same time. This means that while working, you are also orchestrating your own sound with a certain sense of direction. I started to realize that you can’t record all that with a one-point microphone, and so with the sound engineers Yukio Kubota and Nobuyuki Kikuchi – and Tamura was there too – we finally created all the sound in the studio. Everything, including the sound of the bus passing by in the distance. Those aren’t the real sounds at all. But strangely enough, when the film was screened in the meeting place of the community of Kaminoyama for more than 2000 people, they told me that, of all my films, it felt the most real. We had brought along real soil from the field and added water from the tap to make it soggy and so on. We had brought along rice plants and planted them, we let the sound of the bus run in the distance, we placed the chirps of the birds in off, and so on. We could do all that because we had documented the rice field for such a long time. That’s why the re-enactment is flawless; I can only affirm that it is a document that is constructed with the real sounds of the time we were working there. Our bodies have surely remembered them and, when I think of it, it’s really what we wanted to capture, the whole time we have been filming. In other words, it’s not just a question of merely creating, it was a process of nearly thirteen years to know what reality really is. A process of thinking wrongly, being deceived, many trails and errors, during which sounds, impressions and several stories had seeped into the physiology of the body. That is what I call document. It’s not having a theme in mind and setting a storyline in motion. It’s what has been remembered from all those days for over ten years in the depth of the physiology of the body. That was something we hadn’t been able to convey very well in the sound. In “Nippon”: Furuyashiki Village we only had one microphone on a boom, but if we would have used the method we’re using now then we would have been more free. It’s not that we are caught in the dispute between fiction and non-fiction, it’s the memory that resides in the human body. That is document.

That is how this film has come into being, I think. Everything revolved around the axis of the time that our bodies harboured. Or maybe it was the space of the village that was carved into our bodies. The people of the village are bound by the time of the daily clock. If you bear that kind of time on a daily basis, you can’t really live, can you? But on the other hand, there is that other time flowing surely and accurately. That’s why it’s not at all wrong to say that this film is a document of the village. In documentary film the experience of reality strongly manifests itself. That is definitely an important element of documentary film, but whatever is captured in the body will once be able to unlock the power that binds reality. Perhaps that is why it can bestow an even more amazing power upon the sense of reality in a documentary. The way in which we have made our documentary has generated our own original document, and from that we receive the urge to make the following documentary. It’s as though we have come to distinguish a certain liberty, and perhaps reality is less realistic than it is liberating.

You can also do it in a dramatized film, but I want to do it in documentary films. If things that roam freely become fettered by a reality called film, this will also – perversely – put a restriction upon us. That’s what I feel. The crew probably as well. Tamura and the others moved around very freely this time, I think many people will certainly pay attention to the camera work in the rice fields, etc. Also abroad he is looked upon with admiration and it is said he is perfect, but that is the result of cultivating and closely observing rice plants for seven years, right? That is also reflected in his work on the film of Mitsuo Yanagimachi, but it’s not only just an innate sensitivity; from the moment that we started to work on the documentary film, he freely moved around with the camera and he freely conveys the true feelings of the people who work there, the beauty and joy of the moment of creation when working. That’s what I did this time, and I became free.

Extracts from an interview published in Gekkan Image Form (June 1987). The interview was conducted by Takashi Nakajima on 7 April 1987. 

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.