Oost gives Resonate an insight into Benelux’s largest Japanese cultural and film festival .
Festival Director Alex Oost (second from right in above photo) has been with film festival Camera Japan from the beginning.
“We started 12 years ago […], me, two other guys which I knew through mutual friends, all three different backgrounds. One is German, one is Japanese, I’m Dutch myself, also [with] professionally different backgrounds, and we all like Japanese films.”
He sits across from me at a table in a café within the beautiful and historic Kriterion Cinema, this weekend’s venue for Camera Japan. Behind us, there is a Taiyaki Stand, serving cute fish-shaped waffles with fillings including sweetened azuki paste, chocolate, and in homage to the Netherlands, cheese.
Oost tells me, “we were moaning […] that there [was] nothing going on with Japanese films in the cinema, so the basic idea was okay we can start to do it ourselves without any knowledge about how to organize anything. That’s how it started.”
Fast forward 12 years and the festival is going from strength to strength. It takes place every year, with a larger venue and programme in Rotterdam (6-9 October), including films, talks, and Japanese activities, with a smaller film selection at the Kriterion Cinema in Amsterdam (14-16 October).
“I think that to keep it going you need a good team of volunteers. The event is fully volunteer-run, so that helps. There are not many people who have been there from the beginning except my co-founders who are still involved, mostly in Graphic design.[From] the rest of the team […] people have been here 6,7 years and [there are] a few new people. It’s quite an evolving group. There’s also a lot of variation among the team. Some of them have never been to Japan and probably don’t have plans to go there in short notice, others work as professional translators, […] studied Japanese or work in that field.”
Oost himself has a Master’s in Japanese Language and Culture from Leiden university.
“You did quite some research”, he tells me.
“Linkedin!” I respond, “All above board”.
“Right, it’s there of course”, he nods.
“I started my studies in 2001, and Camera Japan the first edition was 2006. Camera Japan was after.” He laughs. “Camera Japan made sure I delayed my graduation for a couple of years.”
Underlying Festival Theme
Hosted in the large cinema and events venue LantarenVenster, Camera Japan Rotterdam screened 45 different films with 14 on show this weekend at the Kriterion in Amsterdam. However Camera Japan is not simply a film festival but describes itself as a “Japanese Cultural Festival”. The festival theme this year is comedy, and visitors in Rotterdam were treated to a Comical Woodprint blocks exhibition as well as live Japanese comical storytelling (Rakugo) from Matthew Shores, faculty member of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.
“I think about 10 films out of the overall 45 selection are linked to that theme which I think is fine.” The comedy theme is not limited to just the films.
He explains, “the smiling faces that all together make one big smiley on the poster, […] in Rotterdam the Rakubo performance, the stand-up comedy, the woodblock prints, [comedy] comes back in many different parts of the festival. But the film programme as a whole should give a broad selection of what’s going on in Japanese cinema nowadays, which I think we managed.”
As Festival Director, Oost is kept busy during the event. Indeed when I arrive before the first screening he is rushing from room to room in the Kriterion, ensuring the festival goes as smoothly as possible.
“[…] Usually I don’t have the time to watch anything but this year’s edition I watched one film, a midnight screening. […] I made sure that I booked time to go to the Rakugo performance and that was very nice. Because [it’s] one of the things I’m personally interested in, […] it’s one of the special events I always make time to watch.”
Oost’s eyes light up as he explains the Rakugo performance. He continues:
“[…] The guy (Shores) teaches at Cambridge if I’m not mistaken. He [gave] some background as the performance was in English, [with] some Japanese, not too much for people to understand. He started with [an] explanation in a fun way and then started […] the proper Rakugo performance, the storytelling.”
“It was great, it was the first time I’d seen Rakugo performance in the flesh. Every year I manage to get one particular thing at the festival that I would like to see myself.”
Will there likely be another Rakugo performance at Camera Japan 2017?
“We try not to repeat ourselves from one edition to the other. Film is of course the basic component of the festival and won’t change but most of the special events are usually a one-off or we would repeat them in a couple of years.”
Festival Film Favourites
I manage to catch two films on Saturday, Toyoshima’s There is no lid on the Sea (海のふた), and Satoko’s comical The Actor (俳優 亀岡拓次). The latter had me in stitches throwing parallels between actor Ken Yasuda’s on-screen and off-screen persona.
Although the results still need to be collected from Camera Japan Amsterdam, the most popular audience rated film from Rotterdam was Nobuhiro’s Flying Colours ( ビリギャル).”[It] is a very charming movie,” Oost says, “you definitely come out with a big smile on your face.”
“During the festival I don’t watch any, hardly any, especially in Rotterdam there’s no time. In Amsterdam it’s a bit more quiet and actually I managed to watch a few. [I liked] Good Stripes (グッド・ストライプス) which unfortunately isn’t showing here in Amsterdam. […] It’s always difficult to choose favourites, it’s sort of tricky.”
“Personally I really liked The Sheep Story ( ひつじものがたり), which is an independent film. During the [film] I thought what’s going on here? It’s a really weird and absurd story, I really liked it.”
Sat in the Kriterion café, the audience is hugely diverse consisting of young, old, Dutch, Japanese, French. Two students are giggling in the corner with mint tea as they wait for the next screening. Meanwhile a young boy runs up to the bar to order coffee for his parents. I am curious of the reception Alex has had from visitors to the festival.
“I hardly get any negative feedback or people don’t tell me. […] It doesn’t mean there isn’t but generally the feedback we’ve been receiving is really positive. Audience numbers have been increasing steadily over the years, so apparently we hit a chord with some people and I think what people really like is the warm and cosy atmosphere of the festival. People feel for a weekend at least, like they’re part of a big family. […] I do feel that myself and I think that’s quite rare in a lot of festivals which tend to be a little more cooler and distant.”
The cosiness of the venue certainly helps, as well as the warmth and helpfulness of the volunteers here today. With an ever-growing festival, I ask Oost if Camera Japan has run into any challenges along its journey.
“The two biggest challenges, firstly is finance. Every year we have to apply for subsidies and try to get funding, this is getting harder every year. So we have to do it with less budget, actually this year was with the lowest budget ever. The other big challenge is time because people do it next to their regular jobs and studies. Somehow it always works, but it takes a lot of time and effort.”
“But I can see its all come together in the end,” I tell him.
[laughing] “Yes, exactly that’s the big happy moment. Actually it starts a few weeks before when you see everything coming together beforehand, all the different team members preparing the things and of course people have been talking. […] But just a few weeks before the festival you get pictures of people building the decoration, […] you hear press responses from certain films and you feel already there is a buzz going on.”
What Can be Done to Improve Japanese Film Visibility in the Netherlands?
It is clear that Camera Japan has provided a platform for Japanese film in the Netherlands. However does Oost think that there is any more that could be done to improve visibility of Japanese film and media here?
“I don’t know what can be done or should be done, because the cinema landscape here in the Netherlands changed a lot. 10 years ago cinemas were a little more daring with different programmes and I think that has changed. That also has to do with political decisions and [that] venues tend to go for more popular films. Popular films mean western movies usually, so I think it’s not only Japanese films. If you’re lucky there’s maybe one or two in the cinema, but I think it can also be noticed [by] the number of Latin-America films for example. I think they are much less than they used to be 10 years ago.”
He continues, “I would like to change that, I’m not sure how I would do that. That’s something I would like to aim for. The festival and not only doing the festival but we [also] have screenings during the year to try to change that on a very small-scale.”
For further information about Camera Japan and the 2016 programme, visit www.camerajapan.nl