Kaori Oda:
Films to Know People Near and Far

by Matt Turner

Film to remember the person near by.

Film to know the people far away.

Film to understand and be understood.

Japanese experimental non-fiction filmmaker Kaori Oda devotes the majority of her second feature Toward A Common Tenderness (2017) to addressing three fundamental, if potentially paralysing questions (how to film? what to film? when to film?), that when asked together might answer a fourth (why even film at all?). Throughout the feature — which is positioned somewhere between essay film and autobiography — she dissects the films she had made up to this point in her career, examining the conditions of their creation and trying to identify what drew her towards the people she had portrayed and the places she had visited so far. The reason for this investigation, it is revealed later on, is something of a creative block: not knowing what might make a worthy subject for her next film, nor exactly what it was about the previous ones that made them work. Knowing how to make good films requires working out why you want to make them in the first place, which is less a practical question than a question of praxis: without having settled on a philosophy for filming, it proves impossible to film. Speaking via email, she expands: “I think my films are my ways of trying to understand life, what we are, and how we live”, adding that “in order to think about these things, I needed to face my own inner struggles first.”[1] By interrogating her own practice in Toward A Common Tenderness, Oda tries to ascertain more universal truths too. As the film unfolds it proves not just to be an inward-looking exercise but a meditation about the medium itself, contemplating what is at risk when making non-fiction films whilst also recognising the allure.

Toward a Common Tenderness (2017), dir. Kaori Oda

By the end of the film, she reaches something close to an answer to her self-reflexive enquiries, noting that through filmmaking she has come to understand “the smallness of [herself]” and “the intensity of the world”, before condensing her learnings into a series of seemingly simple mission statements that together form a cinematic philosophy. As a piano refrain plays over an image of a tinted white circle that glows with soft colour at its fringes, Oda makes a series of short, understated, but quite profound statements: “I want to make a film to remember // those who stand next to me // to understand those who live far away. I want to make a film to understand // and be understood.” With this, she describes what it is that all of her films are effective at doing: using the camera as a tool that facilitates communication. In his 1999 book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, media theorist John Durham Peters describes two ways that modern media is often used to communicate: dissemination (the one-way transfer of information), and dialogue (a form of exchange).[2] Oda’s cinema-as-communication offers a third route, one that reaches out and makes contact. What Oda calls “understanding”, might be better understood as ‘connection’: a type of filmmaking that communicates across any number of (linguistic, cultural, geographical) divides, making the incomprehensible seem apprehensible and the distant feel near.

Thus a Noise Speaks (2010), dir. Kaori Oda

When asked about this sequence and this philosophy, she says the sentiment still rings true. “It is my way of living with the camera as a filmmaker,” she states. The roots of this thinking can be seen in her first work, Thus A Noise Speaks (2010), a mid-length essay film that is a stylistic precursor to Toward A Common Tenderness. “Noise is the most difficult film I have ever made, and I think this will always be the case”, Oda explains. “I had to make it in order to move forward.” Like Toward A Common Tenderness, it is an example of filmmaking as an act of self-inquisition that aims to foster a clearer form of expression. In this film, Oda orchestrates a series of filmic interventions, re-staging the moment that she first came out to her family—with her parents and sisters playing themselves. At first it appears as if the incident being observed might not be a recreation at all but instead a covert recording. When Oda’s mother calls her daughter’s homosexuality “disgusting”, the footage (when read this way) reflects the most perverse aspects of reality television: both in the bigotry on show and because of the conditions of entrapment that produced it. When it is later revealed that what is being watched is a fabrication, the result of a collaboration between the family members to reproduce a former reality, the effect is altered. Even if what we see is not what her family feels now, it is reflective of the anguish Oda experienced then. Made with her family just two weeks after she came out to them, the experiences seen in Noise—which play out something like experimental on-screen family therapy—would have still been fresh when they were repurposed and put to film. A set of shifting dialogues, disagreements, and developments that were still very much in motion, the camera is used as a communicative aid to negotiate the shifting family dynamics at play, aiding Oda’s own understanding of herself and those she is closest to. “It was a reckless attempt for a first film, but in the end we made it”, she says succinctly.

