My Awkward Encounters on the Film Festival Circuit

The director of the documentary Of Love & Law discusses constantly having to negotiate being “othered” by well-intentioned audience members.

As a Japanese woman who spent her formative years and adult life navigating the white patriarchal society of the Netherlands and the U.K., I learned early on how not to make people feel uncomfortable with my “otherness,” even when – especially when – they are the ones who make me feel the most uncomfortable. Making (white) people uncomfortable can lead to awkward situations.

In trying to think of examples for this article, I dug deep into my subconscious. Awkward moments tend to be pushed far back into the dark corners of your mind.

I’m currently traveling with my documentary film Of Love & Law (above) and this article is about all the awkward encounters I have experienced so far at international festivals where my film has screened. I want to write about the deep-rooted issue of how films and voices from “afar” are fetishized in the West. These films hold the mirror up to the divided world we live in, where one group feels entitled to understanding the “other,” and the “other” feels wholly misunderstood.

As I reluctantly decided to lift the lid of my box of “awkward encounters,” I consulted a friend.

Friend: “Do you want to write about the time that silver fox kept bowing at you like a geisha every time you uttered a word, thinking he was being polite?”

Me: (cringing) “No, that’s not it either …”

Friend: “Is it that time when you had to tell a guy that he was being a racist because he thought all the (Japanese) characters in the film looked the same, even though they didn’t?”

Me: (cringing) “No, that’s not the one I’m thinking about …”

Friend: “Or that time when another filmmaker – a white dude from Austria – told you how he believed in capitalism and you said, ‘Yeah, because you are white and male and you benefit from the system people like you created’ and how he loved you for being ‘feisty’?”

Me: “Oh, yeah … No.”

Friend: “Is it when people compliment you on your English when they learn that you are Japanese?”

Me: “No, that’s everyone.”

And then, I hit the jackpot. And cringed some more before diving in.

So, the main protagonists in my film, Fumi and Kazu – two gay lawyers in Osaka, Japan – have a pet cat called Berg. He makes appearances when they are at home doing the mundane things couples do – cooking, lounging, pondering life and raising a family in a country where their union is legally unrecognized.

A separate yet parallel storyline tells the story of one of their clients, Rokudenashiko, an artist who was arrested twice, held in police custody for a total of 31 days and ultimately criminally charged with breaking the (arbitrary) obscenity law for making a gigantic 3D-printed canoe shaped like her own vagina.

My film follows the life of the two lawyers as well as two other cases they take on showcasing what it means to occupy a space in Japan as marginalized individuals, be it gay people, outspoken women, or someone whose existence is wholly denied by the state because they were born outside of the traditional family structure as defined by an archaic family law.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the film ends with a shot of Berg, the cat, in his newly furbished room fitted with a child safety separation (before I get accused of portraying animal cruelty, it looks like a cage, but it’s not).

I screened my film at a small festival in the U.S. which, despite its size, covered my flight, housed me and even paid a screening fee (for an indie filmmaker, I can’t stress how important it is to be paid for your work, so thank you!). The film played to a small audience of about 30 – a quarter of the theatre’s capacity and my smallest crowd to date. I was feeling humbled, so when an elderly gentleman approached me after the screening, I was delighted.

He was a decorated veteran, with badges of honor on his chest. He said he loved the film, and the courage of everyone in it, fighting for what’s right despite setbacks. We had a really lovely conversation and I thought, “This is what film festivals are all about: a place of true human connection through film.” Until, that is, he told me what he was most impressed with.

He congratulated me for making a clever connection between the pussy artist and the caged pussy at the end of the film. He winked, as if to congratulate himself for noticing something so subtle that no one else would, as if it were a secret only we shared. “Well done!” he said.

… Gasp. Followed by the sound of my heart shattering.

I was so embarrassed. For him and for me. I felt utterly disappointed that this was his final takeaway from the film I spent three years making, carefully crafting the parallel multi-narrative human stories against the backdrop of complex cultural contexts. And I felt awkward. Very awkward. I quickly shut down the conversation, excusing myself to go to the bathroom, and leaving him uncontested and feeling gleeful.

