Recent documentary screenings

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen some pretty knockout documentaries that have been rattling around in my head ever since; each of them offers a penetrating portrait of their subject that expands into larger questions of form or meaning. I’ll comment on two today and two others tomorrow. -Doug

The Legend of Time (2006)

A few posts down, I wrote about what proved to be my favorite film at PSIFF, Albert Serra’s Quixotic (Honor de Cavalleria), but Serra’s fellow Catalan filmmaker, Isaki Lacuesta, may have provided my second favorite film with this seemingly effortless, but enigmatic and deeply engaging observation of modern San Fernando islanders.

Described as a “fictional documentary,” the film begins with a prologue highlighting the flamenco career and 1992 funeral of singing legend Camarón de la Isla. The rest of the movie is divided into two parts. The first (entitled “The Voice of Isra”) focuses on a good-hearted, but rambunctious, gypsy adolescent named Isra, who the camera records going about his daily activities; going to school, arguing with his brother, talking with an old man, flirting with a girl, and–most of all–sorting through his feelings about the recent death of his father. The second part of the film (entitled “The Voice of Makiko”) follows a young Japanese woman who immigrates to San Fernando in the hopes of learning how to sing flamenco music like Camarón, but finds herself doing odd jobs and emotionally working through her feelings regarding her sickly father.

In some ways, the brief prologue contains the heart of the film; the spirit of Camarón so pervades the cultural milieu, aspirations, and longings of Isra and Makiko (on various levels of awareness) that it provides the glue that holds the film together. The title of the movie is taken from the singer’s 1979 album dedicated to Garcia Lorca; Isra was born the year Camarón died and now that his own voice is shifting registers, his future as a singer is uncertain; both protagonists struggle with an absent patriarch as part of discovering who and where they are.

Lacuesta didn’t begin with a script, but rather a set of intentions to get to know the people and the land; the film’s improvised narrative is a combination of the non-professional actors playing themselves and ideas Lacuesta would suggest to them; like Johan van der Keuken, he distinguishes between “spontaneous” and “prepared” films rather than “documentary” and “fiction.” But unlike Kiarostami’s similarly hybrid film Close-Up, the tensions occur across the film rather than through it; instead of questioning the intents and illusions of the medium itself, Lacuesta encourages the viewer to draw his or her own parallels, connections, and contrasts between Isra and Makiko’s stories. It’s a sunny, casual film brimming with loose conversations, unexpected patterns, and compelling insights.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Faber and Faber published its book on documentaries, Imagining Reality, in 1996 and included Jill Forbes’ Sight & Sound review of Kazuo Hara’s astonishing film (recently released on DVD by Facets Video) that has made me want to see it ever since: “The film’s real strength is not pictorial, but flows from its outstanding impoliteness, its doggedly amoral determination to record its subject’s violent crusade. . . . The result is profoundly ‘unGriersonian.'” If Michael Moore’s antics are too much for some viewers, I wonder how they’d react when this film’s interviewer begins slapping around reticent subjects.

One of the more astonishing aspects of the film (one that also incriminates the viewer) is the fact that the reticence is based on lies and obfuscation, and the violence is rooted in an obsession for truth telling. There’s a shocking moral fury to the conflicts in the film. There’s no question that ex-WWII soldier Kenzo Okuzaki (65-years-old) is clinically antisocial, but to what degree? He shot someone in the ’50s and spent 15 years in jail, and used a slingshot to fire metal balls at the Emperor, spending another year in prison; he now drives a car covered in handwritten, dissident slogans, and often finds himself surrounded by police and security officers. But he calmly discusses his intentions, apologizes for his behavior, and often phones the police himself after a skirmish.

Okuzaki’s behavior provokes genuine, important confessions from his ex-superiors regarding long suppressed Imperial atrocities committed in New Guinea, including assassinations, cannibalism, and cover-ups. (For a searingly dramatic account of the nightmarish final days of the Pacific campaign, check out Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, which Criterion is releasing on DVD next week.) Okuzaki simply refuses to acclimate or accept affluent, postwar Japanese society, or embrace its dominant myth of victimhood. He openly blames Emperor Hirohito for the war (occasionally with the help of the speaker mounted on his car), and spends as much time comforting the relatives of victims as he does assaulting those he suspects of crimes.

His journey around Japan to the hospitals, workplaces, and homes of those he wishes to interrogate–many of them aging and infirm–is recorded with rigorous objectivity. Shoehei Imamura (Vengeance is Mine) produced the documentary, and his obsession for misfits and malcontents undergirds director Kazuo Hara’s film, which determinedly records Okuzaki’s crusade with unpolished, hand-held immediacy. Hara leaves it to the viewer to judge the action, to watch or not watch, to grapple with the issues at stake.

Apparently, no distributor would touch the finished film, but it finally proved to be a resounding cultural phenomenon when it was finally screened to the public; doubtless, an eruption of emotion induced by years of cultural freeze. Okuzaki passed away in Kobe less than two years ago, and if web reports are any indication, his death went largely unreported by the Japanese press. Most likely, he was a figure who was much too extreme in his suffering, anger, and vigilantism to warrant national publicity, yet that is precisely why Hara’s unflinching film deserves such serious consideration.