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Documentary Film Festival Brings the World to Yamagata
An Interview with Interpreter Yamanouchi Etsuko

Every two years, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival attracts cinephiles from all over the world. What draws them to a festival in a small city largely unknown outside Japan? interviews interpreter Yamanouchi Etsuko, who has taken part since the beginning.

Yamanouchi Etsuko

Yamanouchi EtsukoJapanese-English interpreter. Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1954. Spent an exchange year in Canada while majoring in English and American Literature at Keiō University and has subsequently lived for more than 25 years in Vancouver. Completed a master’s degree in the sociology of education at the University of British Columbia, addressing human rights issues and indigenous movements from the perspective of an Asian immigrant. Taught interpreting as a senior instructor at Simon Fraser University; has also taught at the Japanese Language Institute. Has taken part as an interpreter in the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival since its inception. Her book about the festival, which she is currently translating into English, was published by Ōtsuki Shoten in September 2013.

The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, or YIDFF, Asia’s first international documentary film festival, has been held biennially since 1989. In contributing to the promotion of documentary films, the festival has won cultural prizes within Japan and has built itself a global reputation. The number of entrants in the competitions has swelled from 260 in 1989 to more than 1,000 in the most recent festival in 2013. asked Yamanouchi Etsuko, who has participated as an interpreter since the YIDFF was launched, what it is that draws so many people to a festival in one of the country’s smaller regional cities.

A Sense of Unity

Yamanouchi’s first time working at the YIDFF came about as a result of a coincidence. A language-services agent she was registered with was asked to supply interpreters to the festival. She recalls: “In 1989, I’d never interpreted at a film festival and I’d never thought very much about films or documentaries. So for me, getting work at the first YIDFF was really like pearls before a swine. I didn’t understand all the films that were shown, but I could sense the tremendous determination of the directors.”

At that time, documentaries did not have full acceptance as a genre in Asia. Directors fought a lonely battle to get their films made. “There have always been budget problems and endless other difficulties when making a documentary. But the directors don’t give up, because there are issues they want to address,” notes Yamanouchi. “These are people who call a spade a spade, and who really work to probe deep into the heart of things. And the YIDFF is a place for them to come together—somewhere for people to listen to minority voices, rather than just going along with dominant cultural forces, and think about what individuals living in a society can do to solve its problems. What captivated me about this festival was the similarity between its worldview and what I have been striving for.”

Yamanouchi was not the only one. Many at the YIDFF felt the same sense of unity. “Filmmakers who’d put everything they had into their documentaries met others in the same situation. This helped to reinforce their conviction that they were doing the right thing—that they should keep at it. The YIDFF is that kind of event.”

Yamanouchi interpreting at the YIDFF International Competition. (Photograph courtesy YIDFF.)

Drawing the Line on Filmmaking Ethics

Documentaries can be defined in different ways. Some revolve around interviews, while others are shot in the same way as fictional films. There are also an increasing number of “self-documentaries” based on casual shooting by directors of events around them.

On November 18, 2013, Yamanouchi and Hara Kazuo, director of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, discussed documentary films and the YIDFF at a follow-up event at Uplink in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Yamanouchi describes the variety of the genre: “There’s no such thing as perfectly objective reporting, so even documentaries that appear objective are always affected by the director’s point of view. Ten different directors will treat the same social phenomenon in ten different ways, producing ten different films. To put it the other way around, though, I believe it’s the very strength of that individual vision that makes it possible for a film to speak to a large number of people.”

However, translating that vision to the screen is not a perfectly transparent process. “The camera has a large presence in documentaries. The people being filmed—and, of course, the people filming—are always aware that it’s there. Sometimes there can be a conflict about what is or isn’t OK to shoot.”

Although Yamanouchi is fascinated by documentaries, she admits to having some misgivings. One example is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, winner of the Prize of Excellence (the Mayor’s Prize) at the 2013 YIDFF. Shot from the perspective of the leaders of a death squad in Indonesia, the film has been praised for shedding light on the deeper layers of the human psyche. Yamanouchi says, though, “If I’d been someone who’d suffered at the hands of these men, the film would have left me shaking with anger.” Nonetheless, on hearing Oppenheimer talk, she was able to understand where he was coming from.

Anwar Congo (background), a death squad leader who admits to having killed 1,000 people, reenacts the scene of an actual massacre. The Act of Killing opened in Japan in April 2014. © Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS, and Novaya Zemlya Ltd., 2012.

“What Oppenheimer is asking is how much we differ from the killer, Anwar Congo. He gave a detailed explanation of how he wanted to show the darkness inside everybody. And he had a strong desire to show a page of history that had been taboo until now. I could tell from his words that he had wrestled with the ethical questions and had undergone some desperate soul-searching while making the film. The appeal of documentaries is this kind of sincerity from filmmakers.

“We use different methods, but the act of conveying people’s thoughts is the same for interpreters. It’s not simply a case of lining up English words in place of Japanese. You have to understand the meaning of what you’ve heard and then communicate it. There are similarities between making documentaries and doing what I do.”

Yamanouchi says that this is not a job that can be done without emotional engagement. “When I’m interpreting, I can’t nullify my feelings about a film that I was watching together with the audience just a few minutes earlier. The best part of my job at the YIDFF is that interpreters are also expected to participate as human beings.”

Traditional restaurant Kōmian is the gathering place for guests, filmmakers, and locals from 10:00 in the evening until the early morning hours each day during the festival. (Photographs courtesy YIDFF.)

  • [2014.04.17]
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