Under the gaze of Japanese filmmaker Kaori Oda’s camera lens, space and soundscape quietly undergoes a defamiliarizing transmutation. She explores the most ethereal particles of human memories through image and sound, rendering a powerful sensory experience that forgoes any need of drama, and in turn centers the phenomenon itself. In the moments where we immerse in the extensions of these visual ideas, the variety of colors and lights stimulate on a euphoric level; the totality of nature creating figures ever more intoxicating. The perceptive synesthesia in her works that transcends national and ideological borders, is about as culturally borderless as a film can be.
Born in Osaka in 1987, Kaori Oda is one of the most notable new auteurs in the world this year. Her filmmaking trajectory spans across continents. Her debut short “Thus A Noise Speaks” was completed during her study in the US, based on her real experience of coming-out as homosexual to her family. With this film, she enrolled in film.factory, the experimental film program created by Béla Tarr. During her time there, Oda made her first feature “Aragane”, going deep down into an Eastern European coal mine, where constantly shifting and changing darkness unfolds. To make her latest feature “Cenote”, she took lessons of diving and underwater photography, delving into the sinkholes in Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, building a audiovisual tunnel that connects the past and the present. Oda’s dialogues with mystic natural spaces achieves certain technical “marvels”, which boasts an exquisite formal and abstract beauty. While emotionally, she stands infinitely close to her subjects, providing a poignant interpretation of the intertwined coexisting relationship among human beings, terrain and the camera. In fact, her films are ultimately complemented, complicated, and sometimes even contradicted by a continuous human presence.
Using a language unseen before, Oda has reinvented our idea of what cinema is and can be, posing a sort of metaphysical conundrum: Is she discovering an existent world, or is she creating a new one?
From your earlier interviews, we know that you wanted to be a basketball player but had to give up because of injury. After that, how did you start getting interested in filmmaking?
Basketball was my passion in my youth, but unfortunately my right knee got broken. I underwent two big operations but it was not possible to keep playing seriously. Doctors said NO to me. So I was lost completely because the only thing I knew in life was basketball. Then, I started to look for something I can continue until I die. After spending two years in Japanese junior college, I decided to go to the US to study abroad. I thought that if I moved the place, something might change in my life. There I took a film course. That was the first encounter to camera and filmmaking.
Your first film “Thus A Noise Speaks” was made during your study in the US. It deals with a very personal subject, where you explore your own sexuality and reflect on the relationship you had with your family. Why do you want to tell this story?
My mentor in US college asked me what was the biggest conflict in my life. At that time, my family didn’t know I was gay and I made the very first film with them in 2010 (“Thus a Noise Speaks”) to face that conflict. It is a self-documentary made by my real family and myself about the coming-out as gay. The idea was to use filmmaking to communicate with my family and face the fact that they could not accept that I was gay. It was a really tough experience but I learned a lot from that and started to see and use camera as a tool for communication or the act of perceiving what is in front of the camera, of understanding the relationship between myself and the subject (the people/ the space). That experience left a huge impact on me. I didn’t know if I was interested in cinema but filmmaking was the way of confronting, living, and exploring life around the world and me.
The film is somewhere between fiction and non-fiction; as you said, the “actors” were your real family and the story is based on actual experience. You also appeared in the film as “Kacchi”. Is it difficult to convince your family to take part?
Kacchi is my nickname from my childhood. My family still calls me Kacchi.
It wasn’t difficult to ask my family to be in the film. I think that they were confused and didn’t know what they should do after my coming-out but felt they had to help me in someway or other. Even though they could not really accept the fact, it didn’t mean that they don’t love me. They do love me and was looking for a way to express it.
Is there a written script or more on the improvisational side?
There was kind of a script, more like a note of each situations. In the first half, I wrote from the real experience to face again what we have gone through, and the second half is based on my wishes for the future. My mother’s tears in the last sequence was the only part that was not written.
Did this film and the filmmaking process change the dynamics within your family, emotion-wise?
Yes, it really helped us to connect again. It has been ten years since we made the film. Along with the theater release of “Cenote”, I screened some of my past works, including “Thus A Noise Speaks”. My family watched it before on DVD, but finally I could invite them to see it on screen. I needed time to be ready for that and I think my family also did. Seeing my family in Cinema with other audience made me feel how lucky and blessed I was to have them. Now we can talk about my sexuality openly without any tensions.
Could you tell us a little about your experience in film.factory? How did your years in Sarajevo shape you as a filmmaker?
The thing I learned at film.facotry and from the days in Sarajevo was that there was no correct answer in filmmaking. I have to find my own language to make films and it cannot be taught. To pursue that, we would need to pile many mistakes. Béla, Apichatpong, Costa, Reygadas, and Gus Van Sant, they were all different - different ways of filmmaking, different attitude, but their way of making films and their languages all seemed to reflect on how they live their lives.
Also spending time with young filmmakers from all over the world at film.factory was one of my treasures from those days. My colleagues have supported me even now.
“Aragane” was made during that period. I heard that this was supposed to be a task based on a short story by Franz Kafka, but headed to another direction at certain point. Can you tell us more about how this project was conceived?
Béla assigned us to make an adaptation short film from Kafka and he game me “The Bucket Rider”. It was about a poor man who didn’t have money to buy coal and begged the storekeeper of coal to give him some. I went to Breza coal mine near Sarajevo to make research of coal and location hunting. There I was attracted to the underground world, down to 300 metres. I saw miners working hard in the dark and roaring sounds. At the second visit, I asked the coal company to let me shoot a bit and showed those materials to Bela to tell him I would like to make my own work in that location with coal miners.
