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The magic of Japanese cinema from Director and co-founder of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival, Joshua Smith

[Joshua Smith addresses the crowd at JAEFF 2018: Youthquake. Photo by Andriana Oborocean]

Joshua Smith is the Festival Director and co-founder of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival. Alongside Dr. George Crosthwait, Joshua was able to turn his love for Japanese film and art into a passion project that has grown and expanded tremendously since its inception just two years ago. From hosting intimate one-night screenings, to the nearly sold out introductory festival, Joshua and JAEFF have seen a lot of change in a very short period of time.

JAEFF’s second iteration, dubbed Nation, will be held in London from 20-22nd September. Focusing on national identity, cultural memory and perceptions of history in Japan, the weekend will see film screenings with introductions and Q&As, a panel discussion and a free filmmaking workshop at the MetFilm School. With Nation quickly approaching, I sat down to discuss the impetus for Joshua’s turn towards the East, and to find out what it takes to run a fledgeling film festival in 2019.

Jordan Brooks: What was the inception of your interest in Japanese cinema, culture and art?

Joshua Smith: I have family in Japan, so I’ve had a long-standing interest in the culture. It wasn’t until I went to university, though, that I really began engaging critically with Japanese cinema. Studying film and literature afforded me a deeper appreciation of Japanese arts, history and culture. My entry point into Japanese cinema, like many, was through the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Takashi Miike and Nagisa Oshima. I was particularly drawn to Oshima’s work, so I started to explore other films made during the post-war era. JAEFF is a continuation of that research into this exciting period in Japanese cinema history.

Jordan: JAEFF, like the Japanese avant-garde cinema movement itself, has been very focused on the cultural and social turmoil of Japan during the 1950s-70s. What draws you to this period of filmmaking, and what lines can you draw to what is happening in the present day world over?

Joshua: It’s a particularly exciting period of filmmaking precisely because of the cultural and social turmoil at that time. Art in turmoil is raw, unflinching and invigorating. Filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Masao Adachi, Seijun Suzuki, Toshio Matsumoto and Shohei Imamura were unabashed in their critique of government, society and, indeed, dominant modes of representation in film. Right now, we’re witnessing another period of social and political upheaval around the world. In addition to the post-war era, the JAEFF programme includes contemporary artists’ moving image work that aims to understand our world today. We also hope JAEFF will inspire a new generation to pick up their cameras.

Jordan: How did you land upon the theme of Nation for this year’s festival? What does it mean for you to be able to bring the national identities, cultural memories and histories of Japan to a largely Western audience?

Joshua: In these tumultuous times, we felt that the programme theme should reflect—and participate in—the dominant sociopolitical discourse. Our audience can, through the films we present this year, find similarities in the rhetoric of post-war and present-day Japan, draw parallels between its imperialist past and our own [Britain's] history of empire, and identify familiar debates emerging around the globe. Reflecting on these shared histories can offer a way of understanding the current climate both at home and abroad.

Jordan: The exhibition rights for Japanese films are notoriously hard to acquire, what is one film from Nation that gave you the most grief, and what is one film that you’d love to show if you could have the rights tomorrow?

Joshua: The difficulty is not only in acquiring the rights but in finding a print that isn’t damaged, that has subtitles available (or if not, getting them made), that can be transported safely to/from Japan and that can be screened at the venue. With artists’ moving image work, we’re usually in direct contact with the filmmaker(s) so that eases the process. The first film we ever screened, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Page of Madness (1926) required two 35mm projectors - it could not be cut and spooled. There are only a handful of venues in London that have twin 35mm projectors. Luckily, we were able to find one.

[Nagisa Oshima’s capital punishment satire, Death By Hanging (1968). This quietly surreal piece tested widespread notions on the death penalty at the time, and retains much of its power some 50 years later. As the closing film of the festival, DBH will screen alongside Hikaru Fujii’s The Educational System of an Empire, at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 22nd September at 6PM]

I would like to show more work by the great documentarian Ogawa Shinsuke. We screened Forest of Oppression (1967) last year, which was really well-received. Work is being done on making Ogawa’s filmography more widely available but digitising, restoring and subtitling is an expensive process that requires willing sponsors. I am also keen to present more of Toshio Matsumoto’s work - the Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive is a fantastic resource for this.

Jordan: You’ve started a film festival from the ground up, and rising to that challenge, ticket sales at JAEFF 2018: Youthquake nearly matched capacity. Has the success of year one added pressure in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise imagined? How have you risen to those challenges, and what bar are you setting for yourself with Nation?

Joshua: I am really pleased with the turnout last year. It showed that there is clearly an appetite for the kind of films we screen at JAEFF. I feel that each edition of the festival should be distinct from the last, offering a unique experience to new and returning audience members. So in that sense, there is some pressure, but it motivates rather than discourages. We look closely at the feedback from each event and try to improve where possible. We’ve expanded our short film programme this year and will host a filmmakers’ workshop for those interested in making short and/or experimental work.

Jordan: After spending so much time planning, organising and pouring over a film festival, do you get to enjoy yourself at the event proper, or does your celebration start after the closing ceremony?

Joshua: The work continues throughout the festival weekend and immediately afterwards—returning films to Japan, collating feedback forms and providing reports to our funders. But, there is a moment just before the closing film ends when George and I toast our hard work in the foyer with a glass of sake.

Jordan: Working so closely with your festival producer, designers, assistants and volunteers, you must find that there are challenges in dealing with each person; what is one thing that you think that they find challenging about working with you?

Joshua: They might say I obsess too much over small details, but they’re kind enough to humour me over things like punctuation, logo placement and timing sheets. Also, I thank George’s pragmatism for keeping some of my more grandiose plans in check.

Jordan: If you could eliminate one task from the planning of JAEFF 2020, what would it be and why?

Joshua: Funding applications! Despite being a totally necessary part of organising a film festival, they are quite time-consuming…

Jordan: What is the worst thing an audience member can do during a Q&A, and why? Do you have a good example of this?

Joshua: The clue is in the name - ask a question! You can save your script idea for our filmmakers’ workshop. I don’t have an example of this from JAEFF as all of our audience members are very well behaved.

Jordan: Is JAEFF your final stop, or can the world expect to see Joshua Smith expand into other areas within the sort of boundless arena of arts curation?

Joshua: Of course, we’re limited by the number of classic avant-garde films we can work with, but artists’ moving image is an ever-expanding field in which to explore. Quite simply, I’d love to continue presenting work that challenges and excites to as many people as possible.

Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival
Friday 20 - Sunday 22 September
Various London Locations
Tickets and info: jaeff.org

[Paul Schrader’s striking and colourful Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) opens JAEFF 2019: Nation, preceded by Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism (1966), at 6PM Friday 20th September in the Barbican Centre]

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