Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Akimi Ota
From 7th November 2020 to 6th November 2021, Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship allowed me to carry out various works with the aim of completing my first feature-length film, Kanarta: Alive in Dreams, an experimental ethnographic documentary exploring the life of Shuar people in Ecuadorian Amazonia. This film has originally been a part of my PhD thesis in Social Anthropology with Visual Media, based on my thirteen months ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2016 and 2017. Approved at the University of Manchester in February 2020, it is entitled “Cultivating the Real at the Edge of the Forest: Embodied Knowledges and Entangled Selves in Northwest Amazonia”. In my PhD thesis, I explore the changing relationships between people and diminishing rainforest, and how their emerging knowledge practices represent new attitudes and awareness towards their living environment.
In this film, appropriating techniques of direct cinema and cinéma verité as basic filmmaking strategies, as well as taking inspirations from experimental films and video art, I closely followed the daily life of Sebastian Tsamarain and Pastora Tanchima, a Shuar-Quichua couple living in the south-eastern part of Ecuadorian Amazonia. Sebastian is the youngest son of his father who was a renowned shaman in this area. Although he was not trained as shaman, Sebastian realised in his 40s about his desire for plant knowledge, thereby discovering and testing the effects of medicinal plants unknown to him for over ten years in order to become a “real Shuar”. Pastora is the first female leader of the village, who had dreamt to be so while sleeping prior to the moment where she was elected as the president of the village. Now she struggles to negotiate with local authorities regarding the issues such as water supply.
With powerful plants such as ayahuasca, they revive and energise their perceptions of the future. The film shows how these plants allow them to acquire power and a faith to cope with the obstacles they face, given that their lives have been irreversibly affected by the modern state system.
Specific Works Conducted
- Sound design & Sound mix
Although the soundscape of the first version of the film submitted with the PhD thesis to the university was “passable”, designed and mixed by myself, it needed to be restructured and remixed by a competent sound designer so that the film would receive more critical acclaims in the film festivals and beyond. I started to work with a Danish sound designer Martin Salomonsen remotely, to whom one of my colleagues from the University of Manchester introduced me.
My creative intention was to enhance and unpack the richness of the sounds throughout the film, by amplifying complex aural elements from the rainforest, conversation of people, and other non-living things moving around, etc, without being perceived “artificial” or “too gimmicky” by the spectators. This does not mean that the intervention by the sound design should be “minimum”. On the contrary, we had hardships to add not only slight modifications to EQs, levels, and other parameters of the sounds originally deriving from the footage, but also external sound elements, such as additional atmospheric sound of the rainforest, cutlery making sound, or reorganising sounds of conversations.
- Colour grading
Colour grading was particularly of importance in this film. I aimed to complete an ethnographic documentary film which attracts people whose interests do not necessarily revolve around anthropology or documentary film. Colour plays, in this regard, one of the crucial roles in demonstrating the aesthetic endeavour of the film that not only speaks for anthropology or documentary, but also for people who love cinema in general.
To achieve this aim, I collaborated with the Brazilian colourist Aline Biz, based in Barcelona, who notably worked for the critically acclaimed documentary film Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) by Gabrielle Brady. My aim was to add dreamy, nostalgic, vivid, yet realistic flavour to the colour-scape of the film. After making a mood-board with references from other films and artworks, we created the basis of colour-scape for each sequence while conserving the coherence throughout the film. We then brushed up these sequences by making slight changes such as adjusting the hue, adding small amount of film grain effects, etc.
The original languages spoken in this film are Shuar and Spanish. During the period of the Fellowship, I have added subtitles in four languages: English, French, Spanish (Shuar part) and Japanese. Although I am fluent in all these, languages other than my mother tongue Japanese needed to be corrected by competent native speakers after I wrote the draft for each language, in order to polish the nuances. These subtitles were necessary in order to apply for as many film festivals as possible, as well as reaching much wider audience than English speaking community in the world.
- Visual design
As my aim was to deliver this film to wide audience including non-specialists in anthropology or ethnographic film, visual design played a crucial role. I collaborated with the Tokyo-based Japanese graphic designer Heijiro Yagi, for the film posters and title graphics within the film. Based on the original film poster I designed on my own, Yagi recomposed the images, texts and graphics, making it aesthetically much more plausible and complete. In the same vein, he worked on the title graphics in the film, changing fonts, size, spacing between the letters, etc. Overall, it added a “professional” and “serious” look to the film, which was necessary for the kind of outcomes I was aiming to achieve.
Since its completion, Kanarta: Alive in Dreams has been internationally screened in more than forty film festivals and won more than ten awards. It notably won the Best Student Prize at International Ethnological Film Festival in Belgrade in 2021. Following the public success of the film at Tokyo Documentary Film Festival, since October 2021, it has been theatrically released nationwide in Japan, being screened in more than 35 theatres all over the country and attracting more than 5000 spectators, until November 2022. I was the distributor myself. During this period, I travelled all over Japan in order to give talk sessions after screening, alone or with other filmmakers, writers or interviewers. My challenge with this film has been covered by both international and Japanese media, including il manifesto (Italy), NHK (Japan), Asahi Shinbun (Japan), and many more. In 2022, it was given Excellence Award (one of the two films awarded next to Best Film Award) in the category of Documentary Film by Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan among all the films released in Japan between 2021-2022. In addition, it is now available online in Japan on streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and U-Next, with plans of wider international distribution to come.
Official Website: https://akimiota.net/Kanarta-1
Selected media coverage: