A Roundtable on Barbara Hammers
with Ann Hui, Sato Makoto and Abé Mark Nornes
The following roundtable discussion was recorded during the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last October. We had originally planned to hold a public panel discussion with director Barbara Hammer as the principal speaker, in conjunction with the festival screening of Devotion. However, the events of September 11th left Hammer unable to attend the festival, thus the discussion occurred without the director.
Nonetheless, each of the panelistsHong Kong director Ann Hui, a juror for the YIDFF International Competition, Japanese director Sato Makoto, a juror for YIDFF New Asian Currents, and Documentary Box editorial advisor Abé Mark Nornesbrought their own unique relations to the film to the discussion. Hui came to the film as someone familiar with the gender politics of the film set but unfamiliar with Ogawa Productions, Devotions subject; Sato spent a couple of years living and working with his crew in rural Niigata to make the documentary Living on the River Agano (Aga ni ikiru, 1992); and Nornes is currently finishing a book on Ogawa Productions.
POLITICS AND THE SELF
Abé Mark Nornes (MN): Hammer came to the subject of Ogawa Productions only recently. I dont know if she had even seen his films until she came to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in 1995. She was quite impressed by the films she saw, and also had a chance to meet Ogawas widow, Shiraishi Yoko. On that trip, Shiraishi took her to Magino village, where the small house that the members of Ogawa Productions lived in was still standing. Hammer heard a lot of stories from Shiraishi, the Magino neighbors and other visitors to the festival, and she became fascinated with the group. She was particularly intrigued by the women of Ogawa Productions, along with the women farmers and, of course, the films themselves. So she decided to make a documentary about Ogawa Productions, apparently putting Ogawas wife at the center of the film. She assembled an all-women staff of Japanese producers and assistants and it quickly got complicated. Part of it has to do with the fact that Ogawa Productions is a remarkably perplexing group filled with complex people. Theyre rather intense, and their film collective defies easy explanation.
Hammers timing for mounting such a production was both good and bad. It was good in the sense that some time had passed since Ogawas death in 1992. People were just getting ready to talk about the group. And they gave her remarkable access to the groups archives of still photographs, as well as the films themselves, outtakes and everything. It was a bad timing in the sense that the committee that gave her this access was embroiled in discussions about the fate of the Ogawa Productions archive. Hammer arrived during rather tense discussions that eventually led to the archives division into three pots of materials. They were also trying to decide what to do with the house in Magino, which the owner wanted to raze in order to make a parking lot; some wanted to preserve it and others couldnt wait for its demolition. So there was this atmosphere of intensity, even distress, and Hammer walked right into it. Her standard introduction to this film now seems to be, This is the hardest film Ive ever made in my life. I think she is implying that she never would have done it had she known better, but by the time she realized how tough it was, she was probably too far in to pull out.
Both Makoto and I knew Ogawa, and his work has had an impact on our own writing and filmmaking, so Hammers difficult experience probably doesnt surprise us. But Ann, you came to Devotion from a very different perspective, didnt you?
Ann Hui (AH): Let me introduce myself. Im a filmmaker from Hong Kong. Documentary Box asked me to come and discuss this, and actually, at first I was a little bit flabbergasted because, Im sorry, but I hadnt seen any of Ogawas documentaries. I have heard of him, but I hadnt seen his movies. So I rushed to watch Magino StoryRaising Silkworms (Magino monogatariyosan-hen, 1977). And then I saw Devotion. I really do have something to say about it because Im from Hong Kong and Im a woman. And I dont really understand Japanese, but when I watched Devotion I was really shocked, but I think its a pleasant shock, because its very a iconoclastic film.
I think the films a kind of cultural crossing, and very interesting. Its also extremely political, the way in which this woman filmmaker is discussing patriarchy. When my New York friend once asked me about my sex life, I was flabbergasted, even as someone from Hong Kong. So I can understand the confusion when Ogawas wife is asked about her sex life. But the fact is she answered, very frankly I think, and thats the kind of communication which is extremely precious. Everybodys asked about their sex life, and I cant imagine that a filmmaker from Japan would ask Ogawa people about this. The very fact that they answered was in fact very good.
