Ellen Lande
Lande is a film director and a film critic.

A suggestive, abstract tribute to the golden age of avant-garde film pulls me right in. A hypnotic soundscape in the form of Japanese children’s singing, piano and a narrative voice. But then…

Toward a Common Tenderness

Kaori Oda

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan,

My first expectations turn out to be completely wrong. Kaori Oda is not a cinefile, according to herself. I’m becoming curious about this shy Japanese who’s filming in Bosnia. The recordings are not what you’d expect from the war-torn Balkans. The camera dwells on the face of a gipsy man. Lengthy close-ups while the director’s Japanese narrator voice ponders about understanding and giving something back.

I’m becoming fascinated. How has this closeness to this group of people that in Eastern Europe is generally regarded with distrust, fear and distance according to others, come about?

Contrasts. Kaori is filming effortlessly, as if she’s a family member. She moves in for a week, receiving and sharing care and tenderness in the warm closeness expressed by the images. This contrasts with scenes early in the film, where an older Japanese woman turns away from the camera. The woman is filmed from up close, but a certain distance is always present. In some scenes she laughs or smiles. Yet at the same time no closeness or warmth is being expressed. Kaori tells of the emptiness after the first, all too private film she made, and about her mother’s brutal reaction. About disorientation, about choosing Sarajevo and its film school. About the attraction towards a place far from home, and the possibility of learning from her mentor in filmmaking.

The mentor’s name is never mentioned. The mythical Bela Tarr ran film.factory in Sarajevo until the funding ended in 2016. Most of his films have been unavailable. Lengthy takes and a fondness for evocative, apocalyptic moods are his trademarks.

Disheartened uninspired filmmaker?  Kaori Oda doesn’t follow closely in the footsteps of her mentor. The first, fading recordings of an elderly man and a party with a fairground carousel are not eye-catching. She’s neither motivated nor all in. And she openly tells us so.

Her filming is without direction, lacking in passion. Her project is not clearly defined; the recordings that she shows us are confusing. What motivates her? What’s her method? Is this the randomly collected recordings of a film school student? Even so, Kaori’s project is intriguing. Her shyness is stands out, as does her ability to be tenderly taken care of.

«The recordings are not what you’d expect from the wartorn Balkans.»

In one small episode, she tells us that as she finds inspiration to film, the camera battery is discharged. The voice-over continues accompanied by a black screen.

For a long while, the narrator’s voice that keeps it all together is gone. The camera is fascinated by mining headlights that dazzles parts of the image. At times everything seems blurry. Occasional glimpses of miners, machines and turfs. The endless shot takes us deeper and deeper into a dark mine. Then finally the narrator’s voice is back. The picture gets clearer. We get to know the people, and not just their backs. The references to Tarr are obvious.

A couple of sequences later, we get to share in the filmmaker’s ambivalence towards the long, blunt shot. Suddenly we’re out of the mine, and join the workers as they watch the footage of themselves. So far in the film, we’ve followed Kaori meticulously fighting with herself to get engaged in something to film. Now that she has found it, it’s as if the audience is left out. As Kaori decides not to show any additional material from the mine; I as a spectator feel I’m being pulled out. At the same time she talks earnest about what we won’t get to see more of. The apocalyptic universe in the glowing darkness of the mine that I long for is replaced with a dull break room in flat light.

The turning point. My patience as a spectator is coming to an end. Then comes the confession. Kaori receives a grateful response from one of the miners and suddenly opens up. We are affected by her heartfelt redemption. The contact with the filmmaker and her project is re-established. Her search for acceptance and closeness moves us. What has previously been merely hinted doesn’t just shine through – it sparkles.

An unspoken need is being verbalized. The search for acceptance that she’s been carrying with her ever since the long journey from Japan began is now becoming the foundation of the film. Nevertheless it’s not until the end of the movie – as I read about the use of materials from other and incomplete films in the credits – that I understand the context. This film is structured out of a need to recreate the path towards redemption and acceptance.

Insufferable along the way? No. Demanding yes, but fascinating as well. Somewhat undefined. A musicality that goes beyond her fine sense of soundscape. A cinematic sensibility that creates pleasure – in spite of unmotivated parts and incoherent, confusing themes. Is it the filmmaker’s personality that carries this? Her authenticity keeps much of interest alive.

At close range. Kaori receives letters and drawings from a younger member of her family. She films close up, as through a binocular or a camera obscura – the same move that started the film. Kaori now admits that her cinematic spark is in the closeness. Kaori’s remarkable strength is her exceptional closeness to strangers. Her mother on the other hand is mercilessly distant towards Kaori. She is close up with her camera, but she never surmounts the cool distance created by the mother.

«My patience as a spectator is coming to an end. Then comes the confession.»

In the final sequence, she reveals to us the damage her mother causes by refusing to accept Kaori. She elaborates on the hurtful experience after coming out as homosexual in her first film. She admits that she has used the camera as a weapon – but I disagree. Her camera and her contact with those in front of it – except for the mother – are empathetic. She moves past the empathetic and further into the realms of caring and tenderness. The response she gets from other people gives her the strength to move on.

She describes the camera as an instrument of understanding and being understood. The one that she wished would understand and accept rejected her brutally.

She has found her way through the various film footage – in order to share with us the path to renewed courage. It’s about the upsetting effect of having revealed private secrets on film. But it’s also a film about the search for closeness and acceptance that is eventually answered in the company of strangers in mutual tenderness.


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