Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (3/7)

3. Distribution

Nakano Rie
Distributor, Pandora

Documentary Box (DB): What impact has digital technology had on documentary film?

Nakano Rie (NR): As you move from 35mm to 16mm, 8mm and video, more people make documentaries, and they’re easier to make. This is because the movement [of the camera] matches that of the human body more closely. As people get closer to the subject and want better images, more people will produce works on video. So the appearance of digital has been revolutionary for making documentaries. Digital equipment is cheap and handy to use, and the images produced are beautiful.

Making a documentary takes a lot more film than a feature film does, and there’s no guarantee that eventual screening revenue will cover the cost of production. So being inexpensive is a major factor. It takes twenty or thirty million yen (Ed. note: US $2-300,000) to make a 16mm documentary over sixty minutes, no matter how many corners you cut. With video, you can do it for a fourth or fifth of that amount.

DB: How do you feel about other media blown up to 35mm for screening?

NR: I have problems with this. Digital is too clean, too beautiful, and is shot using a small monitor, which makes it a different size than 16mm or 35mm. I think that camera size should always correspond to screen size. There are so few places to screen [works not in 35mm] so everyone blows up their work into 35mm, but this is frighteningly expensive to do. There are no places to show digital—even in Tokyo there are only two theaters. For people used to film, it’s a completely different animal. Digital should be understood and acknowledged as digital, so the lack of screening venues is a problem. Even with mini-theaters, the low number of seats means low daily revenue. There’s no need even to do the basic calculations, especially in places like Japan where land costs are so high. Business is hard for distributors and theater owners.

Pandora handles mostly film. We have a video work every now and then, but the current distribution system makes distribution extremely difficult. Until recently video was screened in Betacam, now it’s digital beta. Few venues show digital beta, and with the amount of capital necessary for equipment, most theaters can’t change their equipment for a screening. There’s just no way to cover costs. In the cycle that begins with the filmmaker and ends with the person who shows the film, the further you get in the cycle the more investment is needed.

DB: How has digital technology, for example the internet, changed the way Pandora is run?

NR: There’s little time for reflection with e-mail, and you can’t lie with e-mail. You can’t say, “I just went to the post office, and it’s on the way” (laughs). It’s convenient, but as a means of reflecting and conveying what you think, it’s too fast. It’s scary how you can’t change mail after you’ve sent it, and how sometimes it gets sent to the wrong place. [E-mail] is fine for routine office work, but I don’t use it for other transactions anymore. I always conduct intricate financial negotiations by fax, for example.

We’re already seeing confusion [from the sudden spread of e-mail]. There are companies named Pandora in Germany and Paris, and a publishing house in England, for example. We sometimes get faxes and e-mails for them by

DB: As a juror at YIDFF ’99, did anything strike you about digital technology in the works shown at the festival?

NR: Ultimately, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the intent of the person behind the camera. If you know what you want to shoot, you can produce good work whether you’re working in film or in digital. But something like Swimming on the Highway (Wu Yao-tung, 1999, Taiwan, Ogawa Shinsuke Award) must have been easier to make on video. The camera was truly able to enter into the midst of private relationships. The fact that the person behind the camera had a personal relationship with the person being filmed (a classmate from university), and the way that the filmmaker created a space in which the camera could enter inside the relationship, came out in the work.

It’s not going to be about going out and shooting anything and everything. Rather, the person behind the camera will need a clear idea of what he or she wishes to make precisely because you can shoot anything. The privacy of the person at whom the camera is pointed must also be respected. So many people are filmed without their knowledge, [partly because] digital lets you tape even in dim conditions. I think we’ll be seeing cases where someone is taped and used in a work by someone they’ve never met, all without their knowledge. And with the spread of computers, the images can be sent all over the world. These two issues will appear in the near future, but both depend on the individual wisdom and good sense of the filmmaker, so there’s no way to control them.