How To Complete An Innovative Documentary: Strategies from Yujiro Seki, Creator Of Carving The Divine

Yujiro Seki

“As a Japanese person, I felt that I had a responsibility to tell an authentic story of Japan, especially if the subject is about 1400 years of tradition. This is the precise reason why I took my time to complete Carving the Divine. I captured a tremendous amount of footage and organizing it was a pure nightmare. But, as I patiently made revision after revision, I felt great for so many years of work coming together.”

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Filmmaker Yujiro Seki, creator of Carving The Divine.

Thank you for doing this! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in Japan, discovering my passion for film-making when I was in high school. Through making my first feature film, Sokonashi Deka (The Enigmatic Detective), I became enamored with the imaginative possibilities of cinema and vowed to master the art through study in the United States. Despite the fact that starting a new life in a new country was a challenge in itself, I earned a BA in Film from the University of California, Berkeley, and completed a short film, Sashimi Taco, for my senior, honors thesis.

Following graduation, I moved to Los Angeles to work as a director of the video department for Intermarket Design, and as a film instructor at Montecito Fine Arts College of Design. After attaining permanent U.S. residency, I began studying full time in the Cinematography program at UCLA Extension. Upon graduating from that program, I embarked on the journey of making my feature documentary project, Carving the Divine: The Way of the Būshi, Buddhist Sculptors of Japan.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the process of creating the documentary, Carving the Divine?

Telling an authentic story of Japanese people is the biggest change that I faced in the creation of Carving the Divine. The Japanese culture is heavily influenced by Confucius moral code. The Japanese culture has a long history of honor and respect. In other words, the Japanese people do not want to make any embarrassing mistakes in front of other people. This is a lot more of a concern than in Western culture. Of course, I am making a generalization, but this tendency is preciously the reason why I had to minimize the talking head interviews. The interviewers (especially apprentices) refused to speak from their heart but instead spoke as if they always enjoyed challenges and always loved and respected their masters. I was not fooled by their everlasting optimistic attitude and wanted to know the truth.

I realized the truth would come from showing their lives in action. I believed that the subtlety of their behavior would tell a lot more than their words so I let the camera run whenever I could. Most of the time, Buddhist sculptors just carved statues of course as that is their profession. They sat down quietly and carved wood. I thought to myself, “How can I make a story out of this rather mundane life?” The only way to accomplish this was to have the patience and aspiration to tell a story of one of the most respected art forms in the world.

I understand the world has a fascination with the Japanese culture and I see a lot of people around the world go to Japan and make documentaries about Japan. But, most of them fail to recognize subtle cultural nuances and are only able to capture the superficial aspect of Japanese culture. As a Japanese person, I felt that I had a responsibility to tell an authentic story of Japan, especially if the subject is about 1400 years of tradition. This is the precise reason why I took my time to complete Carving the Divine. I captured a tremendous amount of footage and organizing it was a pure nightmare. But, as I patiently made revision after revision, I felt great for so many years of work coming together.

In the end, this method of storytelling worked in my favor because I was frankly tired of the typical talking head interview documentary everyone is familiar with. In other words, most of the documentaries base their stories around the interviews and use them as a crutch to tell stories. I was very pleased to minimize these and was able to go beyond superficiality in one of the most challenging cultures to capture an authentic truth. In conclusion, telling an authentic story of the Japanese people was the biggest challenge I faced.

I know your film has not been released to the public for viewing yet but what can you tell us about it?

First and foremost, Carving the Divine offers a rare and intimate look into the life and artistic process of modern-day Būshi — practitioners of a 1400 year lineage of woodcarving that’s at the heart of Japanese, Mahayana Buddhism.

It might take a while for people who never heard anything about this tradition to understand why I am so persistent about putting this film to the world. The art of Būshi is one of the most significant cultural legacies of Japan. Yet, this tradition, at this point, is virtually unknown to the Western World.

Not only can the viewers enjoy the authentic story of būshi from a Japanese person’s perspective, but also they can watch the whole process of a millennium-old Buddhist statue-making tradition. On top of the authentic story and the process of statue making, the viewers will have a close look at the Shingon Buddhism wood burning ritual known as Goma. I had access to shoot a Goma ritual at an altar area, which is normally off-limits to all but monks and priests.

