Observationalism and the Critical Eye

In defense of observational cinema.

Oyster Factory
Kazuhiro Soda, 2015
Genre: Observational

This post originally appeared as part of March 2017’s Docalogue.

Oyster Factory opens with a close-up, ground-level, and slightly canted shot of a white cat reposing in the sun next to the eponymous oyster factory. Domestic animals certainly can be engaging creatures that elicit the spectator’s emotional involvement in a film; this one offers a nice tonal counterpoint to a film whose topic, oyster farming, might seem dry. Openings are precious for filmmakers, however, and the cat shot is not gratuitous—it is an “outside” visitor foreshadowing the film’s eventual depiction of foreign workers in contemporary Japan. More than anything, the opening shot reveals a good deal of director Kazuhiro Soda’s approach. The camera reacts to the cat’s movement, and in turn the cat gazes at Soda/the camera and swipes lazily, as if to push him/it/us away. After twisting about to reposition itself, the cat finally gets up and walks away. It’s a reflexive moment in a documentary full of reflexive moments.

The reflexive gambit suggests how Soda approaches observational documentary as an intersubjective enterprise. As Soda notes about his approach:

“So I decided, okay, I have to redefine what is observation and adjust my method…Whatever I’m observing is changed by my presence. The observer is always a participant in the observation; it is observation of a world which includes myself” (Documentary Storytelling, 318).

While Soda is not the only documentary filmmaker to acknowledge directorial presence, he has developed a method that colors his aesthetic choices in the film. The sound design of this opening, for instance, is rich with loud sea sounds and more muted sounds of employees talking or working in the background, gradually growing louder in the mix so that close-up “subjective” sounds of the sea accompany “objective” extreme long landscape shots.

That said, despite its intersubjective bent, Oyster Factory is not a film representing the full-on phenomenological turn of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. It is still, at heart, an observational documentary, and Soda matter-of-factly subtitles Oyster Factory as “Observational Film #6.” As in more traditional issue documentaries, the film’s sequences illustrate the process of oyster farming, the business climate for the industry, and the culture of its work. At times the camerawork is handheld, at other times more static framing abets montage sequences that would not be out of place in a poetic documentary like Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005). Although it presents a portrait of a number of subjects—the owners (the Hirano family), an apprentice Watanabe, and guest workers from China—the film is not a character-driven documentary as is commonly understood but rather a detached, multi-focal observational film.

The film’s power, for me at least, lies partly in its ability to draw on the intersubjective, the reflexive, and the phenomenological without having to develop an apologetic stance toward observationalism. Oyster Factory does what many excellent observational documentaries do: it gets incredible access to its subjects, lets the chance capturing of detail guide some of the film, and engages spectators dialectically in a political issue lacking an easy solution. Managing these in a film that works, experientially, as cinema is no easy task. Of the various styles on the film festival circuit, observational docs are arguably the least prestigious (see their general marginalization in favor of doc-fiction in Sight & Sound’s recent critics poll).

Especially with a film like Oyster Factory in mind, I would venture that any critical omission is not an indictment of observational documentary today but rather a call for us to recalibrate our critical eye to see and experience observational documentaries beyond the anti-realist debates of the post-vérité years.