Sure, this man certainly did not mean any harm. Maybe he was just being playful and appreciative. I grew up not giving my uncomfortable feelings the validity they deserved, always making excuses like, “He didn’t mean it like that.” But the truth is, it made me feel really uncomfortable. I felt patronized and my efforts to communicate something nuanced felt invalidated.

I worried, did I portray the artist in such a way that she was reduced to “a lady who makes pussy art” and not the complex woman that she is? Did he realize how weird it felt to hear the word “pussy” repeatedly come out of an old white man, and the ease with which he spoke it to a young Asian woman? Would he have said the same thing to an American filmmaker who’d made a film set in America? Or did a Japanese film with “quirky people” in it grant him more liberty to interpret it that way? And before people tell me to “lighten up” or accuse me of not seeing the funny side to this, I have already thought about turning this into a skit called, “When an American Veteran meets an Asian Filmmaker to Talk About Pussies.”

Awkward encounters like this with well-meaning, cultured white men happen all the time. And usually only one of us is aware of how awkward they are. So, what is my role in such encounters as a female filmmaker from “afar”? I can make a stand each time and confront them. Educate them about how being unaware is part of their white privilege, unaware that for others’ life makes a little less sense than it does for them. That as a white male, they can’t understand what it feels like to be fetishized as an Asian, black, queer, immigrant, Arab or [insert as relevant] woman. They may sympathize, they may be disgusted by other men who perpetrate violence against women, they can intellectualize the rights and wrongs, but they will never truly understand what it feels like to be the subject of their gaze. I could at least make them aware of their unawareness.

When confronting such deep-rooted issues like unconscious biases and inherent fetishization of “the other,” you must try not to antagonize. It often requires revealing your own very intimate experiences with strangers just to illustrate your point. In the hope they might realize that instead of claiming to understand your experience, they should just listen and believe your story to be as relevant as theirs. Maybe I should have taken the time to explain this to this older gentleman. I tell myself, “I must choose my battles.” On this occasion, I chose to remember the good and not the bad of our conversation. How we connected through my characters and how it gave him hope to see individuals fighting for what’s right.

So why am I writing about awkward encounters and not the much greater number of positive ones? Film festivals provide the few opportunities to engage with one’s audience directly and that is precious for a filmmaker. But these awkward encounters underline the need for people to have ever more opportunities to see films that are more complex and diverse in topic and approach. We must continue to have conversations with audiences to challenge stereotypes and the constant “othering” that has become normalized.

As filmmakers, we have to be aware that we are seen in a certain light; fetishized and/or treated as cultural ambassadors of “the other” portrayed in the film. For those looking to learn about Japan, my film is a snapshot and might leave you with more questions than answers. Japanese society is one character in the film, but it’s not a film about Japan. It’s about people fighting for universal concepts like individual rights, family and love, set against the backdrop of Japanese society. If this seems like a small difference, it is nonetheless a fundamental one – it makes a difference whether we see others as people, as individuals like us, or as aliens from a strange and peculiar place.

Writing and researching for this article reminded me why I make documentaries. For all the wonderful and awkward encounters, before, during and after making films. I do believe that films allow us to connect beyond our hyphenated identity politics through stories. Films can make us realize that we are just people, divided and some with more burden and privilege than others, yet we all share the basic needs. Needing to love and be loved, to find a safe place to call home, to be together as a family, to be listened to and feel understood.

Hikaru Toda is self-shooting director and editor based in London and Osaka who works in long- and short-format documentaries. Her films have screened on BBC’s Storyville, France Télévisions, NHK, The Guardian and at major international film festivals including Hot Docs, CPH DOX and the Melbourne International Film Festival. Hikaru moved to Japan for the first time in 22 years to make her latest film, Of Love & Law; the film screens at Japan Cuts in New York City on Friday July 20.