Docbox Books

Kees Bakker, ed. Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.
Michael Chanan

Documentary, according to Joris Ivens, is a “creative no-man’s land,” or as José Manuel Costa glosses it in this new volume on Ivens, “a platform of immense formal liberty.” Perhaps this is why in the field of film studies it has long been a poor cousin to the fiction film. One of the film makers who has thus suffered from shameful neglect by film scholars is Ivens himself, even though he was a fashionable figure on the left in the late 1970s when he produced what many considered his magnum opus, a series of a dozen films of varying length about China under the title How Yukong Moved the Mountains. However it isn’t only film scholarship which has produced this deplorable situation, but the state of distribution on which scholars, like everyone else, are critically dependent, and here the problem is that Ivens’s films do not seem to have remained available and most are not even to be found in major archives. This is a situation which will hopefully be rectified by the European Foundation Joris Ivens in Holland which already runs a videothèque where his films can be viewed (consult <www.ivens.nl>). Meanwhile this volume, edited by the Foundation’s researcher Kees Bakker, should help to re-establish Ivens’s claim to attention, whose long and richly productive life is indeed synonymous with the very word documentary.

There are several ways of mapping Ivens’s preoccupations. André Stufkens, for example, in a chapter titled “The Song of Movement,” refers to the themes of nature, labor, politics and culture which define his films. He also draws our attention to a series of lectures which Ivens gave at the end of the 1920s on the theme of “amateur cinematography and its possibilities.” Here he developed an idea already expressed by Joris’s father, a photographer, who wrote that “amateur photographers felt freer about their subjects and unhindered by the public’s bad taste.” At this stage, although he had more than a dozen experiments in filmmaking behind him (most of them now lost), Ivens, says Stufkens, still felt anything but an artist and filmmaker. On the other hand, he already identified with the avant garde with which he had come in contact when studying photography in Berlin, and it was of course as an avant gardist that he first made his name, with films like The Bridge and Rain in 1928 and ’29.

This gives rise to an issue that concerns several writers in this volume, namely the relation between his aesthetic inclinations and the political commitment which emerged in his work in the early 30s and for which he is most widely known. Bakker, speaking of Ivens’s East German period in the early 50s, suggests that here his passionate political convictions partly drowned out his artistic aspirations. On the other hand, Bill Nichols argues that the relation between Ivens the lyric poet and Ivens the social advocate is “not necessarily binary, strictly chronological or hierarchical.” This is a judgement which accords with the discussion by other contributors who write about Ivens’s later exploration of the film poem. Michèle Lagny for example, contributes a chapter on one of the best known of these postwar films, The Seine Meets Paris (“La Seine a rencontré Paris”) of 1957, which weaves a tapestry of images to a poetic commentary by Jacques Prévert, although there is only passing mention of the even more experimental The Mistral (“Pour le Mistral”) of 1965, which mixes formats by breaking from academy ratio black and white into wide screen colour in the middle, and whose thematic anticipates Ivens’s final film, A Tale of the Wind of 1988.

To whatever degree Ivens himself was exercised by the opposition of aesthetics and politics, it seems to have been his aesthetic concerns which led him to the expression of politics through film. Indeed the first of the texts by Ivens himself included in this volume is a short set of “Notes on the Avant-garde Documentary Film” dating from 1931, where rejecting the feature movie because “the film industry generally expresses itself in bad films that court the public by adapting to the public’s bad taste,” he argues that “The documentary is the only means left to the avant garde filmmaker for taking a stand against the film industry.” While this is in many respects a naive piece of writing (and Ivens was not particularly intellectual) which makes embarrassing reading today because of its simple advocacy of documentary truth, it also suggests that his adoption of documentary was motivated by the same rejection of illusory fiction as his attraction to the avant garde in the first place.

There is still a great deal of work to be done if we are to restore Ivens’s rightful place in film history. For example, we need a study of how The Spanish Earth of 1937 established a new paradigm for political war reportage, or the way that . . . A Valparaiso of 1963 combines the format of a travelogue with an acute analysis of the inscription of the postcolonial social formation in the space of the city. And then the relation between these two films, which lies in the creative counterpoint which Ivens discovers between image and word (provided in the case of the former by Ernest Hemingway, and in the latter, by Chris Marker—collaborations like these are an important part of Ivens’s aesthetic biography.) But in the end I can only echo the words of Thomas Waugh at the conclusion of his chapter on Ivens and the legacy of the committed documentary, and “call on the guardians of the hoard to immediately release cheap if not free copies of twenty of Ivens’s most immediate political works to the community networks who are his proper constituency and heirs. The young practitioners of committed documentary who are reinventing the wheel deserve full access to the works of this founder of their art form. At one hundred, the youthful Ivens belongs not to the archivists and lawyers but to the greenhairs and the whole ragbag army of malcontents.”

Michael Chanan
Visiting Professor, Duke University, Fall 2000 and University of the West of England.

