Kaori Oda uses her documentary Toward A Common Tenderness to explore the way that cinema can be used to depict the space and feelings between people, how the camera has the power to understand and destroy what is recorded, the ethics of film-making, and her own personal journey as a filmmaker.
Originally from Osaka, Oda moved to Virginia where she studied film at Hollins University. She made her debut with the short Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), a self-portrait about her coming out as gay to her family, which won the Audience Award at the Nara International Film Festival. Following this came a period where she faced a creative and personal impasse, which resulted in her travelling to Sarajevo to study at Béla Tarr’s film.factory workshop from 2013 to 2016. Whilst studying she made a few shorts and then created her first feature-length film Aragane (2015) which depicted work inside a coal mine. It made waves at documentary festivals around the world due to its impressionistic form which Oda created by focussing on using the senses to convey the space in the mine rather than approaching the subject solely through more conventional means, such as an analysis of class. Her time in Bosnia proved beneficial as a way of overcoming personal and professional questions over using her family as the subject of her debut film. With a wealth of experience and footage to root through, Oda dives into this issue, sinuously and seamlessly. Gathering many threads, she creates a smooth stream of images and sounds, which facilitate an exploration of her own character and creative urges.
Oda’s film is deeply personal. She narrates from the first shot to the last, utilising analysis of her memories as well as extracts from others works such as “Notes on Cinematography” by Robert Bresson and Rosemary Menzies’ “Poems for Bosnia” to frame her search for the wellspring of her creativity and how and why she wants to film people.
A lot of footage is drawn from a variety of sources, the most affecting taken from Thus a Noise Speaks where we see Oda’s mother crying in a moment of emotional vulnerability. Tightly framed, it is highly intimate. Oda’s camera persistently films the woman, doggedly hovering in her face as she records a raw reaction to get material. The camera positions itself between mother and daughter and its proximity seems to violate private territory. It is a powerful sight and one can imagine it haunting Oda who admits in her narration she would never do it again, perhaps regretting the way she used her camera to translate the emotions of everyone in the film at the time.
It is sort of like an inciting incident, a ghost that she has to confront. As she recalls this and other moments from her memories, she questions the power of the camera to capture a presence, to cement people’s connections in film or shatter them, something she contemplates as she attends film school.
Bosnia, Sarajevo, the mine and myriad of remote villages in mountains and valleys she bravely explored whilst studying forms the majority of the geographical landscape shown on screen but the space of Oda’s memories and emotions that she travels through expands the world and gives the documentary its structure and potency. She bravely talks about her moments of solitude and the warm connections she made with people wholly unlike herself in her search for subjects. She encounters Roma people, coal miners, and others who take her into their lives and offer kindness and secrets. She is aware of her status as an outsider and the difficulty in communication, a Japanese woman with a camera and a small dictionary in remote areas of Europe, but she touches her subjects and they do the same to her. Oda’s position allows her freedom to investigate their lives in depth but in the process she feels the weight of trust and begins to look at the responsibility filmmakers face in how they represent others from different cultural and economic backgrounds. Seeing others in this light allows her to zero in on her family and then herself. By having clips of messages from her family interspersed between encounters in Bosnia, we see the evolution of her understanding of her career and what drives her creative passions, and a new sympathy is born for herself and others.
For Oda, film is about people, finding signs of life in spaces caught on film and she does this through poetic visuals that capture the essence of a person, often seen in close-up, and layering thoughtful narration to proceedings as she gains a sense of the beauty, fragility and preciousness of human connections and the desire to preserve them on camera. This is best illustrated when she shows Aragane to the miners and films the audience, herself amongst them. Pensive, she looks on. The results are warmly received but we empathise with her vulnerability in this moment.
It is an honest film that lays bare personal history and the creative process. Oda matures on screen as she bravely and unflinchingly looks back at her journey and finds her voice through thoughtful analysis that leads her to recognise how becoming an artist and a person involves others. Toward a Common Tenderness will inspire audiences to think about film in new ways and explore their own ideas of media.
Toward a Common Tenderness was shown on July 22 at JAPAN CUTS.