Iwasa Hisaya and Olo: The Boy from Tibet

The important documentary and experimental filmmaker, Iwasa Hisaya, died on 4 May 2013. He was attending a screening of his most recent film, Olo: The Boy from Tibet, in Miyagi when he fell down the stairs of the inn and struck his head. He was 78.

Iwasa was one of a number of crucial postwar Japanese filmmakers who emerged from Iwanami Productions, a studio run by the Iwanami publishing house that mostly made educational and PR films. While producing films for an emerging Japan Inc., filmmakers like Iwasa, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Ogawa Shinsuke, and Kuroki Kazuo were hotly debating, in an informal group they called the Ao no kai, or “Blue Group,”  what not just documentary but also cinema was. Ogawa and Tsuchimoto went on to become the two pillars of postwar documentary while others like Kuroki and Higashi Yoichi became important fiction filmmakers. Iwasa was different, however, going independent like the others but treading a fine line between experimental and documentary film with works like Spring-Powered Cinema: Am I an Actress? (Nejishiki: Watashi wa joyu?, 1968).

Interestingly, Iwasa, who had experience filming television documentaries abroad, became interested in Tibet in his later years, in a way that parallels Tsuchimoto becoming attracted to Afghanistan. His first documentary on Tibet was Momo Chenga from 2002. His last film, the 2012 documentary Olo: The Boy from Tibet, actually cites that work, a relationship that is only one of many self-referential moments in Olo. Iwasa’s rather unique way of referring to cinema gives us a good glimpse of the delightful role experiment can play in his work, while also evoking aspects of the reality Tibetan refugees live.  

Self-referentiality is one of the privileged cinematic figures in film studies. Particularly under the influence of Brecht, film scholars have often treated moments when the film acknowledges itself as a film as enlightened points of self-consciousness, when not only the text but also the spectator becomes self-aware. Such knowledge is mostly thought to be progressive or radical. It is supposed to make the viewer aware that the film is just a film, thereby undermining the false consciousness of bourgeois realism and teaching viewers about its construction.

As scholars such as Dana Polan pointed out some time ago, not all self-referentiality is radical. While one might try to recuperate it as anarchic or carnivalesque, it is common to modes of comedy, and not just “postmodern” ones, given how prevalent it was in the silent era, from Buster Keaton to the Fleischers. It is thus actually a rather versatile cinematic technique, one that can serve a variety of purposes and politics, some of which can be lost when scholars insist on seeing only its political potential.

I was thinking about such matters when I watched Iwasa’s Olo at its U.S. premiere at the Tibet House in New York. From the first shots, this documentary of a ten-year-old Tibetan boy who fled his homeland alone to India when he was six and now lives at the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Dharmasala, is very conscious that it is a film. The boy, Olo, is shown running up some stairs in several shots, each with the director off-screen yelling, “Ready, start!” As the documentary progresses, Olo also reads the film’s narration on camera with the microphone in view, sometimes stumbling on the words and having to do a retake. Past the halfway point, Iwasa himself appears on screen to take Olo on a trip to Nepal to visit another refugee community, and in particular the elderly woman featured in Momo Chenga. Along the way, Olo gets behind the camera to direct the director, yelling “Ready, start!”

In fact, one of the film’s most delightful moments is self-referential, as Iwasa sits down at one point with Olo and asks how he feels about appearing in a movie. Rather than expressing nervousness about a camera following his everyday activities, Olo instead confesses he was initially worried about whether his martial arts would be sufficient to beat the bad guys. Instead of correcting this view of cinema steeped on action movies, Iwasa kindly gives him one scene to play out that role, demonstrating his kung-fu on screen.  As if returning the favor, Olo expresses his own worries that filming a movie in a far-off land may be hard on the 76-year-old filmmaker’s body. Their rapport is endearing.

Such moments of exposing the device, of revealing the filmmaking process, may indeed undermine a certain impression of reality. Some may complain that this sort of cinematic playfulness gets in the way of grave issues, such as the difficult conditions of Tibetan refugees, trying to both earn a living in a foreign land and maintain their culture, or the oppression of the Chinese state. Iwasa does give considerable time to one serious case, the jailed Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen. Olo is actually friends with Wangchen’s daughter, and Iwasa’s camera spends a day following Wangchen’s wife as she wakes up early to make bread patties which she then sells by the roadside, even in the rain. But this case as well, one could note, is self-reflexive since Iwasa is, after all, focusing on a fellow documentary filmmaker.

Watching Olo in light of its self-reflexive moments, however, makes one realize that the “reality” it is undermining is less that of some dominant ideology, than of any ideology that demands a documentary fulfill preconceived notions about reality. Iwasa may be directing Olo in some scenes (or the other way around!), but what impresses is less the role Olo is expected to play than the Olo playing those roles. He flubs his lines and makes unexpected gestures—unplanned moments that convey more about his character than any preconceived notions.

This can constitute another form of realism, indicating that Iwasa’s self-reflexivity is less deconstructing the medium than enabling a reconstruction of possible realities through the accumulation of glimpses seen through the gaps in the apparatus. The apparatus has to be visible for such gaps themselves to be recognized, indicating that self-reflexivity here, by acknowledging the constructedness of reality—its mediality—is paradoxically more realistic, not simply because it is more honest, but because it points at, though never fully captures, the world just beyond its reach.

This does not mean the film is elevating some reality in opposition to fiction. “Olo” himself is partially a fiction, since several of the figures in the documentary use fake names to hide their identities—and also those of relatives in Tibet—from Chinese authorities. Olo the boy’s reality itself is enmeshed with fictions, and not just because he (appropriately) “mistakes” a documentary for a fiction film (and vice versa). Just as the gaps in the apparatus are only visible when the apparatus is apparent, Olo’s own character best appears in the slippages that come from his attempts to perform. In fact, his ability to be both himself and his role, or better yet, his cheerfully mischievous attitude towards this whole film represents not only what is delightful about the documentary, but also the playfulness of Iwasa’s experimental cinema itself, which can extend beyond the self-reflexicity into the music (composed by Otomo Yoshihide) and use of animation.

There is certainly much that is somber in the film, such as a tearful, genuinely heart-rending narration by another boy of his escape from Tibet. And at times, especially at the end, even Olo can get a bit cloying and overly serious. As a whole, however, the parallel between Olo’s youthful playfulness and the film’s own playfulness communicates both the hope the film sees in its young subjects, as they must negotiate various roles and identities while still being themselves, as well as the youthfulness of Iwasa’s own cinema. Iwasa and Olo are in fact not too different. One just passed away, and one has a difficult future ahead of him. But in this fitting final film, Iwasa lives on in this quite playful young man.


Here are some extra links for those who want to learn more about Iwasa Hisaya:

First, an excellent interview (in Japanese) in the documentary magazine NeoNeo: Part One and Part Two

Second, a lengthy and informative - and subtitled - video of a talk by Iwasa at TED:

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