MN: She could also do it because they shared the generation, I think.
AH: That kind of openness, which might be usual with American interviewers for documentaries, gets applied to a different culture. And that different culture accepts it, which is extremely heartening. That is one thing. The second thing is that this film reveals to me something I have felt deeply: the fascism involved in the filmmaking effort.
MN: In any filmmaker effort?
AH: Yes. I mean, in one sense, when a filmmaker is committed to his job, he always sacrifices his family. Myself included. He will have some qualms, but he will sacrifice his close family. I know from my experience that no filmmaker has got a wife whos satisfied with her family life. And shes got to put up with it. Also, because the filmmaker is a woman, the way women are treated is especially poignant in this situation when its not the usual situation for an individual filmmaker, but its made into a kind of lifestyle. The sacrifice is obviously enormous. And I think it revealsnot judgmentally, but as a kind of a point of a factthe so-called artistic experience. It also reveals the kind of fascist rule of the filmmaker when he is on the job, which is inevitable. So although the film looks very ordinary with talking heads, it struck me as piercing and adventurous.
MN: The apparent climax of the film, where Ogawa is posed as fascist, has a different quality than the rest of the film. I too was very impressed by the openness of these peoplenot just their willingness to talk, but the fact that they had really thought about Life and had come to terms with things many seem to regret about their past. However, theyd reached the point where they could talk about the past in public, on film, for history.
Its really pretty amazing, but how many Ogawa Productions members actually talk? Nine or ten out of maybe a hundred people who were in that collective over the space of a couple decades. One of the difficulties Hammer encountered from the beginning was that people didnt want to talk to her. There were lot of reasons for this, but I suspect one of the reasons was some former members hadnt achieved that intellectualized, calm relationship to their past. The ones who appear on camera have; however, near the end of Devotion they also lose that calmness and control over their own history at precisely the point they bring up the comparison to fascism. Its when they are talking about Ogawas wife, Shiraishi, and all of a sudden the talk gets kind of violent. So Shiraishi is accused of being a Madame Jiang, and everyone seems to gang up on her. Considering the placement, editing, and photography of this sequence, Hammer seems to participate in the violence. And its happening during a discussion of the fascism of the group, ironically enough.
AH: Well, even if she brings it home, it is true and it is inevitable in the creation of any film group. Its always there and people are just acting it out now. Theres the head who rules the rest with an iron fist if he doesnt get the work that he wants. I regret that I could never manage that. Its like walking over dead bodies to achieve your aim, and its a paradox which cannot be solved. All the best directors are like that.
MN: Whats interesting that the wrath isnt directed at Ogawa, its directed towards his wife, and Im not the only person that felt that Hammers anger lurked amidst the others. Even when you look at the way Shiraishi is photographed compared to the other women, its dark. Its flat.
AH: So what if she doesnt like it?
MN: Its just curious. Theres a displacement happening.
AH: But what Im saying is its not like she reveals peoples tatty quarrels or dark sides. Its like shes showing the state of things as they are, and as you said, its very obvious that its those better people, people who think about their lives. Even if they dont seem reconciled to it, they accept and admit the fact that this is what has happened to them. Whether its right or wrong, or whether its been good for their lives or whatever, it does not matter. Thats just whats happened. So few people can do it. And its very strange.
I also saw A2 (dir. Mori Tatsuya, 2001, screened in International Competition 01). Its like all the more thoughtful people had tried to escape from a very materialistic society, from a fascist sovereignty of money and power. And if they escape, the alternative is an extremely heartfelt commitment to a cause which usually fails. It gives me that sort of philosophical and kind of tragic vision of life.
