Tag: Japan

Return to Yemen

As I prepare to return to Yemen tomorrow i try to bear in mind that I explore politics through people and try take an audience into a complex political world outside of their own familiar backyard by finding attractive articulate characters.

As always, my mates back in Hull being my target audience. Taking them to a place like the Republic of Yemen appears a lot harder than my previous films – Iraq, Palestine, Japan, Hull, seemed so easy, they had at least heard of these places, but the Yemen, where exactly is that?

To me my films are all are like children, taking so many years to find, source, film and edit… in their own way they become a very personal exploration of myself as manifested through others.

I had originally wanted to make more overtly propagandist films in the naive belief that I could change the world just so long as I shouted loud enough, but thanks to my ‘FREE’ National Film and Television School education I was soon able to discover a more subtle honest film style, one that would actually engage with the audience rather than just shout at them – I found that allowing people to tell us of their lives and their struggles, their victories and their losses, was a far more respectful (to the character and to the viewer) way of discussing political ideas than any simplistic one-dimensional tub-thumping.

To quote an old school-friend “I find the worlds biggest scuzzbuckets and make ‘Human Stories’ about them”, I see them more as people fighting against the odds, people who haven’t been completely beaten down by the system, whose lives seem to consist of one battle after another… And, as we know, television likes a ‘Bad-Boy’, especially one that is in touch with his feminine side, and if he is also in love, and is able to talk openly about his life then all the better, no matter how extreme or radical his views.

I feel my new guy in Yemen fits this criteria, he is a breath of fresh air, at least to me he is, in this highly uniform traditional society he certainly stands out and give me oxygen even if he does get scared at the mass demonstrations (the armed forces have opened fire on some of them), though I feel his fear is for me not for himself.

On my return to the hotel room I see news reports saying that Yemen has been put on the high alert dangerous places to visit list by our government – along with Libya, Somalia and Ivory Coast. Maybe if (like Cameron in Egypt last month) I was here with a gaggle of British arms traders the UK Foreign Office wouldn’t be quite so concerned.

It’s only Television

Before I returned to England a couple of weeks ago I made a trip to meet with someone whom I hoped would be an interesting character for a film I wanted to make. I didn’t mention anything about him in my blog because I wasn’t sure. When can we ever be sure for sure?

A few hours before I was due to leave I took a rental car into the Syrian countryside and went to meet him, and managed to film a little taster-piece for the BBC. I hadn’t got around to telling them that my previous film with Nizam had fallen through, I was worried that they may see me as being rather unreliable over these last few unproductive years.

How the years pass. It seems such a long ago since I finished the Japan film; and everything since then… it all feels like a series of failures.

Failed projects in South Africa that the BBC didn’t want, films the BBC did want in Dubai that I didn’t want to do but still gave (virtually unfunded) the best part of a year to trying to make work followed by a year and a half finding, and eventually failing to make, a film in Norway and Syria with Nizam.

I remember NHK my Japanese co-broadcaster offering me 100k for an idea I’d written about Damascus. But the BBC said they wanted Dubai. In my niceness I tried to persuade NHK to put their money to a more worthy cause – a far more popular film set in Dubai for (and backed by) the BBC.

And so I went to Dubai and over two trips lasting a few months found myself dying inside. Lost and without direction, the evenings became nothing more than a series of blurred bar scenes, I wanted to lose all my sensibilities and completely withdraw from that plastic nightmare hell-hole.

So I found myself migrating from Dubai to Damascus to meet with Nizam again; which began yet another mistaken adventure. But by this time the BBC had begun to show some interest in Libya, and, as Nizam was half-Libyan, his story would fit the bill. In the end they commissioned a story half-set in Syria and Libya. But a year and a half had passed since I’d tried to persuade the Japanese away from Damascus towards Dubai and now here I was again trying to persuade them (NHK) away from Dubai and back to Syria with a little bit of Libya thrown in too.

Two years after their original 100k offer we meet at the prestigious Yamagata Film festival where my Japan film picks up two awards. I sense awkwardness in the NHK Commissioning Editor, something had changed and I wasn’t sure what, and in true (non-confrontational) Japanese spirit nothing is said. He takes my Nizam trailer and promises to submit it, 6 months later he finally submits it but by now rumours emerge that he is being moved to a new department and my project with Nizam is falling through. Could it be that I spent too much time fund-raising and not enough time filming?

And so it was, in the final hours of my time in Syria that I found myself making an impromptu trip into the Syrian countryside to find a new character. The BBC like him but they can only offer a small budget to make it and suggest NHK to co-fund it.

But it is now 2 and a half years on since their offer of 100k for a film in Damascus – money I couldn’t accept because the BBC wanted a film in Dubai – and things have changed, my man at NHK has moved departments and it seems the money is no longer there.

The motto of the story is never refuse money from TV!! Lie and cheat and tell them whatever it is they want to hear but never never ever refuse their offer of money, because, in TV, as with life, you never know what tomorrow will bring.

Return to Yamagata

My return to Japan is an anxious semi-excited occasion since I heard I was in competition at the Yamagata Documentary Festival. It was great to arrive here in luxury; I think the only way to do Japan is to make sure someone else is paying. I slipped through the curtain from my premium economy seat to the cocktail bar in upper class, the Japanese girl serving said “I recognise you”. “You made that film about Naoki! It was great but very negative on Japan.”

