Interview with Kaori Oda, filmmaker of Cenote presented in the section Exploring Nature, available from November 12-18
In all the descriptions of your career (including ours!), it is usually mentioned that you studied with Béla Tarr. How did your relationship with filmmaking start, and how did you come to study with him?
Basketball was my passion in my youth, but unfortunately I broke my right knee. I had two big operations but it wasn’t possible to keep playing at a high level. The doctors said NO to me! So I was completely lost, because the only thing I knew in life was basketball. I decided to go to the US to study. I thought that if I moved, something might change in my life. I took a film course, and that was the first encounter with filmmaking.
I made my very first film with my family in 2010 (Thus a Noise Speaks). It’s a self-documentary made by my real family and myself about coming out as gay. The idea was to use filmmaking to communicate with my family and face the fact that they could not accept that I was gay. It was a really tough experience, but I learned a lot from it. I started to see and use the camera as a tool for communication, or the act of perceiving what is in front of camera. For understanding the relationship between myself and the subject (people/space).
I was able to screen my first film in the student section of the Nara International Film Festival in 2011, and there I met Kitagawa Shinji, the person who more than anybody else understood my filmmaking. He was the programmer of the section. The film won an audience award and we kept in touch afterwards. Later, he wrote me an email that there was going to be a new program in Sarajevo to support young filmmakers from all over the world. I was very much lost at that time, because it was very difficult to make my next film after a self-documentary by which I had confronted the biggest conflict in my life. I decided to apply to the program, which meant moving to a new place and meeting new people. Luckily, my application was accepted. Bela once told me that Thus A Noise Speaks was the reason that I could join film.factory.
How did you become interested in cenotes? Was it from a mythical perspective, an ecological one?
After I made Aragane, shot in a Bosnian coal mine, my colleague at film.factory Marta Hernia Pidal and I were chatting about what we would like to shoot next. Vaguely, I answered water and light in the water were the next things I would follow. We went back to our home countries after a few years in Sarajevo, but didn’t forget the chat we had. Marta told me about cenotes and sent me some photos of them. One of them showed a big, dark cave with only limited sunlight from above, with a boy playing in the water. It triggered my curiosity and I started to research cenotes in Japan while saving money for a trip to Yucatan, Mexico. Gradually, my interests turned to myths and legends related to cenotes, and I started to connect them with collective unconsciousness.
Since you're not from Mexico, could you tell us more about the filming process, and how you worked and interacted with the people from the region? Especially as someone who's not from there, and obviously not making an educational film about cenotes.
The crew for this project were me, Marta, and her friend, a filmmaker from Yucatan. We asked him to find local guides everywhere we went, and I can say that those guides made this film possible. They introduced us to local people, explaining that we would like to make a film about cenotes and that we were looking for stories about them, especially personal ones. Whenever we found someone who could tell us something, we went there to listen to them. If it was someone who spoke Mayan, the local guide helped us translate to Spanish, and then Marta would translate to English for me. I asked the people who kindly gave us their stories if it was okay to film their faces, because I thought they were beautiful and spoke to us a lot.
Our languages, where we were born and grew up, what we have faith in, or our appearance are different but I felt that if we tried to listen to what they have to say and be sincere about what we felt from the experiences we had diving in cenotes, we could find something in common.
The film has a very free-floating structure, moving from complete immersion underwater to exploration of nearby villages, from a very concrete relationship with nature to testimonials and mythical considerations. Did you have such a concept from the start, or was it entirely built from editing?
It was entirely built from editing. I operated the cameras myself – an iPhone in the water and 8mm on land. I shot things I was attracted to, but I was really not able to think about what I was shooting while shooting, in terms of the role of the shot in building a film.
All I knew was that we had to have images, sounds and voices that expressed the flow of time, and some moments that intersected the perspectives of the living and the dead.
The film uses multiple voiceovers. Could you tell us more about those and your writing process?
My writing came when I was back in Japan after the second filming trip. I had the idea that, somehow, we should treat the voice as plural form: WE/OUR/US, because I realized that one of the themes of this film is collective unconsciousness. Also, books I read about Mayan genesis, it was said that twins went through the big water, which was connected to the afterlife, to fight with evil. The image of twin figures left an impression on me.
After reading those books and the transcripts of our interviews, I decided to write from the perspective of the sacrificed. It is indeed impossible, but to give more than a passing thought to them made me reconnect with the cenotes we visited, and reminded me of the sensations I felt there.
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