Interview with Makiko Wakai


Festival Film Dokumenter (FFD) 2018 had a chance to interview Makiko Wakai, coordinator of “New Asian Currents” program, a Competition program introducing emerging filmmakers from across Asia at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. As one of the jury for the Feature-length Documentary at FFD 17, we talked about film festival as a space that offers alternative discourses, up to how documentary film ecosystem in Japan. You can read our interview with Makiko in the article below. Enjoy!


Japan has a long history of cinema. In the 40s and 50s, Japan already have a big studio like Toho and Daiei. In 1951, Akira Kurosawa brought Japan’s name to the international cinema with the award he won at the Venice Film Festival. Our question is, what role does documentary film has in society with such long and rich film history?

I think it has to do with how documentary first appeared in Japan. Because it started when Narita Airport was built, the government had to take land from the farmers. Especially in 60s-70s, there were many students movement around the world, and so did in Japan. There were a lot of radical leftists who joined the farmers’ resistance. And there was one filmmaker, Ogawa Shinsuke, and his crew, they went into that struggle, and made many documentaries about the struggle. That was like the groundbreaking event in Japan, in terms of documentary as well as movements.

It all started with Ogawa Shinsuke, and his crew; we call them Ogawa Productions. They made documentaries about the Narita struggle and then made independent screenings around Japan. They made their name through those documentaries, and screenings. So when people talk about Japanese documentaries, there are pre-war, and maybe after the war there were a lot of documentary filmmaker. But i think, the first thing people think about Japanese documentaries is Ogawa Productions. He is quite well-known documentary filmmaker and made documentary as a tradition that people look up to.


YIDFF was initiated in 1989 and became one of the first documentary film festival in Asia, even in the world. Could you tell us briefly the journey of YIDFF? How did it began? What has changed along the was? and what became the main focus of YIDFF lately?

That’s kinda related to Ogawa Shinsuke too, because after Narita struggle finished, Ogawa and his crew moved to Yamagata, made couple films there. One of the films won in Berlin International Film Festival 1984 that gained him international reputation. He was one of he main reasons why YIDFF started, and of course in Yamagata there were many filmmakers, film lovers, there were movement that focused on how to build a citizen cinema, there were many independent screenings. So these people, as well as Ogawa Shinsuke, and city government helped estabilishing the festival.

There were not many Asian documentary film festival back then in 1989. Political situations is still vey hard for documentary filmmakers to make films. Because independent documentary filmmakers always faced with the oppression from the government because they are usually voicing against the political regime. So if there’s a government that do not want certain opinion to be expressed, they would try to repressed that. That atmosphere just wasnt there, even if there people who wanted to make documentary, they weren’t free to do that.

So when YIDFF had submissions, there were only few Asian documentaries that were submitted to Yamagata. Also back then, people made films using seluloid; so it was very big hurdle. That was some problem at the beginning. And then, Ogawa Shinsuke and the festivals decided to have a forum, a symposium in 1989 to discuss what is happening in Asia. We really want to make YIDFF as a space where filmmakers can gather, show their films. But that was still really hard. So we invited filmmakers; talked about political situations, how it was such a hurdle, and also technical sides, like financial. That was the issue that we faced.

And then there’s the question how can we make YIDFF as a space where we can discuss these kind of issues, as well as how can we manage filmmaker who maybe they are making, but we just don’t know them. Or maybe there’s no resource for them to submit their film to us, or they have limited access. Because, you know, it wasn’t easy back then. So we held that symposium, and in the second edition, we held the Asian Competition Program. And then Ogawa Shinsuke passed away in 1992, and in the third edition in 1993, we dedicated a prize for the Asian Competition is called The Ogawa Shinsuke Prize. So the spirit, or the idea is to make YIDFF as a space for Asian filmmakers can be remembered, because there were nowhere else. That spirit kind of carried deeply, and hasn’t changed. Maybe the situation changes, because now there are so many festivals.


How do you view spaces like Festival Film Dokumenter (FFD) as a space that offer alternative perspectives?

of course it’s important that you have this kind of spaces where you can show films that are critical to the mainstream audience, to offer alternate history. I think independent films, especially documentaries, is the only way to express those kind of opinions. And it’s nice that it is possible now, here in jogja. I mean you don’t get backlash for screening those films. The government officials is not coming and stop the screening. But then even if there was a conflict when you screen a film, that’s the more reason to screen that film. And it’s important to have a safe space to screen those kind of films; not to be intimidated by those forces.

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