Yujiro Seki

What 3 tips or strategies would you share with someone who is about to create their first documentary?

#1. “Don’t do it!” — Well, I’m kind of joking. It took me nearly six years to complete Carving the Divine. I also exhausted all my soul, heart and financial resources, which were supposed to be saved up for my future. I always say to everyone who is interested in getting into the world of documentary filmmaking: “The documentary is easy to get into and difficult to get out.” What I mean by that is it sounds very cool that you get to work on a documentary that inspires people and makes a difference in the world. But, as you get into it and dig deep into it you will find out the process is not exactly how you envisioned. Even if you have a vision and script in mind, it is extremely challenging to control the outcome. In other words, it is very difficult to complete a documentary movie in general.

However, I believe there are an honor and dignity behind going against the mainstream cinema and creating a work of art that matters to the greater good. If you have the courage and commitment to pursue this path, I encourage you to follow through no matter what other people say. However, to have a successful journey, it is important to have strategies.

You need to have an unshakable passion and conviction for your subject. When things get really tough and maybe you consider quitting, your unshakable passion and conviction are the only forces to keep you on the right path. In our daily life, we hope to have an immediate financial reward for our labor. For example, if you work 9 to 5 job, get paid, pay bills and maybe do something fun. In the world of independent documentary filmmaking (especially if it is your personal project), there is no immediate reward for your labor. The only thing you see is your saving account going down and your credit card maxing out. Then, you wonder why you are doing all this.

People might make fun of you because you are asking for favors to support your project financially. Sometimes it is quite humiliating to go through this process. Thus, I believe if you did not have enough passion and conviction for your project you would not be able to complete it.

# 2. Your subject must be unique, interesting, and also has to be a subject you can excel at filming. This means you need to have special access to the subject. This should not be something that anyone can easily have access to shoot. This sounds like a very difficult thing to accomplish, but we are all coming from different backgrounds and different upbringings. So, if we contemplate enough, I believe, we all can find a subject which is dear and invincibly unique to us. Your unique subject sets you apart from the rest of the filmmakers who make documentaries about popular or trendy subjects. While these subjects also have an important place in our society, I believe most of them are recyclable and will be forgotten after a while. In a nutshell, if you were to embark on this long, tedious, heartbreaking journey why not go for something that blows people out of the water? I believe how far you push your uniqueness will ultimately determine the success and failure of your work.

# 3. It is extremely important to do whatever it takes to get your job done to the extent that you become a virtually shameless person. The creation of any work of art does not come so easily. There will be many obstacles along the way. Believe or not, people consciously and subconsciously try to stop you from completing your project for a variety of reasons. Maybe someone will tell you to stop your childish dream. Maybe someone will tell you that you are not supposed to be filming in the special area. Maybe someone gets sick and cannot make it to your interview. When obstacles are in your way, it is very easy to be discouraged and maybe to quit. But whether you like it or not, obstacles both big and small will inevitably get in your way.

Each time you face an obstacle you need to be shameless, pushy, assertive and strong. I am not advocating to speak to people disrespectfully. I am not advocating to break laws. I am not advocating to force a sick person to come to your interview. But whatever the obstacles are, you have to be mentally strong and fight so that your movie can continue. This means you often get to do things that you feel uncomfortable doing. If you are not determined enough to do whatever it takes to get your movie done, chances are you are not going to finish your film. Only people who can be shameless, pushy, assertive and strong can make impossible possible when it comes to documentary filmmaking.

Thank you for sharing your story and these strategies with us today. Where can our readers stay up to date on the public release of Carving The Divine?

It was a pleasure. You can connect with me on twitter @CarvingDivine and Facebook at CarvingTheDivine. You can also visit carvingthedivine.com to subscribe to our mailing list for updates on the film and my YouTube show.

Carving The Divine TV is a YouTube series of Q&A sessions with Scholar of East Asian Buddhist Art, Michael Jordan VanHartingsveldt. These Q&A sessions explore the basic concept of Buddhism and the history of Buddhism. When viewers of this show finally watch Carving the Divine, they will get the maximum value of the documentary.

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