I wondered if this was how Naoki’s home-town was going to receive the film at the weekend, we have 2 big screenings – a 650 seater and a 1200 one. The only Japanese film in the competition (and filmed entirely in Yamagata), ‘Japan: A Story of Love and Hate’ is getting massive media attention, my friend Mr Matsui gave me last night’s local paper featuring an article on my film, and yesterday I was interview on NHK World TV about my time in Japan and the film.

It’s all a long way from the struggle of making it and my own love hate relationship with this distant difficult island. ‘No matter how long you look into the eyes of the Japanese you will never know what they are thinking’, a great quote that stays with me as I stare hard into the eyes of a nation I thought I’d come to really understand whilst making my film here. But the truth is that I don’t feel I really know this place at all, after a couple of days here again I’m thinking I only scratched surface.

I can’t wait to look into the eyes of 1200 Japanese as they watch my film in Yamagata. Shock outrage or calm considered thought. I wonder, will I know what the Japanese are really thinking?

We played to 600 people yesterday which was nerve racking for me and for Naoki. Yamagata is Naoki’s home-town, they asked how he felt having exposed himself so naked in the film he said ‘relieved’, I suggested more people do it in Japan as a joke but they didn’t get it, though I was surprised that they enjoyed the humour in the film especially the Viagra section. I am almost enjoying being back in Japan… Has my hate turned to love? Not quite. Today is the big screening in the 1200 seat cinema. It’s so great to see Yoshie enjoying the limelight almost more then Naoki.

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2009
October 8 – 15

Last of Japan. Or so I thought.

I’d decided to leave Japan after 10 weeks of research with what felt like no results. I was more confused than when I arrived.

Paul Weller was playing Tokyo so I treated myself with a gig before leaving. I’d arrived late hoping to buy a cheap ticket off a tout but there were no touts about just an orderly queue of people.

Growing up the UK my life had been a series of Jam, Style Council and Weller gigs. They were always as riotous as the audience was. I always felt a part of such crowds. It was interesting to see how Mr. Weller was going fit in here. The packed house was seated and silent as they waited for him.

As I blinked I missed his arrival. Suddenly there he was on stage. The full house remains well ordered and offered a controlled hand clap. No cheers not even a murmur from the audience. The atmosphere felt like a school concert with an amateur rock band on stage. Weller looked bemused but did his best and continued.

I was at the back of the Circle. And like my attempts over these last 10 weeks I felt desperately outside what was happening around me. I felt the same frustration in the concert hall that I felt at not getting inside Japan. I instruct my Japanese friend to follow me in an effort to get closer to the stage and thunder out of the Circle and down some stairs to the main hall. My friend is warning me that we do not have the right tickets, “fuck them”. I am angry at my failed attempts at getting inside Japan and want to at least enjoy this gig before I leave. It stirs great memories of growing up with Weller gigs as a kid.

I storm the main hall doors expecting a polite young Japanese ticket collector to stop me. Two ticket men demand tickets I thunder past them and run down the aisle followed by my friend, pushing more ticket collectors out of my way. I end up 6 feet from Weller at the front. Close up I wanted to feel the gig and enjoy it more. But close up I could sense Weller’s bemusement more than I could from back. Weller was doing his best to enjoy himself. Blasting through the set. The crowd would sway to the songs and clap between them. There was an eerie silence amongst the crowd that Weller found embarrassing. He would amuse himself by making jokes, knowing no-one was really understanding him.

“Just keep clapping a little longer while I change my guitar…”

Clap clap clap

Weller was struggling through his set like I had struggled through my research-time in Japan. No matter how hard he tried he never got closer to his audience they always kept themselves at arms length. Swaying through songs and clapping between them. I could really identify with him. This Weller concert was a monument to my time in Japan.

To amuse himself he would make more jokes with the audience who he didn’t understand and who didn’t understand him.

“It’s a great pleasure to play back in this hall in Nakano. I played here 26 years ago when I started out with the jam and …” he smiles knowing he is talking to himself. “It was a fucking nightmare then and it is now” he hammers into another song laughing to himself.

This concert was more personal than most and it felt like an epitaph to my time Japan. A grateful goodbye to 10 long weeks of alienation, confusion and disappointment. Weller kept looking round to his young band members and breaking into fits of laughter. I kept thinking ‘oh why does Japan make itself so alien’.

I remember an english teacher telling me when I first arrived. ‘The problem with the Japanese he said is that they always live up to their worst stereotypes.’

Weller returns to the stage for the encore. A Jam number, ‘Town Called Malice’… he cannot get the first line out for laughing; it’s a private joke with other band members who are also laughing. As he sings the first line the joke becomes clear to me but is missed on the thousands in the audience…

‘you better stop dreaming of the quite life because it’s the one you’ll never know…’

Weller can hardly sing for laughing now.

I leave remembering the good old days of growing-up with Weller gigs in the UK. I struggle to find what Japan means to me. 10 weeks in Japan had sort of destroyed my soul. I thought fuck Japan I will never come back I simply cannot relate to this place.

6 Weeks Later

I’m back in UK recovered and behaving as if Id never been to Japan. I am thinking of making a film in Africa then the phone goes, it’s the BBC they love the last idea I sent about Japan and would love me to make it. Furthermore they are offering the best part of 200k to do so. The Japanese network NHK will match that with a further 100k.

I’ve been raising money to make this film for the best part of 3 years … the money allows me to make a film the way I want with the luxury of a year in which to make it. This was always my dream.

The problem is now my dream has become my nightmare.