"Ten Commandments" of Observational Filmmaking
I have made ten feature length documentaries so far using the same method and style. I call them "observational films" not only because they are inspired by the tradition of observational cinema, but also because I believe in the power of observation.
When I say "observation" in this context, I do not mean maintaining a distance from my subjects or being a neutral third party. On the contrary, it is about looking and listening attentively. Furthermore, there are two aspects to observation.
Firstly, I as a filmmaker closely observe the reality in front of me and make films according to my observations and discoveries, not based on my assumptions or preconceptions I had before I shot the film. Secondly, I encourage viewers to observe the film actively with their own eyes and minds.
In order to realize these two aspects, I came up with these "Ten Commandments" for me to follow. They are:
1 No research.
2 No meetings with subjects.
3 No scripts.
4 Roll the camera yourself.
5 Shoot for as long as possible.
6 Cover small areas deeply.
7 Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
8 No narration, super-imposed titles, or music.
9 Use long takes.
10 Pay for the production yourself.
These policies were conceived based on my frustrating experiences as a television documentary director before I started making films.
As a television director, I was required to do a lot of research and to write detailed scripts before shoots. I felt this process made it harder for me to discover anything beyond my imagination and expectation because I was bound by my own knowledge, preconceived notions, and plans. I was also forced to explain everything to the viewers by including narration, super-imposed titles, and music, all of which seemed to obstruct the viewers from really observing what was on screen.
In other words, I found that these practices prevented me from making documentaries with eye-opening discoveries for both the audience and myself. So I decided to do the opposite.
One of Soda's books Why I Make Documentaries - On Observational Filmmaking is now available in English.
“What is documentary?” “Why do I make documentaries?”. Soda Kazuhiro – one of the most prominent Japanese filmmakers, who has based his documentarist career on a radically independent filmmaking method, – writes this reflexive diary on his own work pursuing to find answers to these and to other crucial questions that arose along his long path of research. This first curated English version of his most enlightening and complete text has been enriched with a brand new iconographic apparatus from Soda Kazuhiro’s movies and a new updated introduction by the author himself.