SolPix Interviews
   An Interview with Kayoko Mitsumatsu
   by Michael Neff

Kayoko Mitsumatsu has written, directed, and produced dozens of feature documentary programs for NHK, Japan's National Public Broadcaster. Her programs include "First They Killed My Father" (based on the bestselling book from Harpercollins, about a Cambodian survivor of the Pol Pot regime), International Emmy-nominated "Jyakuchu: Magical Artist of Edo"; "Stolen Vermeers"; "Child Abuse"; "Class Action Against Petrochemical Corporation" -- to name a few. Currently she is working on documentaries on Alzheimers, TIVO and--for the world market -- "Lost Islands of the World and the Women Who Speak for Them," and "Betrayed by the Rising Sun: The Comfort Women of the Imperial Army during World War II." Prior to moving to the US, Kayoko was a producer/director/ reporter for NHK in Japan; and cultural attache at the Embassy of Japan in London.

NEFF: Kayoko, let's get my profound question out of the way first. How has documentary filmmaking evolved over the past twenty years in terms of content, and relevancy to viewers? Has their been a change in role, or are things fairly status quo?

MITSUMATSU: I think documentary filmmaking for television has changed drastically over the last two decades. To me, it seems individual story telling has taken a back seat to corporate-driven story telling -- but with lower budgets!

My latest experience in the US market was in pitching a documentary series Lost Islands: Six Islands, Six Intimate Portraits, Six Communities In Jeopardy. It is a fascinating look at six islands of the world, all whose stories have been forgotten or neglected, but yet are a source from which to look at our world. These include the Bikini (Marshall) and Sapelo (Georgia) islands, among others.

When I took this proposal to US, UK, and Japanese major broadcasters and production companies, they all said, "we would have funded if this was five year ago." Their reaction indicated to me that research-oriented, controversial, minority stories are not that welcome any more.

My good friend and producer of documentaries BBC left that company, as they were shifting from serious big scale documentary to the 'docu-drama' type -- low budget entertainment-oriented documentaries. This transition is a shame -- I remember the wide variety of documentary programs about Gulf War in England when I lived there a few years ago. I was so impressed with the different approaches and views that BBC supported. While I assume this can still happen at the BBC, I think it is less so.

In the US, I think that cable, the digital explosion and new technology have created more channels, and therefore given chances to a lot of independent, low budget documentary projects. But in many cases, it's on the producer's shoulders to fund the initial research and filming, and this can be a huge burden. The big projects are very limited in both topic and diversity -- so someone like a Michael Moore stands out in US with his individual style and themes.

I came to documentary filmmaking in 1984 at NHK (Japan's National Public Broadcaster) as a producer/director, freshly graduated from college in Tokyo. That was the year when NHK started Satellite Broadcasting in Japan. The net impact was that NHK, then the largest broadcaster in Japan, gained two more extra television channels, totaling four channels.

At that time, NHK produced a lot of personal stories with very individual directorial approaches. In the last twenty years, the company has shifted to more globally-oriented topics in its documentary programs. However, NHK is still very unique in that they still fund many documentary programs reflecting a variety of stories. But the trend is definitely toward less controversial stories.

We will see what the new technology can bring during the next decade, but it is definitely providing more chances for anyone to film with digital technology for less funding. I truly hope to see more variety of views, approaches and stories in the world of television documentary.

NEFF: How do you weigh market considerations at this time with your passion for heroic filmmaking?

MITSUMATSU: Based on my experience pitching documentary ideas to US outlets, market considerations are extremely important. Basically will not buy unless the market is considered -- unless you're a big name.

As an artist, I personally do not tend to think "commercially" -- so often I find my projects less marketable. In these cases, I have to think of some twist to make the idea more "mass" oriented.

As an alternative, I can always find a funding source who supports my projects -- and do low-budget independent productions. But this takes a lot of commitment and I'm not always up to it.

NEFF: It's obvious that you are a champion for good -- a rare and gifted kind of artist. You obviously feel very strongly about the various documentary topics you choose to involve yourself with. So how do you choose?

MITSUMATSU: The films I develop and/or direct have been stories that either move me or disturb me. There is always a sense of "who else will do it, if I don't?" -- maybe even an arrogant sense. I have to feel that the film will have a unique story, one I can work on given my personal back ground and my personal interests, and one that if I know nothing about, that I can feel comfortable learning about.

First They Killed My Father was a good example. I met a powerful Cambodian Refugee Loung Ung, and heard her speak about her ordeal during the Pol Pot regime. That moved me so much, that I just had to try to make something happen. It took three years for me to pitch to NHK -- but it got made at the end.

I think it is all about how I am moved with the story that drives me to make a decision -- not with the intent of being some kind of hero but simply to share untold and valuable stories with the widest audience possible.

NEFF: I can't recall the name, but I do recall the suffering inherent in that documentary film about the plight of Afghani women under the thumb of the Taliban. That film had a profound effect on many people. Do you feel one proper role of documentary filmmaking should be to right injustice and champion human rights?

