Illuminations - Shinsuke Ogawa
As an excellent new documentary film festival comes to Edinburgh, Mark Cousins introduces Shinsuke Ogawa, the greatest documentarian of all time
Illuminations is Filmhouse’s first standalone documentary festival outside of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Programmed by Jenny Leask, a former programmer of the EIFF Document strand, Illuminations aims to screen generically different fact-based films that should be seen in a cinema. Alongside the soon-to-be released new age therapy comic documentary Three Miles North of Molkom (with filmmakers in attendance) and modern/future classics The King of Kong (pictured), Stranded and Triage there will be a long overdue focus on the work of Japanese filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa.
The films of Ogawa are some of the most powerful and intense documentaries ever made. Word about Ogawa is seeping out. There’s a brilliant new book on him by Abe Mark Nornes, which spills the beans, and Devotion, Barbara Hammer’s recent film about Ogawa makes Easy Riders, Raging Bulls look like Sunday School.
Ogawa was born in 1936, made student protest films in the 60s and then, in 1968, embarked on a series of engaged, heart-rending documentaries about a traumatic event in Japanese national life – the construction of the Narita Airport on watermelon and peanut farms – which has been called ‘the War and Peace of cinema’. Ogawa formed a collective of fellow radicals in Narita. They lived there for a decade, dug down into the lives of the farmer-protestors, and made seven astonishing environmental movies. The sixth, Sanrizuke – Heta Village (1973) is told slowly, in ‘village time’. It shows farmers weary of fighting, their burial grounds being dug up by the government. One woman makes a phallus out of radishes. The police storm the home of someone who has committed suicide to draw attention to the atrocities. Protests about a third runway at Heathrow are nothing compared to this.
For Dokkoi: Songs from the Bottom (pictured inset), made two years later, Ogawa’s team had moved to one of the poorest urban slums in Japan. They lived there for a year, among the alcoholics and the people desperate for work. Their resulting film is almost unwatchably unflinching. The locals come to rely on the filmmakers. Again and again they film someone, and then they die. No movie I know better reveals how filmmaker and subject become bound to each other.
Ogawa the socialist led his team of filmmakers like an emperor. He was secular yet was treated like a god. His crews got paid nothing. They were expected to give up sex. The great Nagisa Oshima, who made Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, wanted to make a film about ‘the homosocial atmosphere around Ogawa.’
This filmmaker’s astonishing, influential films (Ogawa is revered in China, Korea and Japan) have never been shown before in Scotland. Their first screenings were just last month, at the Sheffield documentary festival. Brace yourself for the assaulting, poetic, landmark films of Shinsuke Ogawa.
Illuminations starts on Fri 5 Dec. The Ogawa strand starts on Sat 6 Dec. www.filmhousecinema.com/seasons/illuminations