In Speaking into the Air, John Durham Peters offers—in contrast to a more traditional definition he provides (from Raymond Williams) that describes communications as “the institutions and forms in which ideas, information, and attitudes are transmitted and received”—the idea that communication can be seen as “the project of reconciling self and other.”[3] This fits well with Oda’s personal work, describing the way in which these reflexive documentaries — unlike some other examples of more self-absorbed ‘self-documentary’ — use the filmmaker’s own interior worlds as a site for a process of connecting with others, both (in the case of Thus a Noise Speaks at least) on and offscreen. This idea of connections between self and other is present in FLASH (2014), a short made in-between these two essay films. Featuring a variety of shots that show abstracted views from a train window, the film’s audio track consists of conversations held with individuals in the carriage, all of which seem to roam ambiently into the realm of philosophical inquiry or poetic personal anecdote. As Oda gazes out, the conversation turns inward as her collaborators either ask what she hopes to achieve by filming them, or alternatively open up about their own memories and beliefs. Refracted light, smears of dirt, blurred colours, and other obstructions mean that the view from the train is never quite discernible, the location remaining as anonymous as the film’s contributors. Who they are and where they are going does not matter; the transitory space of the train carriage becomes a receptacle for the stories of whoever it contains, the camera bearing witness to whatever words they feel it fit to share. Oda explains this idea as it applies to her practice more widely: “What I like to do is to listen to people within a set space and time, so that I can hear their voices and act as a medium for their memories. Their voices become my memories, and as an output I make my films.”

Aragane (2015), dir. Kaori Oda

This thinking informs the other side to Oda’s filmmaking. Beside her autobiographical documentaries, she has made several films in which her attention is turned to others: a series of landscape studies where people play as large a part in proceedings as the place itself. She explains how these films link with the more overtly personal ones: “I like listening to people’s traces that have piled up in the landscape, the signs and smells that are left behind. These things make me imagine all the time that has passed and that continues flowing. My goal is to capture this imprint and reconstruct it by way of a bricolage of materials, images and sounds. The landscapes and the human elements becomes a single thing: one set of beings in a space.” This is certainly the case with Oda’s first feature-length film Aragane (2015), made whilst she was studying in Sarajevo. An immersive work shot largely within the underground confines of a Bosnian mine, the film takes place almost entirely within darkness and its images share the same sort of unidentifiable quality as those seen in FLASH, but are more richly textured and offer greater visual interest. Lit only by the most slight of sources (usually the darting light-streams of the head-mounted torches attached to the miners themselves, or else shaky spirals coming from their carried lanterns) the miners are as active camera-operators as Kaori is herself. The collision of the direction of their gaze and that of Kaori’s camera causes the creation of the arresting, impressionistic images that make up the majority of the film. Their labour produces the visual action of the film, their voices, tools and bodies form the basis of the clattering soundscapes, and without the light their presence provides all her camera would capture is darkness. Yet without her though, there would be no film. The production of a film is always the result of a series of collaborations between creative parties. For Aragane, this involves a collaboration between not just the filmmaker and her subject, but also a communication with the space itself. Only when all three of these aspects (subject, filmmaker, and space) enter into a dialogue is the desired image produced.

Aragane (2015), dir. Kaori Oda

Interested primarily in the sensations of the mine, Aragane seems like it has been informed by the work coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, though Oda says she only saw these films afterwards, when viewers of Aragane kept comparing her feature to films like Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, 2012) or Manakamana (Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez, 2013). What separates Aragane from these films perhaps is the sense that the landscape here is more incidental. Oda’s interest is in the miners and how they navigate the space she is depicting, and in creating images that convey this activity. Aragane is described by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as a film that “literally reinvents [his] idea of what cinema is and can be”, but this is not because of the film’s sensorial qualities as such, but instead the feeling that there is an “abstract beauty that is complemented, complicated, and sometimes even contradicted throughout by a continuous human presence.”[4] Beyond the desire to depict a landscape is the need to transfer the human experience of it. In The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media, written 16 years afterSpeaking into the Air, John Durham Peters moves on from his analysis of the limitations of communications to look to expand ideas surrounding what media itself is or could be considered as. Working from a 19th Century definition of the word which understood ‘media’ to mean the “natural elements such as water and earth, fire and air”, he argues that just as media could be considered environments, “environments are also media.”[5] Aragane is an example of a film that is something like an environment: a container for various competing subjectivities wherein making a document of a literal space (the mine) involves the cultivation of a subjective space where the creative interactions of the miners and the filmmaker work together to produce an artistic reproduction of both their work and their workplace. It is an environment that depicts an environment, or as Oda says in one interview: “I was filming their work, and it was also my work to film them.”[6]

