A few questions for the JAEFF team

Joshua Smith and Dr. George Crosthwait talk to us about making the avant-garde accessible.

9 min read

Joshua Smith graduated from King’s College London with an MA in Film Studies and Philosophy, taking modules in post-war Japanese film genres and the avant-garde, and transnational Japanese cinema at SOAS. He has worked in independent cinemas, in distribution, and on festivals, including the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, London Short Film Festival, and Vancouver International Film Festival. He founded the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival in 2017.

Dr. George Crosthwait received his PhD from King’s College London in 2019. He teaches undergraduate film studies at KCL and the University of West London, and on MetFilm School’s practical filmmaking MA course. He also works as a researcher at the Garden Cinema. He co-founded the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival in 2017 with Joshua.

Joshua Smith

How did the two of you meet? How did the idea for this festival come about?

Joshua Smith: ​We met whilst working at a cinema in London. I was producing/programming various other festivals and felt there was still work to be done on representing lesser-known work from Japan. The rest is history.

Dr. George Crosthwait

George Crosthwait: ​Joshua invited me for coffee in the Curzon Bloomsbury cafe. He asked me if I wanted to start a Japanese film festival with him. I was going through a period where I was consciously attempting to grasp opportunity so immediately said yes! Had I known the work involved in running a film festival, I would almost certainly have turned him down. How young and foolish I was then.

What drew you for the first time to Japanese culture and art? Which aspect of Japanese culture resonates the most with you?

GC: Like many people of a certain age in the UK, Tartan’s Asia Extreme series of DVDs in the 2000s introduced me to J-Horror, Takeshi Kitano and Miike, and Shinya Tsukamoto. It wasn’t until later that my perspective broadened to older Japanese cinema. My university had a fairly good film library and I made a decision to watch every Japanese film they had. This led, through Kurosawa and Ozu, to Oshima, Imamura and Shinoda. Beyond cinema, I love Japanese literature. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is a particular favourite.

JS: George is a bit older than me (as I like to remind him) so I didn’t have access to the J-Horror stuff until after the fact. I’ve actually had a long-standing interest in Japan due to familial ties. Through early correspondence and occasional visits, I became enamoured with the culture. Japan’s cinema history extends to the very beginnings of the medium itself, so there’s an abundance of movements, genres and directors to discover. It was at university, though, where my area of interest became more focused.

What is your definition of an experimental film?

GC: ​By definition, an experimental film can’t really be defined! Experimental cinema cannot exist without a mainstream cinema to depart and distinguish itself from, perhaps we would be better served to define popular filmmaking first…

JS: ​Quite right. Instead, we can think about how experimental film/artists’ moving image asks us to question modes of exhibition, film praxis and the history of cinema itself.

Do you remember when you started looking into experimentation in the medium of cinema? Was it a specific film that triggered your interest?

JS: ​For me, one (non-Japanese) film that represents the excitement of experimentation is John Smith’s Om.​ It plays with stereotypes in a stunningly simple way and transforms our relationship with the image.

GC: ​I think my interest in cinema and its more experimental forms has been a gradual process of indoctrination and it’s hard to remember specific instances. Matthew Barney’s ​Cremaster Cycle​ and Kenneth Anger’s ​Magick Lantern Cycle​ were among the first films to really pique my interest.

Are there notable differences between contemporary Japanese experimental films and those of the 60s and 70s?

GC: ​Of course! The industry, culture and technology have changed. Whilst some filmmakers do still use and experiment with celluloid, the majority of experimental film is digital. It is cheaper and easier to make a film today than in 1968, the result of which is that there is a lot more work being made. Despite this, not much of it is reaching a large audience. Remember that, in the 1970s, the likes of Nagisa Oshima and ​Shūji Terayama were household names! Well, in certain households… A definite improvement in the industry today is the amount of work being made by female artists and filmmakers. Female directors were extremely rare in Japan during the 60s and 70s.

JS: ​There remain thematic similarities that link these movements and we aim to shed light on this at JAEFF. For example, pairing Oshima’s ​Death by Hanging ​with Hikaru Fujii’s ​The Educational System of an Empire—f​ilms made fifty years apart​—​reminds us of the ongoing discussion about Japan and Korea’s delicate relationship.

How do you see your role in shaping JAEFF?

GC: ​There are only three permanent members of the JAEFF team, so my role is practically unlimited. During the festival, I host the expert panel discussion on the final day. This is my big performative moment, although everyone is there to see our guests rather than me.

JS: ​With such a small team, George and I inhabit multiple roles: organiser, producer, programmer, copywriter, promoter, publicist, business person, public speaker… I’ve been lucky to spend the past year in Japan​, ​affording me the opportunity to meet filmmakers, distributors, archivists, academics and other festival programmers. Listening to diverse voices with extensive experience in the field has certainly influenced how I approach the festival.

Tell us about your process of choosing films for JAEFF.

JS: ​We attend as many festivals and screenings as possible. Whilst we do receive submissions to the festival, it’s vital to maintain an active role in finding work that might otherwise remain unseen in the UK. Our curatorial practice is also somewhat experimental​—​certainly when we position two films together from very different contexts. We are packaging and reframing work, providing a social context to it and offering a space for communities to come together to discuss it. I enjoy seeing the cinema become an active space.

GC: ​Lots of repeat viewings, lots of meetings trying to convince the other person why we should select a certain film. Often a difficult rights situation or lack of resources might preclude us from showing a film.

