Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Shinsedai Cinema Festival co-programmer, and noted Japanese cinema film blogger, Chris MaGee. As the Shinsedai Cinema Festival is less than a month away, MaGee is hard at work putting the final touches on this year’s festival. I was curious to know how he made the jump from film blogger to festival co-programmer, especially in a festival rich city like Toronto. Fortunately, Chris was gracious enough to openly share his thoughts on these things and much more. Our conversation covered everything from the current state of Japanese cinema to a festival guest with Quentin Tarantino connections. The following is part one of our two part interview:
First off, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit with us today. Before we talk about the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, I am curious to know what first sparked your love for Japanese cinema?
Chris MaGee: It was mix of factors actually. I had always had an interest in Japanese arts and culture, but I think the biggest event in terms of Japanese film came through my writing. Years ago I used to write fiction and poetry, but establishing yourself as a big "W" writer is tough. I thought that there may be other paths that I could take so I could reach my goal of writing for a living, so I ended up studying screenwriting. It wasn't what I thought it would be. What at the time seemed like a big mistake, though, ended up being just the opposite. You see, at first I was totally disillusioned by just how formulaic and cookie-cutter screenplays actually were. This has to happen on this page and such-and-such has to happen on that page, and this is all written in stone somewhere. It was a surprise. I was about to pack it in when one of my instructors said, "If you're interested in films that don't follow this structure you may want to look at Asian film." So, that's what I ended up doing, and combined with my existing interest in Japanese culture I soon found myself drawn to classic Japanese cinema like Kurosawa and Ozu, as well as contemporary filmmakers like Kitano and Koreeda. Now, there are Japanese films that are just as dull and formulaic as the ones we were being asked to churn out in screenwriting courses, but on the whole I felt like I was being introduced to a whole new world. I was. It was love at first sight.
Obviously this love for Japanese films and culture was one of the main reasons you started the Toronto J-Film Pow Wow film site. However, did you ever anticipate that film blogging would take you down the path you are on now? Especially in regards to things like the industry connections you have made, and the professional writing related opportunities you have had (e.g. editing the book World Film Locations: Tokyo).
CM: No, no, no... Not that I don't feel blessed that things have developed as they have, but I have to be honest with you -- There was never a plan. I started the J-Film Pow-Wow as a Facebook group in about 10-minutes during a break at my old job. The whole goal at that time was to find, maybe 20 people that might be interested in hanging out at a pub once a month to chat about Japanese film. Maybe have movie nights at each other's places, but that was the only intention. Once the group started though it boomed fairly quickly and soon turned into a full-fledged blog. I brought the crew together -- Marc Saint-Cyr, Bob Turnbull, Matt Hardstaff, Eric Evans and Nicholas Vroman -- over a period of time and at last count we've built a repository of over 800 film reviews. A lot of the writers have also gone on to contribute to various other publications and websites as well, which I'm very proud of. They worked hard for it.
In terms of the industry connection... Well, let's just say that you never really know who's reading your work when you post it on a blog. That and I have to say, I've had a lot of support from Japanese cultural organizations here and abroad. I was totally surprised when I'd meet producers or programmers, or even filmmakers, who had heard about the J-Film Pow-Wow. It was very humbling actually. To now get a chance to know some of these folks; I have to really pinch myself sometimes. Add to that that the community of people writing (online and in print), distributing and programming Japanese films around the globe are fairly small. I feel very lucky to have been accepted by a lot of these folks. They're almost universally a great group of people.
In a film festival rich city such as Toronto, where it seems there is a festival every week, what prompted you to make the leap from blogging about Japanese films to actually creating a film festival to showcase them?
CM: The story is that I had been invited to Frankfurt, Germany to moderate a filmmakers' round table discussion at the annual Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival. That was in 2009. It was while I was there that I finally got to meet author and film historian Jasper Sharp in person. We'd corresponded a bit, but during that fest we got to chatting and drinking a bit of beer. We both were bemoaning that the spectrum of Japanese films that were being screened in North America, at least those few years ago, was very narrow. There was either classic Golden Age films from the 50's and early 60's or there were latter day J-Horror and gore films. Now, I don't have a problem with either of those, but... Take it in terms of a balanced diet. You wouldn't want to try and live off of just salmon mousse and pizza, no matter how much you liked them. So, what we wanted to do was create a smaller festival that would showcase the kind of films that we thought were not being screened, or not being screened enough, in North America -- more hard-hitting dramas, experimental films, documentaries, a lot of films that are really hard to categorize, but that all derive from the indie film scene in Japan. Now, the independent film scene in general is often thought of as this laboratory of cutting edge talent; but I don't think people in Canada know just how especially true that is of Japan. I mean, we enjoy a fairly extensive film, arts and culture granting system in Canada that makes so much of our independent films possible. Japan, on the other hand, has no such granting system, but they still manage to produce some of the most compelling indie films in the world. These are filmmakers that literally max out their credit card or slave away cleaning offices so they can fund their films. You can't stop artists like that; and that kind of spirit needs to be celebrated.
As to why Shinsedai ended up in Toronto, a city that, you're right to say is a saturated with not just film events, but arts and culture events. Well, one big reason was because I live here. The more important reason though is because it seems like in Europe audiences are a little more receptive to these kinds of films. These films needed help getting screened here and not, say, in Continental Europe or New York City, or a number of other locales. It also helped that we had support from local Japanese cultural organizations and existing Asian film events like the Reel Asian International Film Festival.
What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome in getting the festival to where it is now?
CM: Obstacles to running an event like this are... many. Funding is always an issue, especially when you're not running a huge event. It might feel like a huge event for us working on the festival, but when you put it beside something like the Pride Parade or a festival like Hot Docs, well, we're not a huge event, but that's okay!
There's a lot of plate-spinning that goes on running the fest. A lot of juggling of duties. Just for myself there will be days when I'm skyping with filmmakers or producers, then I'm meeting with a beverage sponsor and then I'm putting up posters with the fest crew in storefronts or making a pot of rice to cater a reception ourselves. I like doing things that way though. Kind of harkens back to D.I.Y. punk rock. It's definitely in the same sphere of experience as a lot of the filmmakers we showcase as well, come to think of it.
Tune in tomorrow for part two of our interview. Advanced tickets for the Shinsedai Cinema Festival officially go on sale this Thursday.