Sato Makoto (SM): Now that were talking about Shiraishi, the most important thing Shiraishi said that Ogawa used to tell her, Our lives here are fiction. And while Shiraishi was Ogawas wife, for the staff, she was another staff member with a certain role. This film is harsh for Shiraishi because, for her, being staff was reality and her married life was always fiction. That was revealed by Barbaras film and that made me think a lot. Like Ann said, a collective is always destined to have a power structure. I understand that very well from my own experiences. When I stayed in Niigata to make a film, I kept saying, Im not going to be like Ogawa Shinsuke, and we arent going to turn into Ogawa Productions. But during our three years there, I was the only one who wasnt aware of my own violence, and every member of the crew ran away at least once. I think they felt very uncomfortable in the collective and were hurt in the very violent collective. I can understand that very well. When you make a group, you need to make the core of the group. In the filmmaking collective, it is impossible to listen to everyone and make the film in a council system. I think film is a form of expression born out of power. So real life and making films dont go together very well from the start. If you dont live together, then its another story. Even if your job is very hard and violent, you can go home, where you are protected. But in Ogawas collective, these two were one and the same. And that made me think of this as my own issue as well.
MN: Lets talk about the style of Devotion, which I find very curious. This is not one of those films on filmmaking which appropriate the style of the original to attempt a formal homage. Indeed, Hammers approach is curious because it looks so orthodox, like a typical talking heads film, and yet her method of quoting Ogawas film work is quite surprising. Even experimental. You have interviews illustrated by visual quotes, but no indication of what the quoted films actually are. Its unexpected, and even confusing.
SM: I have two positions about this work. One is the question of how to evaluate the work itself, and the other one is that I too was making films like Ogawa Productions did. So the inner side of Ogawa Productions collective doesnt feel like someone elses problem; part of me understands the staff members problems from an insiders point of view. However, Mark has just said that he was bewildered at the way Devotion quoted Ogawas films. You said that you have criticism... To express her bewilderment and evaluation about Ogawa Productions, Hammer forced her logic into her quotes of Ogawas films, and thats a problem. His films themselves had power and Hammer should have quoted them delicately. But instead, she very much forced her logic onto them very strongly, and I couldnt stop thinking about this as I watched the film.
MN: What shes done is to use film clips without providing explanatory subtitles that tell the spectators what they are looking at. This is to say, she takes a specific imagesometimes an outtake, but usually from one of Ogawas filmsand strips away its specificity to create a very general image that can be attached to any kind of similar utterance. Without the benefit of those subtitles, most spectators will have no idea if theyre looking at outtakes or clips from a finished film or home movies. Since Ogawas first and last films played with recreation, the line between documentary and fiction also becomes indeterminate. The result is that the documentary images go from what happened in the past to what it was like. With that, Hammer was able to use Ogawas imagery any way she wanted, but primarily to illustrate the interviews in a generalized manner.
AH: In terms of expression and technique, I think, as you said, maybe because Hammer herself was so drawn into the situation, she fails a little bit in the expression in the sense that the pictures do not cohere very much with what they say. As far as I can tell, the photographs do not form a pattern which coincides with the voice over. Sometimes the voice-over just runs and this guy is talking about something which is very unhappy and then the picture shows that hes very happy in the past. Theres a confusion in terms of expression which somehow works for the film, but its not really right. There seems to be a montage at the end of the cooking scene in the house and I dont see how it works with the voice-overs. But I was listening to the voice-overs so intensely that I couldnt judge, or tell what she was doing. Which gives me a sense of the confusion of the filmmaker herself over the situation. Its as if shes not totally in control. Shes just got her material together and put together the material which means most to her.
MN: Theres this gap between what people were saying and the visual references they were paired with because Hammer strips away the specific qualities of every image. For example, in the sequence about Ogawas childhood, Hammer poaches shots from Ogawas student films; unless you know the films, youd probably assume these were home movies of Ogawas own past. Similarly, a fictional sequence from Ogawas last film is posed as a fantasy about his mother. It ends up in a fascinating confusion and its probably, exactly as you said, a way of trying to bring that history under control and focusing in on what she is primarily interested in. However, a person who knows nothing about Ogawa Productions, the Sanrizuka struggle over the airport, or Japanese history, wont learn anything about those things because (compared to an orthodox making of film) Devotion is like a soap opera, a politicized soap opera about human relationships in a collective. And thats both really interesting and really unsatisfying at the same time.
SM: Talking about this confusion, theres a clear contradiction between what Barbara wanted to film in the beginning and the dark side of Ogawa Productions in which they were hurting one another till the blood ran. Hammer probably started this project out of respect to Ogawas wife, Shiraishi, but it ended up depicting the dark side of the collective. I can tell that Barbara was not very honest about her own confusion in the film, seeing the way this film was made. That film results in the films orthodox documentary style, and I couldnt tell where the directors gaze was going, or why she wanted to expose the dark side, or who had the right to expose or judge it all the way through. I was confused about who had what kind of point of view towards the collective.
