Interview with Kazuhiro Soda, filmmaker of Zero presented in the section Redefining Intimacy available November 26th to December 2nd.
How did you come to make that film that is in a way a second part to Mental (2008)? Is this something you were thinking about for a long time?
Mental (Japanese title: SEISHIN) featured patients of a small mental clinic Chorale Okayama. Back then, I was interested in the world of the patients and was not very much interested in their doctor Masatomo Yamamoto, who looked sleepy most of the time. But it soon became apparent that Dr. Yamamoto was an extraordinary doctor trusted by his patients like their lifeline. I also learned that he was a pioneer who unlocked the doors of mental hospital wards in 1960's.
So Kiyoko [Kashigawi, Soda's producer and wife] and I developed our desire to make a film about him, but 10 years passed without doing anything. Then in early 2018, we learned that he was finally retiring from the practice. We thought it was our last chance to make a film about him, so we started filming without having any idea about what kind of film it was going to be.
Can you tell us about your relationship to Dr. Yamamoto and the patients? Was there an evolution in your approach and your interactions between the time of Mental and this shooting?
We became very close to Dr. Yamamoto and Yoshiko san after making Mental. Every time we visited Okayama, we had dinner or lunch together. Kiyoko's parents, Hiroko and Toshio, who are also the protagonists of our film Peace (2010), are social workers, and they started taking care of Yoshiko, too. Remember the scene when Yoshiko returned to the clinic with a man with long hair? That's Toshio bringing back Yoshiko from a daycare run by Hiroko!
In terms of the patients of Dr. Yamamoto, most of them have seen Mental and know about me and Kiyoko. When making Mental, 80-90% of patients declined to be on camera, but for Zero, it was about 50% who said "no" for filming. I felt we were much more trusted by the doctor and his patients when we shot Zero.
The film contains both melancholic and joyful moments. What was the atmosphere during the making of this film, what did you feel and want to express?
When shooting the scenes with the patients, I immediately realized that I was witnessing and recording something extraordinary. The patients have seen Dr. Yamamoto for the past 10, 20, 30 years, and these moments were possibly their farewell to the doctor. Rolling the camera, I felt their strong, complex emotions, which made me cry sometimes.
You use the term « observational films » to describe your work. How do you manage to keep your observational position and approach while being close to the people that you film heartily, with a lot of empathy?
For me, "observation" is not about being distant or a third party. It means looking and listening carefully and attentively. It's also about accepting and recording what you see and hear without being judgmental. It's an attitude that let me make a film with the materials that naturally came to me rather than I set up my own preconceived agenda and collect materials that only fit to my agenda.
So actually, "observation" and "empathy" do not go against each others at all. If you look and listen well, you could genuinely understand your characters, thus feel empathy with them. You could even say that observation is a basis of empathy.