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D.A. Pennebaker died at the age of 94 a few weeks ago, on August 1. With Robert Drew, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, and Terence Macartney-Filgate — collectively known as the Drew Associates — he fostered an innovative mode of non-fiction filmmaking based on a set of principles. These are: no voiceovers, no talking-head interviews, and no music on the soundtrack. Though not always adhering to the rules they set out (chalk it up to the dominance and constraints of conventional TV aesthetics at the time), the films they made — on candidate, and later, president John F. Kennedy — were candid. They were part of the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s. Shot in 16mm with handheld cameras and lightweight audio equipment, the movies had an unvarnished you-are-there quality, even though they were highly structured. This is observational cinema. Described as “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking, its stripped-down aesthetic immerses the viewer in the action unfolding onscreen.
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by “hybrid cinema” — a nebulous, catch-all phrase that pervades film festivals, art-house theaters, and Netflix — observational cinema still thrives. Wang Bing and Frederick Wiseman make singular movies that are iterations of it. Kazuhiro Sôda, whose films are now streaming on the platform OVID, should be in the same conversation as Wang and Wiseman. First garnering attention with Campaign 1 (2007), which eventually won a Peabody Award, Sôda practices a refined version of observational filmmaking. Aided by his wife, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, Sodâ produces, directs, shoots, and edits his movies. His handheld camera follows his subjects closely. And he doesn’t shy away from incorporating himself in the proceedings — responding to direct addresses, asking questions — becoming a participant in what he’s recording.
Sôda has no qualms with the word “observational” either, embracing it by sequentially numbering his documentaries. Having made eight since 2007 (excluding one that he calls “extra”), he has refined his approach, condensing it to “ten commandments” of observational filmmaking which include: “no research,” “no meetings with subjects,” “use long takes,” and “pay for the production yourself.” The variety in subject matter proves how pliable these rules are: industrialization (Oyster Factory  and Inland Sea ), college sports (The Big House ), and caretaking (Mental  and Peace ) among others. In fact, caretaking gets at the core of his work: with the lives he has had the privilege of witnessing, Sôda encounters fundamental elements of humanity. Such a key theme is no more present than in Peace.
In this documentary, Sôda regards an older couple, Toshio and Hiroko, both of whom are his in-laws, and who voluntarily operate a health-care and taxi service for elderly and disabled people on welfare. A parallel story takes place, one in which Toshio tends to stray cats that have been showing up at his door for twenty years. In his interaction with the felines, there’s a glimpse of the human condition, for these contacts resemble the way in which he supports those who request his and his wife’s services. The way the cats behave with each other echoes social codes of human society as well: a mischievous cat eventually winds up integrated in the community formed around Toshio’s property.
Sôda calls Peace an “extra” in his series of observational works — but there’s nothing superfluous about this 75-minute documentary. It’s fully formed and stands on its own as a portrait of a couple working and existing meaningfully.
The film after Peace, Theatre 1 (2012), is the first in a two-part, nearly-six-hour series on acclaimed director and playwright Oriza Hirata. These movies are a bit different from what came before. They are a high point in Sôda’s body of work. Although his documentaries tend to be two hours long, the pair’s extended duration here works to encapsulate the sundry functions of running a theatre company. There’s the day-to-day business of bills to pay, employees to hire, and paperwork to fill out. There’s the extensive rehearsals in which Hirata, frequently perched in a corner of the room, fastidiously adjusts performances based on line deliveries, tone, and rhythm. As seen in his other movies, Sôda inserts pillow shots, akin to those in Yasujirō Ozu’s family dramas or in Wiseman’s documentaries, both as a kind of breather for the audience and as the connective tissue joining one scene to the next. These glancing images of bustling street activity thematically relate to the subject: Sôda ties performance seen on stage to what is witnessed in everyday life.
Theatre 2 (2013) is something else. It’s more diffusive since the film’s action occurs beyond the theatre company. Hirata hustles to make money to keep his company afloat, especially after cutbacks in grant funding from the government. He travels to rural Japan, as well as France, for theatre festivals. He gives lessons and talks at conferences and in classrooms, culminating in a brilliant final scene. After trekking all over, drumming up money with lectures and productions, Hirata is back at his theatre’s homebase, directing his actors for a play. Sôda captures Hirata in close-up, zooming in at intervals as the playwright’s eyes close, then open, then close. Cut to black. As the end credits pop up, Hirata’s snoring is heard. Exhausted after hours spent working, he finally, involuntarily sleeps.
No matter what term is used to describe it, observational cinema is alive and well in Sôda’s documentaries. He is continuing this illustrious tradition, extending and adding to it. His movies are intimate affairs that reach viewers at a human level. He follows a wide swath of people — politicians, artists, doctors, patients, caregivers, fishermen — recording the meaning and purpose of their lives as they live them.
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