Cenote (2019), dir. Kaori Oda
Cenote (2019), dir. Kaori Oda

Oda’s most recent feature Cenote (2019) is a similar aesthetic experiment that shares the same interest in interactions between humans and landscapes, looking at several underground caves found across the Mexican state of Yucatan in which “fountains are formed in the layers of limestone created by a large comet fall.” Like Aragane, it is an intense and immersive film in which an impression of the place in focus is transmitted through distorted, sometimes deafening sound design and chaotic, abstract imagery. As she swims in the pools of water found within the caves, Oda’s camera dives and darts about underwater, soaking the screen in hyper-saturated inky blues that mirror the totalising blacks that swallowed up the screen in Aragane. As Oda dives down and directs her gaze landwards, green trails of light pierce the dark water, causing vivid light-leak-like impurities that splinter the screen like scratches on the frame, recalling images seen in flicker-films and referencing a legacy of avant-garde cinema that much contemporary sensorially-orientated non-fiction filmmaking borrows from. On the soundtrack, a collage of voices can be heard. Whilst many sound warbled as if heard from underwater or are otherwise made indiscernible by design, those that are audible also lie beyond immediate comprehensibility. Featuring snippets of Mayan myth or contemporary local legend, taken together they give an impression of the significance of these sites and their legacies. One source says: “nothing is forgotten”, and as such these contributions are layered not to provide a singular or linear position, but as a tapestry of interpretations of these underground caves and the conflicting histories of their formation, use and functions. As with Aragane, place is the subject of Cenote, but it is people’s interaction with that place that drives Oda’s interest. As if to emphasise this, a large portion of the film’s second half consists of silent moving-portraits of the faces of the people who live in the areas Oda is visiting. These act as a gallery of thanks to those she is indebted to: as guides to these otherwise inaccessible regions, or as interlocutors for the stories and memories that form the basis of the film.

Cenote (2019), dir. Kaori Oda

Oda says that: “It would be wonderful if my films can survive and be found by future generations of human beings.” In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters calls for media to be understood as much more than “mere vehicles that carry and communicate meaning” but instead to be considered as “vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible.”[7] Oda’s desire to be a facilitator for recording histories gets at something that is central to her filmic philosophy, which is maybe expressed clearest in Cenote, but runs as an undercurrent through all of her films. She says that she believes “we have something in common as human beings even though we live in different places, and have different thoughts or languages,” and that she hopes her “works can act something like a medium does, acting as containers for people’s memories and collective unconsciousness.” This ties back to the statement at the end of Toward A Common Tenderness which links memory and understanding, proximity and distance, and the desire to find a cinematic language capable of channeling the nuances of human consciousness. Regardless of whether they are inwardly-focused or outward-looking, all of her films pursue this idea of the camera being a tool not just for observation but for communication, offering a means through which to reach out between two divides and connect disparate distances within a fixed space and time. Earlier in that film she notes that “pointing a camera at people can be a difficult and delicate art”. She then quickly adds that “sometimes it can be very simple too.” Cinema-as-communication enables the understanding of others, helps her to understand herself, and lets her be understood.

Cenote (2019), dir. Kaori Oda


[1] Author’s own interview, all subsequent unattributed quotes taken from the same interview.

[2] Peters, John Durham (1999). Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp.33-62.

[3] Durham Peters, John (1999). Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.9.

[4] www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2018/02/notes-on-aragone-from-lisbon/

[5] Durham Peters, John (2015). The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.2-3.

[6] https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/toward-a-common-tenderness-an-interview-with-kaori-oda

[7] Durham Peters, John (2015). The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.2.

About the Author

Born and based in London, UK, Matt Turner is a writer, editor, curator, and marketer with specialisms in non-fiction and artists’ moving image. Recently he was Marketing Manager at Open City Documentary Festival and founding editor of Non-Fiction journal, a publication for creative criticism on contemporary and historical non-fiction media. Currently he is working on various freelance projects, and writing regularly for publications including: Sight & SoundMUBI Notebookfrieze, and others.

About the Writer