Across four films, Gaspard Kuentz constructed a radical work pushing the frontiers of anthropology and cinema. His hybrid documentaries, characterised by the issue of ritual, are intense sensory experiences that move the viewer and invite him or her to question the world. A fine connoisseur of Japan, the director completed a three-month residence at Villa Kujoyama with Yasuhiro Morinaga to prepare for their next film.
Do you see yourself more as an anthropologist or film-maker?
My films focus on topics connected to anthropology, including how we relate to the world around us. But an anthropological study is trying to demonstrate something, and I do not take this scientific approach at all. My films are often classed as visual anthropology but for me they are cinema. My work is above all a graphic work of images and sound, designed to provide an immersive experience for the viewer.
Your work as a filmmaker, even though it offers an experimental approach to fiction, is exclusively documentary. Why have you chosen to do this?
Playing with the boundaries between fiction and documentary helps to mix them up and transgress them better. In my short film Uzu, I use dramatic devices from fiction for example. However, unlike fiction, where you invent a character before looking for an actor to interpret it, the idea of the film is born from encountering a person, place or event. This was the case in particular for my first film made with Cédric Dupire, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, which depicted experimental musicians from Tokyo. I had known these musicians for several years, and it was they who somehow gave me the idea for the film.
Rituals are a theme running through your entire filmography. What do they tell us about our modern societies, particularly Japan?
Unlike mythology, which is an institutionalised canon, the ritual does not focus on saying, but doing. In Europe, there is a lot of focus on faith. In Japan or India, the important thing is not to believe or disbelieve, but to observe, in a very pragmatic way, the effect of the ritual. What recurs most in my films are rituals performed to communicate with the gods or with the dead and which comprise divination. This kind of ritual allows you to read signs in the enormous noise, the chaotic energy of the world, and give it meaning. From this point of view, I think that cinema is also a ritual.
How did the idea for your next movie come about? Saha - Le monde de souffrance (Saha – The world of suffering), which is about the journey of an old yakuza who was part of the largest crime syndicate in Japan?
The Japanese producer of my short film told me about Mr K, this 70-year-old yakuza who was sent to prison for ordering a murder. He had the opportunity to interview him while he was on the run. I have not been able to meet him, but we have been exchanging letters intermittently for four and a half years. He has spent his entire life in places of extreme insecurity, social struggles and criminal revolts. Through Mr K’s story, the film tackles this little-known post-war history of Japan deservedly, when its economic dynamics have been the most celebrated aspect up until now.
What has Yasuhiro Morinaga contributed to this project? What artistic relationship do you have with each other?
Yasuhiro Morinaga is a sound artist and has his own label, Concrete. We've known each other for a long time, especially as he was a sound designer on Uzu. While I has the idea for this new project, of course it was essential that I asked him to work with me on it. Sound is really the most important dimension of my films and our focus areas are very close.
You and Yasuhiro Morinaga had a three-month residence at Villa Kujoyama at the end of 2018. How did this stay enhance your work?
We first spent time in the village where Mr K grew up, visiting the places he mentions in his letters and meeting people who knew him. Then we went to Osaka in Kamagasaki district, Japan's best-known ghetto where daily labourers and yakuzas live. It is home to numerous political movements, associations and resistance organisations.
The next step will now be to seek funding and continue writing the film. We also intend to interpret the project in different forms, including a work of art in sound and possibly an exhibition based on the elements we collected during the residence.
This is not the first time that you have worked as a duo: your first three films are also the result of work of this kind. Do you see better with two pairs of eyes?
I made three films with Cédric Dupire: We Don't Care About Music Anyway, Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens and Prends, Seigneur, Prends (Take, Lord, Take) which we filmed during an exorcism festival in a gypsy community in Rajasthan. Being in a pair allows you to have a dialogue, to question yourself, to develop the form of a film. But for every film, all those people named in the credits are involved almost as much as me. For me, cinema is always a collaboration. It’s also about the people we film. We do not make a film about them, but with them.
With the camera as close as possible to the action and omnipresent sound and music, your films are truly sensory and immersive, almost hypnotic experiences. How does this form enlighten you?
A film must be a physical experience for the viewer. The image must overwhelm and the sound must be violent to inspire a state close to trance. Where words create a distance, sound is more animal. I make films to provoke these feelings. I have long distrusted words and my movies have often been more or less silent. I wanted to reduce this expression to a minimum. If I could use words, I would not need to make films.
Gaspard Kuentz, who won the Villa Kujoyama residence programme as part of a duo, stayed in Kyoto in 2018.
Villa Kujoyama, an artist's residency in Japan, is supported by the Institut français.
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