Kaori Oda is a Japanese filmmaker who often explores the construction of personal and communal narratives in places that are difficult to access, whether it is deep underground, under water or in furthest corners of our consciousness. Oda’s approach to documentary filmmaking constantly reassesses her own presence and role in the narratives of others. As she mentioned in our conversation, she essentially would like to keep practicing reciprocal communications through filmmaking.
Kaori Oda’s first film, Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), a documentary about her coming-out, won an audience award at Nara International Film Festival in 2011. Oda’s first feature film, Aragane (2015), an observational documentary about an Eastern European coal mine, was shot under the supervision of the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Aragane has been screened at Doclisboa Film Festival, Mar del Plata International Film Festival and Taiwan International Documentary Festival. Oda’s second feature Toward a Common Tenderness (2017) is an essay film reflecting on the process of filmmaking and its values as well as shortcomings. Toward a Common Tenderness had its world premiere at DOK Leipzig. Oda’s latest feature, Cenote (2019), an experimental documentary about the role of cenotes in the Mayan mythology and contemporary culture, had its international premiere at IFFR. In 2020, Oda was awarded the inaugural Nagisa Oshima Prize presented by the Pia Film Festival.
Originally published on December 10, 2021
Salome Kokoladze: You have mentioned that as a filmmaker you are mainly interested in people. In Aragane, bodies of machines and their sounds take over the human presence in the mine. Similarly, darkness underground takes hold of human figures as well as our vision. In Cenote, the underwater sounds accompany and over time, force their way into the narrator’s voice. Did you find it challenging to create portraits of people while working with dominant elements such as darkness and loud noises that tend to alter both our visual and aural senses?
Kaori Oda: Indeed, it is challenging to capture what is in front of camera in the dark. However, being in the dark puts us in strange conditions and mind states. Our senses are forced to be heightened, which works well for filmmaking.
I am interested in people, which for me means being interested in the traces they have left behind in various spaces and the memories they are holding onto. I am not always able to see these remnants physically even when there is enough light, but I do try to capture them. I am still figuring out how I am engaging in the process. Sometimes, I come upon what people have left behind by chance, but I am not always that lucky.
I captured machines in Aragane because they hint at exploring who we are as human beings, or who we are as miners. 300 meters below the ground, the mine continues to expand its path further. The machines make loud noises as they work, and supply necessities for our livelihood.
In general, I love making portraits and am constantly looking forward to what I can capture about who a particular person is, or who we are as humans by filming people directly as well as their absence.
SK: Cenote starts with a narrator saying “This is our story. And here we are.” Soon after, we see the text on the screen telling us about cenotes and their role in the Mayan mythology. The voice of the narrator is situated in the present and it feels personal while the written text feels informative as well as distant from the narrator herself. What was your thinking behind starting the film this way?
KO: The informative text was always there from the beginning. Aragane, for instance, does not include any text considering where and when the film took place didn’t affect the essence of it. Cenote, on the other hand, required more contextualization. The voice-over of the Mayan narrator does not reference her own background, so I thought it would be helpful for the audience to have some basic information both about the narrator and the subject matter of the film.
SK: In the essay film Toward a Common Tenderness, you talk about your film Longing that you never finished. You say you had “no backbone to look deeper inside” to understand the reason for the film character, Senad’s sad eyes. Earlier in the film you also say that some things you cannot resist filming, they demand it from you. What I understand from these two reflections is that while as a filmmaker you film because your subject matter is irresistible, this alone cannot be sufficient to make and finish a film. I do wonder if you struggled with similar thoughts when working on Cenote. What were the questions you asked in Toward a Common Tenderness that followed you when making Cenote?
KO: Yes, I struggle and judge myself all the time when I shoot. However, when I shot Cenote, I was more relaxed. I think it was because we weren’t following any specific person. What we tried to capture was collective memories, something that we have deep inside of us.
We did make some portraits of people in Cenote. They looked at me/camera and I felt comfortable somehow. When I filmed Senad, however, I was thinking back then that I had to make something interesting. That was an uncomfortable feeling, because it meant I was not listening or fully open to Senad himself. This feeling created one-sidedness, while Senad was kind and open, I wasn’t. I felt that I could face the people in the Cenote portraits even though it was a momentary experience. Essentially, I would like to keep learning and practicing reciprocal communications in my filmmaking.
SK: Have you had a chance to return to Yucatan to screen Cenote for the people who participated in the film, or did COVID-19 delay your plans to do so?
KO: It was difficult for me to go to Yucatan in these past two years. In March 2020, we had a Mexican premiere in Mexico City and since then I have been in Japan. We also featured the film on the local TV channel and did some screenings around Mexico. The Assistant Director visited the people we met during the filming, so we could update them and show the portraits we made of them. Just a few weeks ago, however, we had a chance to screen Cenote in Merida, Yucatan. The Assistant Director is from the region and was there for the screening. I hope I can go to Yucatan again soon to see the people and create sort of a mobile cinema with a handmade screen to screen Cenote. SK: Are you working on anything new these days?
KO: Yes. I have been working on a feature film called Underground, which is taking place in Japan. We have been researching about Japanese underground for a year now. I have filmed a bit but have still a long way to go. I am focusing on air raid shelters, sewers, war-time underground ruins, and other spaces. In the project, we try to capture the fossils left by human beings. I want to figure out what more is there to attract me under the ground after making Aragane and Cenote.
Also, I started to film a welfare facility in Aomori. I shot the workers and the patrons there for a week at the end of September. I have been editing the scenes these days and I am imagining it to become a sketch of the space. I hope to go back there soon to spend more days in the facility and see the people I have filmed there again.