How were interactions with miners look like? I don’t think they speak English. When you were filming, how did you figure out what conversations you wanted to capture?
In the first and last shoot, there was my friend who can speak Bosnian, so we could explain that we wanted to make a film about the coal mine and miners. When I was shooting alone, I didn’t understand what they were talking about at all. My filming process was very simple, most of the times we communicated with body language, for example, when to stop walking and shoot, and when to start walking again.
I could finally know what they spoke from the transcriptions in the editing process.
What was the involvement of Béla Tarr in making of “Aragane”? Did he give you any suggestions?
Yes, it was mainly in the editing process. I showed him the timeline that lined up my favorite shots and he commented “this is good, that is bad” to refine the selection of shots. He was kind of strict, but I still think of those moments now and would imagine what Béla would say to figure out if the shot is good or bad.
Going forward to “Toward A Common Tenderness”, this film returns to a very personal, very reflective style where you talked about your experience in Sarajevo and your identity as a women and as a filmmaker. Why did you choose to make a film about those questions at that point?
I had pain and unclear feelings after making “Thus A Noise Speaks” as I thought that I used my camera as violent tool and hurt my family in someway even though that kind of communication was the only thing I could do at that time. I didn’t regret what I did but needed to digest more to keep going with camera. After making “Aragane” and came back to Japan, I thought that now it was the time to face where I would like to go in filmmaking and how I hope to do it.
Over your past projects, you seem to shift back and forth between self-introspection, personal topics and outward-looking topics, filming stories of other people and other places. Is this a conscious choice of yours, that you want to explore both aspects in a more balanced way?
I guess yes. It is a conscious choice and also came naturally.
In our retrospective program this year, we can also see a few of your shorts - “Conniving”, “FLASH”, “Theory of Colours: prologue”, “Night Cruise” - what do these projects mean to you?
I like to experiment something new in shorts. It shakes my brain in terms of flexibility and compositions of films.
How did the concept of “Cenote” come to you in the first place?
After I made “Aragane”, shot in the Bosnian coal mine, my colleague at film.factory Marta Hernaiz Pidal and I were chatting what we would like to shoot next. Vaguely I answered water and the lights in the water were my next things to follow. We went back to our home countries after a few years in Sarajevo but didn’t forget the chat we had. Marta told me about Cenotes and sent me some photos of them. One of them pictured a big cave only with limited sunlight from above, with a boy playing on the water. That photo touched me and I started to research about cenotes in Japan while saving money for the trip to Yucatan, Mexico. Gradually, my interests headed to the myth and legends they had related to cenotes and started to connect cenotes to collective unconsciousness.
I’m curious about your opinion on film format as you have shot on film and in digital. For example, in “Cenote”, you used 8mm and an iPhone. How do you make the choices? Does it relate to the subject you are filming?
We planed to shoot on Canon 5D with water housing for underwater shots but tested first with iPhone. The images shot by iPhone were more than I expected. In addition to that, my swimming skill didn’t go up enough to operate a 5D underwater…
And then, since we knew the film would relate to memories, life and death, I wanted to play with tenses. Choosing 8mm mainly came from that reason, in order put up the question: “What we see now is from past, now, or future?”
Text and language is an important part of “Cenote”. Can you tell us how you arrange the narration and voiceover of this film?
Before the last shooting trip, I wrote lines for narration that was inspired by books of Mayan myth and interviews we did in the communities around cenotes. It was hard to find a voice actress because we were looking for young Mayan speaker. Mayan speakers are getting less and less in young generations. Luckily we met a girl who spoke Mayan in her daily life and recorded all the text I prepared at her home in some variations like soft voice, whispering voice, and normal voice. I thought that if I would have the variations, I might be able to express plurality of the voices.
In more than one occasions you mentioned space and your relationship with space when making a film. When I watched “Aragane” and “Cenote”, I had a strong feeling that they were about an “alien” landscape and the materiality and beauty of it. What brought you to focus on this kind of space?
Alien landscape! I am glad to hear that. We live on the ground but if we go down a bit, it is an unseen alien space and it supplies our infrastructure!
I don’t know why I am attracted to such spaces. It may come from my interest toward collective unconsciousness though. I believe we have things in common and share memories as human beings. Filmmaking is my way of exploring of that theme.
Capturing outer space is also one of my future projects!
The concept of “noise” in your first film is quite fascinating for me, and so is the way you create and play with sound in your film. Would you like to tell more about how you design sounds in your film?
Image always goes first in editing. I would make a rough cut and then work on the sounds. As for “Aragane”, I didn’t do much on design because the mine itself had fascinating space as natural sound studio. What I changed was only some parts of rhythm from mining equipment and balanced the roundness.
I played more in “Cenote”. My assistant collected sounds with TASCAM such as nature sounds, animals, people’s buzzing, murmur of the wind, and so on. I used those sounds from field recording and my breathing sound in the water to cross the border between in the cave and on the ground, life and death, past and present. After making rough cut of those sounds, I put people’s voices, including interviews, narrations, and recitations. Those voices are made from words that give us some meanings and definitions but I see them also as sounds.
You films have a strong sensorial feeling, and the movement of camera and editing looks very fluid and intuitive. Did you have a specific idea in mind when you edit so that you can achieve this effect?
Not really but I tried to be sincere and honest with what I felt and experienced while shooting. My goal in the editing is to use the potential power of shots/fragments in right ways. Neither too much nor too little.
How is your next project going so far?
We’d like to make research about the underground passages in Japan. I don’t know where this project goes yet but I’m excited to make a feature film in Japan after Bosnia and Mexico!