Well, the festival ended 6 days ago, and now my work for the festival has come to an end. So I thought I would sign off by quickly telling you a little about my experience as a volunteer with this festival.
I started attending the festival’s weekly planning meetings near Takadanobaba in perhaps mid-May of this year, not sure what exactly to expect, but – after nearly 8 months of living just outside of Tokyo, wanting desperately to connect with the organized gay community here. I was immediately struck by how casual and relaxed everybody seemed. The real work of planning and executing the festival gets done at home, in hours of work that no one save the person doing them sees, except in so far as they produce the festival we have all enjoyed so much over the past two weekends.
I had been a volunteer at the Toronto’s InsideOut Gay and Lesbian Film and Video festival for the previous three years. That festival is about 4 times as large, and has several paid staff that work year round. This festival has none of those advantages. This is an all-volunteer operation. It’s a testament to how much they care about bringing this festival to Tokyo’s rather small and rather invisible gay community (all while holding down demanding full-time jobs, I might add) that they don’t just give up in frustration, as I am sure we have all been tempted to do at some point along the way.
There are, of course, other English-speaking foreigners who assist the festival in various capacities (writers, translators, transcribers, subtitlers, etc.) but – again – most of that work goes on doubly behind the scenes, with no one ever really seeing the faces of those involved until they appear at the festival to a hearty cry of ‘Hisashiburi ne!’ (Long time, no see!). I was the only visible foreigner who attended meetings from the time I began volunteering in the spring, so I was delighted to find that it is a very international group. Most of the core staff have lived abroad for several years, and even some of those who haven’t speak better English than many of the people teaching the language in Japanese public schools! As a queer foreigner, I am usually a bit guarded with most people I encounter in day-to-day life. The festival staff and – during the festival – its guests have been among the very few people with whom I can be totally relaxed in Japan. So I never really felt like an outsider. I felt immediately embraced by a wonderful team of people who have, I think – I hope –, all become my friends.
After completing a few odd jobs for them (transcribing a film, watching another to check the that the subtitle list was in the right order, editing and proofreading the festival brochure, press releases, in-theatre announcements and other English-language materials and messages), the question came up of what I wanted to do during the festival itself. In Toronto, I had always just been a ticket taker (I also did some rather mundane office work after the festival), since that way you basically meet everyone coming through the door – a great way to reconnect with all those people in the community you haven’t seen in a year, for one reason or another. Here, that role didn’t make sense, because aside from being able to answer the question, ‘Where is the toilet?’ with ‘Asoko de’ (Over there!), I would get into trouble as soon as any more complicated question arose in Japanese. So Sugawara-san, our head programmer, pitched me the idea of doing an English blog, so that people in other parts of the world could get not just information but a real flavour of what was going on at the festival. I agreed, thinking I’d just be going to films and writing reviews of a sort. I hardly expected to be thrust into the role of reporter and interviewer, as I was, that first weekend.
To admit to my bias, I have to say, as a Canadian I have been bombarded with American media my whole life, and I think I’ve consumed more than enough of it for one lifetime. Japan and Canada have something in common in that regard. Both countries are hugely economically interlinked with the U.S., arguably to the point of dependency in both cases. Both Canadians and Japanese consume a huge amount of American media. But the fascination is rather one-sided. We know a lot about the U.S., but most Americans know relatively little about us. Similarly, American films on Japanese themes are few and far between. Maybe once or twice a decade you get a decent film that rises above the stereotypes. Even if it doesn’t completely succeed in this regard, any film about a place as little understood abroad as Japan has a big impact. Readers of this blog may have gotten tired of my ‘Lost in Translation’ questions, but every foreigner I know (and very few Japanese, interestingly) have seen the film ‘Lost in Translation’, and many of them say that it was a big part of their reason for wanting to come here.
So, all of that said, I wasn’t particularly interested in spending my time at the festival seeing American films, though of course, in retrospect, I am glad I did because it means that I met a lot of really wonderful people. I would have been happy to focus on the Asian films, just as – personally – I choose only to watch Japanese films, with few exceptions, while I am living here in Japan. For gay people as well, I think it’s problematic that so many of the images of gay life that come to us – whether realistic or total fantasy – are coming from the U.S., and thus, have very little to do with the reality of queer life in Japan or other parts of Asia, or the world generally. If we believe what we often say about the value of diversity, then I think the conversation needs to go both ways, and not be a monologue running from West to East.
However, little as I expected to be thrust into the role of reporter, I really enjoyed chatting with the (mostly foreign, mostly English-speaking) guests of the festival. I was really impressed that there were no prima-donnas, no out-of-control egos – just a lot of really nice people, both serious as artists with something to say and good-humoured in their pursuit of their own brief adventure in this country. All of the films got a great response, as did the guests themselves, not so much hounded (that wouldn’t be Japanese!) as politely asked for autographs and photos. And those of us who had the time and the privilege to hang out with them outside of the festival made, I hope, a few new friends.
I say those of us who had the time because, really, I think I had the best job at the festival! With virtually no responsibility, I got to see maybe a dozen screenings for free, met all the guests, and didn’t have to work long hours manning a desk or a booth. The dedication of our core volunteers, astounds me, since many of them worked all day every day, and therefore, could not possibly have seen more than one or two films. But then, that is the work ethic that Japanese become accustomed to from quite a young age.
As anyone who has lived abroad knows, it’s a kind of constant battle to keep yourself emotionally even-keeled. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you are a foreigner – even the privileged sort of foreigner that English-speaking Westerners are in Japan – you face a number of daily challenges to your mental health. It happens to be the case that during the festival I was also going through a tough patch of dealing with my life in Japan, perhaps because I am coming to the end of my first year here, many of my foreign friends are going home, and I am faced with the reality of my life here, which is constrained in a number of ways it is not at home. If you stay for a year, it is possible to view it as a kind of long working holiday. After a year however, when many of the other holidayers that you arrived with go home, you have to face up to the fact that you are choosing to make some sort of a life here, and a year is really not long enough to learn a new language, make a new group of friends, adjust to a different culture, and make a new life.
Thus, there were definitely times during the festival when I was tempted, out of emotional frustrations that had nothing to do with the festival itself, to abandon it and this blog, and just take that time back for myself. What prevented me from doing so was precisely the realization that everyone else was working quite a bit harder than me and, in many cases, for a less immediate reward. It just wouldn’t have been right to let all those people – all those friends – down.
So to all of them, I wish to say a heartfelt thank you. Arigato gozaimasu! Otsukarasama desu! Thanks for giving me the privilege of being part of your festival.
We’ll have another chance on August 9th to celebrate and to see each other once again before many of us scatter to the winds of work and school and other pressing obligations until sometime maybe 6 months from now, when the wheels start turning slowly again, gaining momentum little by little, until next July is quickly upon us and the 18th annual Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is here. Barring some unforeseen disaster, I’ll still be here, and ready to bring you another year’s instalment of events, guests, interviews, reviews, and whatever else crops up under our tenacious little rainbow here in the land of the rising sun.
Until then, 気をつけてね (Take care of yourselves, eh?).