Is censorship a challenge that JAEFF faces? Have there been problems in choosing films with certain controversial themes?

GC: ​Being an experimental festival, we don’t feel too beholden to censorship. Many Japanese films from the post-war avant-garde notoriously feature striking amounts of sexual violence. Whilst we wouldn’t rule out showing such a film, there would need to be a strong justification for screening it and it would require proper contextualisation.

JS: ​We haven’t had issues with films we’ve shown in the past and our partners/sponsors understand the remit of a festival such as JAEFF. We aim to represent the full gamut of counter-cultural cinema from Japan.

Audience for A Page of Madness screening in 2017

Your manifesto mentions that “JAEFF aims to make Japanese avant-garde and experimental cinema accessible to practical, theoretical, and popular audiences. There is no hierarchy amongst these three spheres.” Have you encountered any specific challenges in reaching out to an audience that is increasingly accustomed to Netflix and Hollywood blockbusters?

JS:​ We’ve found that many people are growing tired of the formulas, and we’re offering an alternative to all of that. In doing so, we’re developing tastes, fostering new audiences, and contributing to the cultural film landscape in the UK. We aim to bring the discussion about these works out of the academic echo chamber and into the public realm.

GC: ​If anything, we’ve been taken aback by how much appetite there has been for the films we’ve shown. Our first event, a screening of the avant-garde silent masterpiece ​A Page of Madness​ with live score and benshi narration, took place on a Sunday night in the basement of King’s College London. 300 people turned up! The audience and desire are already there; they’re just waiting for someone to come along and deliver the goods.

If you had to pick one filmmaker to initiate an outsider into Japanese experimental cinema, who would it be and why?

GC: ​If I can only pick one it would be Toshio Matsumoto. His ​Funeral Parade of Roses​ (1969) is a mixture of formal innovation and thematic daring. You can instantly understand how boundary pushing the film would have felt and it remains thoroughly thrilling today. Everyone who sees it immediately loves it! It’s your new favourite film! His short form work is more challenging, and often outright assaults the viewer. If you ever have the opportunity to watch ​For My Crushed Right Eye​ (1968) projected on three projectors as originally intended, do not pass it up.

JS: ​Tahahiko Iimura​—a​ pioneering figure in Japanese ​experimental filmmaking. Iimura’s work has had a tremendous impact on the development of artists’ moving image internationally, as well as Japan. It has influenced the way many think about the structure of video.

Do you have a favourite international film festival? What do you like about it?

JS: ​I recently attended the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, in Yamagata. It’s a small town in northern Tohoku and an unlikely site of film activity. However, over its thirty-year history it has become Asia’s most important documentary film event. In addition to its prestigious programme, the festival is known for the Komian Club​—​a place where the community gathers to eat delicious mountain stews, drink plenty of sake, and discuss films. It’s where new friendships and fond memories are made.

GC: ​I love ​Pięć Smaków/Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw. It’s run by lovely people in majestic Soviet-era cinemas at the start of the Polish winter. The line-up of films is always diverse and unique. The vibe is very welcoming and we get to see a lot of colleagues and friends also working with Asian cinema.

A 35mm presentation of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji, 1926) with live benshi, musical accompaniment.

How is the response to JAEFF? What motivates you to keep going?

GC: ​Responses have been amazing. It’s a tough job running a festival with scarce resources and I think the enthusiasm of our audiences is what keeps us going. Personally, Joshua keeps me going. His drive to put the festival on is inspiring.

JS: ​I would agree​—​we’re motivated by our fantastic audiences. It’s heartening to read through feedback forms in the wake of the festival and find overwhelmingly positive responses. When we’re thanked for screening a film someone has never seen before, that is very encouraging.

How do you think JAEFF has evolved since its inception? What are your plans for its future?

JS: ​We’ve grown considerably in the past three years. From our very first event—a crowdfunded, one-off screening of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s ​A Page of Madness​—​to our multi-day, weekend festival of screenings, discussions and workshops. We’ve expanded our contemporary short film programme, reached a larger audience, and increased our educational activity. Video recordings from our panel discussions can be found online, including our programme notes and audio from the festival. We want people to be able to return to JAEFF as a resource for learning about classic Japanese avant-garde cinema and contemporary experimental filmmaking/artists’ moving image.

GC: ​For the future? More events throughout the year. We’d like to increase the platform we provide to young contemporary artists, expand our workshop activity, and start commissioning work.

What is the one significant aspect of Japanese avant-garde that you think is most pertinent to present-day UK, from a social/political perspective?

JS: Filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima have provided a template to hold authorities and institutions to account—this is something to take away from the Japanese New Wave movement, especially in the current political climate. But political filmmaking doesn’t always need to actively criticise society/government, as in Susumu Hani’s case:

“I do not admire people, though I admire many persons. But I don’t like what society does to persons. It perverts them. Yet, I don’t want to attack society. I am not that kind of person. What I would like to do is ignore it. Or better, show something else. This is what I have done in my pictures, including the animal ones.”

GC: In terms of the classic avant-garde, it might be the active participatory filmmaking made by the likes of Kazuo Hara and Shinsuke Ogawa during times of protest, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think the impetus for the filmmaker to be more than a recorder/observer is something we can look to as our world becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the state of things.

JAEFF Team posing during the opening night of Nation

Further Reading

[1] An interview with Joshua Smith and George Crosthwait published in Asian Movie Pulse on September 14, 2018. Accessed on February 29, 2020.

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