Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Naomi Kawase, Rupture and Healing


In an essay originally commissioned for our festival brochure, Ela Bittencourt looks at Naomi Kawase‘s personal documentaries, one of our two ‘In Focus’ directors for the 2019 festival.

Naomi Kawase recorded her family passionately, at times with rancor but always with sincerity, for over thirty years. At the root of her obsession lay a double absence: her mother left her in the care of her great aunt when Kawase was a child; she didn’t know her father until her adulthood. This abandonment fueled Kawase’s experimental work in Super 8 and 16mm, in which melancholy and a desperate search for one’s origins, but also, increasingly, the affirmation of ties beyond the parental ones, became crucial themes. 

Kawase’s films revolve around her sense of dislocation and not belonging, and as such are, in essence, road movies. Embracing (1992) is a travelogue and a diary. Kawase collages images of home—sun-filled rooms, flowers, the food being cooked and served—with fleeting snapshots of cities she visits during her search for her father. The voiceover injects the film with further tension and doubt. On one hand, Kawase revels in being alive—“this may not be the place where my mother used to live,” she says in one scene, “but there’s the light and the wind”—yet on the other hand, questions her mother’s keeping the pregnancy. She then relates the final father-daughter meeting with a phone call, and ends her film abruptly, without a resolution.

This cathartic suspension carries over into her subsequent films. Katatsumori (1994) offers a rare chance for Kawase to get closer to the great aunt who raised her, but who appears to have been emotionally aloof when Kawase was a teenager. The gardening sessions, captured on film, are a rapprochement. Meanwhile, the film’s title, which Kawase invented, playing on the word, “snail,” thinking of a shell as a kind of imperfect home, hints at her perennial loneliness. She evokes it numerous times. In the short, See Heaven (1995), a song in the voiceover asks why a turtle (an animal with a shell) must be so slow, the slowness with which grief catches up to us, and of recovery, by now an established theme; and again in Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (2001), in which Kawase finds herself feeling dejected and lonely, despite her commercial success. 

If her previous films were gestures of reconciliation, Birth Mother (2006) is Kawase’s protest-film. In it, despite filming intimate scenes with her great aunt, Kawase also gives vent to the years when she felt unloved. Morbidity and pain resurge, as they did in Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth, in which in one crucial scene, Kawase gets a tattoo, even though she knows that the new permanent marks on her skin will forever evoke a father she never truly had. And so, in Kawase’s filmography, grief emerges as a potent natural force. It sweeps and propels her until, in her last film dedicated to her great aunt, Chiri (2012), it finally brings about a restoration. It is only in Chiri that we fully note the comforting hum of the film projector—a reminder that in her film-diaries, Kawase transmutes anguish and rupture into healing. 

Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and programmer in the USA and Latin America. She publishes in various publications inc. Film Comment, Frieze, Artforum and Hyperallergic, and runs Lyssaria.