Mori Tatsuya A Diary of Filming “A”: Thirteen Months Inside Aum
Tokyo: Gendai shokan, 2000. (In Japanese)
Richard A. Gardner

At the very least, Mori Tatsuya’s “A” is one of the more remarkable documentaries ever made about a controversial religion and society’s reaction to it. Filmed throughout parts of 1996 and 1997 with the cooperation of a number of members of Aum Shinrikyo who seem to have had no prior knowledge of Aum’s crimes, “A” provides a view of both Aum and aspects of Japanese society rarely to be found elsewhere in the massive coverage of Aum. Much of the film focuses on Araki Hiroshi, an Aum member then serving as the official spokesperson for the group. Mori was thus able to film Aum members both within Aum facilities and as they interacted with members of the media and Japanese society.

Mori takes a relatively “neutral” stance towards Aum within the film and also includes scenes which show neither the mainstream media nor the Japanese police at their best. In addition, Mori refuses to adopt a simple-minded structure of victims/victimizers in his approach to Aum. While not avoiding difficult issues, Mori’s sensitive and probing dialogue with Aum members thoughout the film allows them to appear before the public in a way never seen before. Many have thus perceived “A” as somehow being sympathetic to Aum. The film has thus become “taboo” and has only been shown in Japan, for the most part, in a few small theaters. Both film and book can be viewed, however, as providing a nuanced critique of Aum as well as of aspects of Japanese society.

A Diary of Filming “A” provides a valuable account of the making of this documentary. We learn of Mori’s motivation to make the film, his effort to gain the cooperation of Aum members, the securing and then loss of the financial backing of a TV production company, and the details of his efforts to make the film on his own and then with the help of Yasuoka Takaharu. Of particular interest here are the insights to be gained about why a documentary such as “A” could not be backed by mainstream media interests in Japan.

The book also provides a valuable supplement to the film in another sense. Though Mori is ever present within the documentary itself, his mode of questioning and refusal to supply narrative commentary leaves the viewer wondering at times what Mori himself was thinking and feeling while making the film. This book provides many insights into Mori’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. We learn, for instance, of Mori’s surprise at first meeting Araki after seeing him on television numerous times and discovering that Araki was taller than himself. While this might seem like a point of minor interest, Mori’s genius, both in the book and film, lies in his ability to weave such minor, everyday incidents into a subtle reflection on experience, media, representation, and reality.

Richard A. Gardner
A member of the Faculty of Compara-tive Culture of Sophia University. His essay on the movie “A,” “Lost in the Cosmos and the Need to Know,” can be found in Monumenta Nipponica 54, no. 2 (1999): 217-46.

Jeffrey Ruoff & Kenneth Ruoff
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (“Yukiyukite shingun”)
Wiltshire, UK: Flick Books, 1998.
Ishizaka Kenji

Any list of books on film director Hara Kazuo will surely include the production notes published in tandem with two of his films, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (“Yukiyukite, shingun”) and A Dedicated Life (“Zenshin shosetsuka.”) In addition, This Transgressing Camera: My Method of Action Documentary (Ishizaka Kenji and Izuchi Kishu, eds., Fumikoeru kyamera: Waga houhou, akushon dokyumentarie, Tokyo: Film Art, 1995 ), a book in keeping with Hara’s monologic style, would be an important entry. Now, in a book recently published in Britain, two researchers take up The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On to examine both Hara’s film form and the thoughts and actions of the film’s central figure, Okuzaki Kenzo. Obviously deeply impressed by the film, the book’s authors Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff have divided the film into its thirty scenes which they explain and analyze, frequently supplementing their commentary with quotations obtained during interviews with the film’s producer, Kobayashi Sachiko, and with Hara himself.

With its analytical main section little more than forty pages, the Ruoffs’book is certainly a short one. Yet, by preceding their detailed analysis with an overview of scenes and a list of characters (interestingly described as the “cast,” a term borrowed directly from the world of dramatic film), the authors have compiled a highly accessible book that affords its readers a good grasp of the overall sense of the film. Correctly assuming that their non-Japanese readers have had little opportunity to see Hara’s films, they accordingly dedicate considerable space to tracing Hara’s career as a filmmaker, to introducing other Hara films, notably Extremely Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (“Kyokushiteki erosu koi uta 1974”), and to describing reactions and developments that followed the release of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. The volume, then, can be fairly called a compact critical biography of Hara Kazuo.

Citing Hara’s claim, “I love Hollywood action films, and I wanted Okuzaki to act like an action star,” the Ruoffs are drawn to the concept of “action documentaries” that Hara deploys in relation to his own films, a concept that was also the focus of This Transgressing Camera. They compare The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, another film that similarly addresses wartime scars forgoing historical footage in favor of images from the “present.” But while Shoah is propelled forward by the filmmaker’s commentary, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On develops in the absence of any observations from Hara on Okuzaki’s extreme behavior. With much attention given by the authors to this distinctive characteristic of the film, the book opens up into an interesting discussion of Hara’s own philosophy whereby the filmmaker himself is transformed through a jarring, yet conspiratorial relationship that emerges when the object he captures on film is also a subject of action.

—Translated by Jonathan M. Hall

Ishizaka Kenji
Film coordinator of the Media Department at the Japan Foundation Asia Center. He has served as planning director for events including the Indian Film Festival 1998 and the China Film Week 1999. His research interests include Asian film studies and the history of Japanese documentary film. He is co-editor of This Transgressing Camera: My Method of Action Documentary.