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Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, the husband-and wife team behind the Silverdocs flick Tokyo Waka: A City Poem, are proud that their documentaries eschew the three-act narrative structure. In fact, they named their company Stylo Films, after the French director Alexandre Astruc’s idea of a film essay written with a “camera-pen”—-or “camera-stylo”—-that disregards the conventions of storytelling. “Waka” is the Japanese word for a long-form poem, and the film is just that: an ode to Tokyo, told from the perspective of the iconic crows that inhabit the city. I spoke with Samuelson and Haptas following a screening of Tokyo Waka yesterday at Silverdocs.
How did you come to this story?
Kris: When we were traveling in Japan…we were staying at this guest house. It was not one of these high-rise insulated hotels with the double-glass windows. And every morning at 4:45, the crows would be out. They would be the first sound you heard. They would be unimaginably loud and we would just notice them everywhere because we had become sensitized to them because they kept waking us up. And we said, “This is the biggest metropolis on earth and its infested with wildlife and what does that mean?” When we got back, we were curious about that, we were interested in Japan, so we thought we’d find out more about that. There’s a story there about how [the crows’] numbers grew and how [the Japanese] were trying to put a lid on them. So we went back and shot a little trailer and then we were able to get a fellowship and we went and lived in Japan and we also took Japanese for a year and a half. We tried to…use the crows as a way to look at the culture, not just the birds.
Tell me about your background.
Kris: We’ve made films for 20 years but they’ve all been shorts. They’ve all taken a fair amount of time to make because we both have full time jobs doing other things. We like to work in this essayistic, poetic framework which somehow involves quilting with very small stitches, so it takes time. But I was actually trained in filmmaking and John came to it through work. But we’re married and we’ve been married a lot longer than we’ve been working together. We have this way that we like to work together that is simpatico with the kind of people that we are.
John: It works for us. I’m a documentary film editor and that’s my day job. When we work together, we share every category, from producing to recording sound. We have a complementary set of skills. Chris, for example, is much better dealing with the public than I am [laughs].
Kris: I teach in the documentary film MFA program at Stanford, so I probably come to the producing end with a lot of work with my students…. the way in which students have to conceptualize and visualize their work and they have to see it through to the end and mentoring them and seeing through that with them has helped me to see the way things don’t go together.
John: I’ve done a lot of years sound recording. I worked with David Lynch down to PSAs, but almost entirely docs. But the nice thing about that is that they’ve put me in a lot of situations with a lot of different filmmakers.
There seems to be a close attention to sound design in this film. Why is sound important in documentary and in this film, in particular?
John: I think people put sound in second position. They pay attention to the picture and then they’ll say, “Well we’ll put in some music, we’ll put in some ambient sounds, we’ll clean up the dialogue…and we’re in business.” We have always spent a lot of time with the soundtrack. It’s the sort of thing you don’t know you’re really hearing but that has a huge psychological impact on how you react to a film, everything from it helping to sell what you’re seeing to pushing your mood when it’s not a realistic sound. In our film, there’s times when we just withdrew the sound completely and let things play with music. There’s times where we just added effects like a rumble over the shot of the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo. There’s a lot of different things you can do with the soundtrack that I think people forget.
Kris: For example, we had to record a lot of crow sounds. And we really went after that in a very particular way, in the various ways they make sounds. They make different kinds of sounds at different times of the year. So we have like five or six hundred different kind of vocalizations. So we had this huge fabulous collection to choose from and the thinking that went into gathering that was important. And a lot of that was really for the whole emotional contour of the piece.
Was your use of the crow a way to provide a counterpoint to the human drama in Tokyo or more about the interaction between human and animal?
Kris: We think about Tokyo in a very particular way and we surround it with a frame that is very industrialized, sort of forward-leaning place on earth but it’s actually teaming with wildlife. And this kind of anchoring the city in a different way was really important to us, and anchoring it with regard to the people that live there was really important to us. So for us that seemed critical, both the interaction and the contrast.
John: We’re talking about the nature. And the crows are sort of in your face nature in a city, particularly in a modern city. They’re not an animal in the zoo. They’re out there ripping up the garbage.
It seems that the humans and the crows evolve in response to each other?
John: The crows and the people, there’s this endless dialogue going on. The crows come in, they figure out where the food is, the city figures out a way to stop them or put nets over the garbage bags. The crows figure out where they don’t put the nets or they figure out how to take the nets off. Then the city changes its pick up routines. The crows figure out when the garbage goes out…There’s this hopeless stalemate where eventually they just have to get along.
You took a very observational approach to studying the city. Did that stem from your being outsiders to this community?
Kris: Fundamentally I think that’s true. Observers.
John: We made that almost explicit in the film because we take the POV of crows on occasion, very clearly. We’re getting this idea across that we’re looking at the crows, we’re telling the story of the crows. Meanwhile, the crows are watching this strange culture going on below them. And we look over their shoulders sometimes.
Tokyo Waka screens again at Silverdocs on Saturday, June 23 at 5:45 p.m. in the AFI Silver Theatre 3.