An Outsider Eye Inside a Mental Institution
— Interview by Ruth Berdah-Canet
Kazuhiro Soda, Japan born and NY based filmmaker, could very well be the symbol of this daring and talented new generation of filmmakers the documentary industry desperately needs. For his second observational work, his independent spirit brought him behind the closed door of a mental institution in Japan.
- Did the little Kazuhiro Soda always dream about becoming a filmmaker?
No, I wanted to become so many different things. I first wanted to become a baseball player but I grew up and got bored. I then turned my interest on the stars and planets and I even built a telescope. Yet again, I got bored and moved to computers. I programmed video games when I was 12 or 13 years old and sold them to magazines to make a little pocket-money. But, I got bored again! After that, I was really interested in the English language and wanted to become an interpreter, but guess what happened… I got bored! It wasn’t until I was 21 years old that I wanted to become a filmmaker.
- How did you come to the idea of making Mental?
When I entered Tokyo University, I became the editor in chief for the university’s newspaper. It was a left-wing paper and I thought I could change the world by using my pen. I had a lot of responsibilities for the newspaper and worked, worked, and worked. I came to the point where I did not sleep for days, and I found myself unable to do anything. When I tried to write an article, I felt like throwing up. I immediately thought I had a mental problem, so I went to see a psychiatrist on campus who told me “you have the burn-out syndrome,” which made sense to me. I quit the job on the spot and took the first train back to my hometown in Tochigi-ken, and slept for days. I recovered in one week, but I never returned to the paper. This experience really changed my perception on mental illness. I used to think mental patients were like aliens from other planets, and I had nothing to do with them. But in fact, anybody can be mentally ill.
- This inside look into a mental institution takes us behind the stage and excites our curiosity. What did you want to unveil by doing this documentary?
I always felt like there is an invisible curtain which divides “the healthy” and “the ill.” The world of the mentally ill is right there, but people pretend that there’s not such a thing. It’s a big taboo. So, I wanted to get rid of the curtain and see what is going on behind it. Basically, I visited the clinic as an outsider, met with all these people, then left. And what I tried to do was to recreate my experience in the cinematic reality so that the audience could feel as if they visited the clinic themselves. People can have this virtual experience and freely interpret it in their own way. This is the concept of my “observational documentary.” But it doesn’t mean my film is objective. Actually, because I created my film through my own point of view, it’s very subjective. However, because I don’t use any narration, music, or super-imposed titles, the viewers are not forced to see the film in a certain way. My film is open to many different interpretations.
- Recently, documentary films’ popularity has increased. Michael Moore produces almost one documentary per year. Yet they fall into a different category than your work. You seem to make a specific point working harder to avoid giving too much info…
That is true. Moore is a very skillful filmmaker but his documentaries are flat because they are made to convey his message. It is almost like a thesis. He comes up his message first, and then he collects the evidence to prove he’s right. But I am not a teacher or a crusader. I start from the opposite end of the process. I see and observe what is going on and I gradually find my theme, I don’t find my theme until 3-4 months into editing. I want to return to the original idea of documentary filmmaking. My main influence is Frederick Wiseman, who is a champion of “Direct Cinema” documentary. The world is too complex to be described only in black and white. There are no absolute good guys and bad guys. We are all very complicated and this is what fascinates me. I try to depict the world as it is through my point of view.
- These people in Mental are very engaging, and you have to feel compassionate for them and the social challenges they face. How did you detach and go back to a “normal” life?
When I operate the camera, even if I am listening to everything my subjects say, I am also wondering if I have a good angle, a good light… So, I don’t get too absorbed in the conversations. I was also trying to keep a little distance at all times; even if I was really tempted to become like best friends with them. But it was tougher to do so than when I was making Campaign, my previous documentary, where I was successful at being invisible or “a fly on the wall.” Nobody cared about me. But at the mental clinic, the patients kept talking to me while my camera was rolling. They would not allow me to be invisible. I was puzzled and did not know how to handle it, and if I should include this interaction or not in the movie. But, the essence of the documentary is the relationship between the camera and the subject, so I decided to include my presence in the film.
- You are always on the fringe in the movie between healthy and non-healthy people. The cross-over is so easy.
Yes, and it was OK for me operating the camera, but for my wife who listened to the patients beside me without a camera, it wasn’t. She’s not a filmmaker but she was there to help me out. She was very affected by the experience during the 30 days we shot at the clinic. She became sick and even made an appointment with Dr. Yamamoto (the doctor in Mental)! I was worried as a husband, but a bit excited as a filmmaker. What a bad husband. I tried to shoot her consultation with the doctor, but she refused! I missed possibly the best scene. She’s totally recovered now, though.
- What is your next curiosity?
I am shooting my next movie Theater (working title) which is about a playwright Hirata Oriza and his company Seinendan. I’ve already shot over 300 hours of footage. I don’t know yet what kind of movie it’s going to be, but I will find out during the editing process. When completed, Campaign, Mental, and Theater could be a trilogy. Campaign depicted the core of the Japanese society and the people who represent the social values. Mental is the opposite, it’s about the people at the fringe of the society, the ones who cannot accept the mainstream values. But in Theater, the artists are the subjects. They’re not at the core or the fringe of the society. They’re somewhere in the middle. It will be very interesting to see the three films together side by side.