AH: I said before that the documentary gives me the impression that she cannot rise above the material, not to have an extra dimension of meaning, but at least to be more subtle. Its true. It sometimes shocks me as if she is incapable at that moment to... she can only speak frankly as if she herself cant help hurting somebody.
MN: Well, the talking heads form is all about achieving some sort of control over the material.
AH: Its as if she grasps even more tenaciously to her own standards of values, which are the rights of women and to be frank about yourself, instead of being able to present this whole thing in a more complex and subtle way.
MN: I kept asking to myself, with all these talking heads where is Barbara Hammers head? (laughter) Where is the director speaking from?
AH: Theres no interpretation in the compilation and in the juxtaposition of images with voice. There is no interpretation in the order of events. It seems that she can just manage the most honest kind of response she has.
MN: I felt like she was searching for her position, aside from the unsubtle one were talking about here. I was left with the feeling that Hammer got so close that she became the last Ogawa Productions member. And that makes Devotion the last Ogawa Productions film! After all, shes not explaining anything to someone who doesnt come prepared. Its like this film was made exclusively for Ogawa Productions people.
AH: It seems the opposite of devotion, but actually it is.
Born in Anshan in China in 1947. Moved to Macao at an early age, then to Hong-Kong. Worked as assistant to director King Hu, then directed many documentaries and fiction works for television. Directed her first feature film The Secret in 1979, and was quickly recognized as one of the leading directors of the Hong Kong New Wave. Boat People (1982) showed to high acclaim at Cannes, and won Best Director and Best Picture at the Hong Kong Academy Awards in 1983. Works include Song of the Exile (1990) and Summer Snow (1995). Screened her documentary Personal Memoir of Hong Kong: As Time Goes By (1997), as a special invitaion film at YIDFF 97. Ordinary Heroes was screened as a jurors film at YIDFF 2001.
Born in Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan in 1957, and raised in Tokyo. Encountered documentary film when he visited Minamata as a student, and worked on Katori Naotakas The Innocent Sea. While touring Japan with the film, met people who lived by the Agano River in Niigata and decided to make a film about them. Lived with seven crew members for three years and in 1992 completed Living on the River Agano, which won a number of awards including the Prize for Excellence at YIDFF 93. His work Artists in Wonderland (Mahiru no hoshi, 1998) screened at Japanese Panorama YIDFF 99. Self and Others and Hanako were screened as jurors films at YIDFF 2001.
Associate professor in the Program for Film and Video Studies and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As a coordinator at YIDFF, he co-programmed Japan-America Media Wars (1991), The First Nations Film and Video Festival (1993) and 7 Transfigurations in Electric Shadows (1995). His history of Japanese documentary film is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, and he is currently writing a book on Ogawa Productions.
Born in 1939 in Hollywood. Started making 8mm films in the late 1960s. Has made over 80 experimental films and other works which convey her strong comments on social issues. Recipient of many awards from film festivals around the world, and considered a leading figure in independent filmmaking and video activism in the US. Her works are classics of lesbian cinema. In 1992, released her first film feature documentary, Nitrate Kisses, a stylish filmic meditation on the social and cultural history of homosexuality in the US. Head of the jury for the International Competition at YIDFF 95. Tender Fictions (1995) was screened in the International Competition at YIDFF 97. Other recent films include History Lessons (2000).
Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Productions invented a way of making documentaries unlike any other. In the 1970s, they based themselves in Sanrizuka in Chiba Prefecture, where all the members took turns farming the land and cranking the camera to create masterpieces such as NaritaHeta Village and NaritaThe Building of the Iwayama Tower. The unit eventually moved its base to Magino, Yamagata Prefecture, and went through many personnel changes. Through interviews with current and former members of Ogawa Productions, directors such as Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Kuroki Kazuo and Oshima Nagisa who were active through the same era and others, American director Barbara Hammer goes in search of Ogawa Productions and Ogawa Shinsuke.