February 5th, 2009


Mental: Observational Film Series #2

The Berlinale -- the 59th Berlin International Film Festival -- opens today, and the film we (the inhabitants of Berlin's Japanese bubble) are most excited about seeing is Kazuhiro Soda's documentary about the insane, Mental.

Soda has directed over forty TV documentaries, but launched out on his own when he made number one in his Observational Film Series, Campaign, in 2007. This followed Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a novice politician from Japan's ruling LDP, during an election campaign in which he's plucked from total obscurity.

In an interview that ran last week, Soda told Elena Stevenson that Campaign and Mental might be related: "since many of the patients used to be at the core of the society as elite businessmen or bureaucrats before they collapsed, you could almost see it as before and after”.

An admirer of Frederick Wiseman (whose controversial 1967 film Titicut Follies is the definitive documentary on a mental institution) and Lars Von Trier, Soda embraces an almost Dogma95-like restraint: "In the editing, I did not use any narration, super-imposed titles, or music, so that I can show the complex reality as it is, avoiding stereotypical simplification... In addition, I tried to recreate the time and space I experienced so that the audience will feel as if they visited the clinic and saw these patients themselves.” Soda has also renounced any face-blurring; instead, he's made a film about the one in ten patients who did give him permission to show them.

I think the no music decision is a good and important one -- there's been way too much music in documentaries recently, and especially those aimed at the American market. I find it manipulative, intrusive, and editorializing. Unfortunately, distribution companies have seen fit to add music -- and lots of it -- to Soda's trailers, perhaps under the impression that we won't go to see Soda documentaries without pop.

He's currently working on Observational Film Series #3, provisionally entitled Seinendan. It's about theatre "genius" Oriza Hirata (already mentioned on Click Opera as the main inspiration for chelfitsch director Toshiki Okada). Theatre people, for Soda, are "somewhere in between Campaign and Mental" -- at the exact midpoint, in other words, between politicians and the mad, between "before" and "after".

You can watch the whole of Wiseman's Titicut Follies on Chinese video sharing service Youku.