MITSUMATSU: Definitely, I completely believe that it is one of the greatest roles of documentary filmmaking. Part of what inspired me to get into the business was when I lived in Brazil and saw some of the deeper reality behind the festival of Carnival. But Japanese programs were not portraying the true picture of people's spirits, their true humanity.

Visual and audio presentation of all the diverse peoples of the world, communicated in the form of documentary, is an incredibly powerful communication tool. And once powerful documentaries are made, they should find the maximum exposure possible in the world. Documentaries are made to be shared with people on the globe -- to be a powerful vehicle to communicate between cultures. My film First They Killed My Father has not yet been distributed to other countries outside of Japan and Taiwan, and it should be. But I don't have much say -- even though I produced and directed the program I don't own the copyrights -- NHK has it all. I certainly learned a lesson there!

NEFF: What kind of freedom did you have while working for NHK in Japan? Were you able to choose your subject matter or were you simply assigned a project?

MITSUMATSU: I was a producer/director for current affairs and documentary programs in NHK in Japan for seven years, and it was our job to propose projects at least once a month. If I had something I really wanted to do, I just went straight to the producer of that particular program, and we discussed it. It was unbelievably democratic process, and my proposals even as a first year director were approved, funded and made.

Before completing the programs, there were a lot of stages of higher producers supervision, which sometime could be either artistic and creative intervention or censorship. This was the most exhausting process of all -- finalizing the film -- as this is where the corporation's interests would factor in.

NEFF: With regards to First They Killed My Father, how did you get involved in that project? Did HarperCollins contact you?

MITSUMATSU: I described this a little bit prior, but I met the protagonist Loung Ung, while interviewing Jody Williams for her Nobel Peace Prize for International Campaign for Landmines in 1996. At that time, Loung was one of the campaign staff promoting awareness of her native country Cambodia's tragedy during Pol Pot. I remember she only had a simple, one-page biography as an introduction. But when I heard her story of survival for four years under Pol Pot, I just could not believe it and I felt I wanted to make her story more known. It was at this same time that many high profile magazines were covering Jody Williams.

I kept contacting with Loung for the next couple of years, and she sent me her manuscript for her book First They Killed My Father (Harper Collins, 2000). Reading more about her story was a truly profound experience and provided many insights for the documentary.

NEFF: What was it like working on that film? It must have been an emotional experience.

MITSUMATSU: Working in this particular film as an independently contracted Producer/Director was in many ways the experience of a lifetime.

To start, I had a great story -- but the budget I had to work with was very, very small. I found a great collaborators: Director of Photography Bob Nesson, Editors Beth Gallagher and Sal Baldomar to name a few. Lots of people worked with me within the confines of our stringent budget, as they were all highly committed and wanted to share this story with the world audience.

As far as being emotional -- certainly visiting Cambodia, especially Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, where only 8 out of approximately 20,000 captured survived -- that was a profoundly emotional experience. I never knew how it was going to feel to stand and feel the air where so many people were tortured to death, from babies to the elderly.

I also gained an incredible respect for Cambodian people, who despite of this national tragedy, continued to smile and have such zest for life. Those people taught me so much.

NEFF: You've worked in so many roles. Would you rather produce or direct?

MITSUMATSU: I think I like everything! When I am commissioned to work on NHK's documentary projects as producer or part director, I liked it. On the other hand, I certainly like to do my own stories as a producer and a director.

But I really like creative team work to make a great story to be told. Currently I am asked to be a producer for different projects, and I like that as well. I do not think I can find all the world's great stories by myself!

NEFF: Jyakuchu: Magical Artist of Edo is an intriguing film. Did you learn anything from the making of that documentary that you didn't know before? How would you compare it to your other films?

MITSUMATSU: I was involved as an associate producer role for this documentary. I really enjoyed this project, especially as the director (from Japan) took a very different approach. He included a dramatic story telling of Edo Period, which was very well done. As I was not really involved in directing the film, I cannot really compare with my other projects. But I can say that I learn so much from working in different roles in different projects.

NEFF: I'm fascinated and very much want to see Betrayed by the Rising Sun: The Comfort Women of the Imperial Army during World War II. Is there anything about this subject that came as a surprise to you, anything you can share with us?

MITSUMATSU: This is one project I would like to make it happen here in US. The topic is very much a taboo in Japan, and the surviving victims are getting very old. As we still continue to have wars and sexual discrimination all over the world, I strongly believe it is important to make this story now.

My first proposal did not have too much commercial appeal due to the lack of US perspective, I was told. So I am working on rewriting this project to be more attractive to US companies..

NEFF: What does the future hold in store for you? What types of projects would you like to take on?

MITSUMATSU: I hope to make the Comfort Women - to produce it here in the US, that is the first goal.

The future is not clear, I just keep doing what I have been doing, and remain open minded so that I will have more stories to work with, good stories of course!

Discuss this article on the nextPix FORUM by going to its discussion thread: [click here]

Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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