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Ukiyo-e Heroes, Director – Toru Tokikawa

This was one of my favourite films and damn it – also Japanese. However in this case it focusses on a Canadian artist and immigrant to Japan. David Bull is the artist who became intrigued with the ancient art of Japanese woodcuts or Ukiyo-e. This is a complex but beautiful art form that is in decline as modern techniques have changed how artists work around the world. Bull is one of a very few remaining woodcut artists in Japan and he is looking for ways to increase interest in the art form and maintain its traditions. As part of this he partners with a younger American artist who also had an interest in the techniques. Jed Henry is the American living in Utah and two communicate primarily through Skype. Jed is an artist interested in creating images of comic book heroes and works with manga and anime styles common to Japan. He creates the images and David Bull creates the woodcuts to reproduce them in the traditional style. While following their story we learn much about woodcutting style, its limits and its qualities. We also see how these two artists have created a successful market for this traditional Japanese art form blending it with modern popular images. You can find their work and order it if you like at their website:

I recommend a visit – it’s a great site and the images are beautiful.

Tokyo Idols, Director – Kyoko Miyake

Hmm another Japanese film. There appears to be a pattern at the film festival or at least my film selection. Tokyo Idols is about a strange but growing cult of entertainers and their fans in Japan. Idols are young girls, often very young girls who are part of popular music groups and dancers who dress provocatively and attract an audience of middle aged men, knows as otaku, who literally worship them. The idols can be as young as ten years old and by the time they reach late teenage their careers are over. The hope they have is that they will attract a growing fan base that will lead to a singing career but this is not something many will achieve. The film follows one of these “aging” idols and one of her fans – a 43 year old man. He literally worships her and spends most of his money to follow her and join her for meet and greets where he is allowed a handshake and a brief conversation. He has given up real relationships to live this fantasy life. A very strange subculture and to be honest I felt a wee bit uncomfortable watching the movie as if I was part of this group of men who might be attracted to this kind of entertainment. Creepy would describe my reaction but the whole thing was fascinating nonetheless. All this is not entirely impossible to understand given the culture that guides male and female relationships in Japanese culture and the working conditions in which men in particular are often forced to live. An escape is often desired and needed. A fascinating look at a cultural phenomenon that is very different from what we might find here but not so far away from modern cultural obsession with youth and celebrity.

Recruiting for Jihad, Directors – Adel Khan Farooq and Ulrick Imtiaz Rolfson

Another example of verité documentary style. This time we are in Norway of all places and following a Syrian immigrant who is recruiting volunteers to fight for ISIS. He is very comfortable with his tactics and approach and invites the directors to follow him as he talks to members of the Muslim community in Norway, holds meetings to promote Islam and recruits young people to join the struggle. He is careful not to break laws but his activity is clear. One of the directors is also a Syrian immigrant living in Norway which likely helped him gain the confidence of the recruiter. The film makers followed this extremist over three years gaining greater insight into his ideology and work. The information gathered became more and more incriminating resulting the film footage being seized by police as evidence in cases against the recruiter and some of his recruits. The film was ultimately released but also raised issues about how the fight against terrorism can lead to threats against freedom of speech and the press. An excellent look into a dark world.

Ramen Heads, Director – Koki Shigeno

Another Japanese film and Japanese director. Not sure how this happened but I was not disappointed in any of them. This time a documentary about food, really good food. Ramen is a noodle based food that might be called the poutine of Japan. We are introduced to the current leading Ramen chef in Japan, Osamu Tomita. He has one the top prize for ramen restaurants in Japan four years in a row. We are taken into his kitchen and restaurant to learn the secrets of great ramen. We learn that this is a blending of carefully prepared noodles with just the right texture and flavourful stocks made from a variety of different ingredients. Trust me, you don’t always want to see the ramen stock being prepared but trust me, the chefs take this very seriously and the variety of styles and flavours are critical to success. The ramen restaurants in Japan are small and the queues to get in are, in the case of Osamu Tomita’s restaurant, long and the food in great demand. The whole culture around food and ramen in Japan is unique and there is much to learn. The director was there for a Q and A which was fun but his introduction to the film was best. He told us to sit back and enjoy and if at the end we felt hungry his effort in making the film would have been worthwhile. I can tell you that many in the audience were starving and looking on line for the nearest ramen restaurant.

Pre-Crime, Directors – Mathias Heeder and Monika Hielscher

Have you ever seen the Tom Cruise film Minority Report? The movie is based on a classic Phillip Dick sci-fi story in which police have the ability to predict who will commit crimes and arrest them for a “pre-crime” and punish them. Minority Report finds Cruise caught in this web of surveillance that includes not just predicting who will commit crime but also how this kind of surveillance influences product promotion and involves a total invasion of personal privacy. What this documentary shows us is that we are not all that far from this dystopian world. The online world and computerized products is collecting unlimited information about all of us and we are willing participants as we grant permission for this kind of collection. The data can be mined for any number of purposes and this includes predicting crime even who might commit a crime and where. Police are already using this kind of information to direct their own patrols and investigations. The trouble is that the data used to guide this activity is often flawed. A simple example is when you shoo for a gift for someone on Amazon, something you would never buy for yourself, and find yourself bombarded with ads for similar products for days and weeks afterward. Not too awful but the point is that the data being used to guide ads to you is flawed and incomplete. This becomes more serious when law enforcement uses flawed data to guide its actions. Often this means targeting minority communities and individuals and ignoring other crimes and crime sites. The idea of Driving While Black is a case in point but this film points to even more devious, hidden uses of private data to control our society and our police forces. Again – scary stuff. A really interesting film worth your time.

Photon, Director – Norman Leto

I was hooked by the description of this film:

Prepare yourself for a sensory overload of epic proportions.

Nothing less than the history of the universe, the formation of the stars and planets,

the origins of matter, and the daunting post-human future that lies ahead

are explored in this mind-bending experience.

All lies. This was far and away the worst film of the week and sadly my last film on the last day which left a bad taste in my eyes. The opening of the film takes us through an animated look at the origins of the universe and right through to the appearance of life. After that however the film just collapses in boring animation, themes and incredibly bad interviews with an academic who appears to also be totally bored by the questions he is asked and becomes almost hostile to his interviewer. There is a voice over narrator who speaks in monotone and is incredibly irritating. Have I done enough to put you off this one? As I left the film I muttered irritably that if I ever meet the narrator I would have to kill him. A couple of other patrons leaving with me turned and smiled agreement. Avoid this movie.

PACmen, Director – Luke Walker

A political film – what else? I was intrigued by this film and its description which suggested it was a look at how super PACs are used to win votes and drive the US political elections. One of the interesting things about verité documentaries is the risk. Directors pick a time, person or institution and get invitations to follow and observe. This is very much the technique for Brother’s Keeper which was one of the first documentaries to use this kind of approach. Many of the other films at this year’s festival used this technique to great success. This film also sought and got access to Ben Carson’s run for office in the last US Election and to the super PAC’s that supported him. In this case we are looking at Christian evangelists who tried to put together the resources to get their man nominated. Carson of course self destructed and instead of gaining insight into how super PACs have had a powerful impact on elections we see incompetence at both the level of the super PAC and the candidate. A sad but sympathetic look at Carson himself but for providing insight into the US political situation the film fails totally. Not so great unless you are a Carson fan.