My first travel destination abroad was Saint Petersburg in Russia. I was invited to show my film Katatsumori at the Saint Petersburg International Film Festival. The film depicts my foster mother's daily life, which is a very private story, and I was looking forward to seeing how people overseas would react to this movie. Back then, Russian people were inspired by the Perestroika Movement, and there was a growing hope for democratization of the country. The Movement resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sharp decline of the ruble. Many people were seeking jobs and struggling against poverty. I was reluctant to send my precious film by mail to a country in chaos, and so decided to carry it with me. So off I went on my first trip overseas. I crossed time zones and went through immigration for the first time. To my disappointment, almost no one spoke English in that place. I needed to transfer to a domestic flight at Moscow, and on my way I mistakenly took an illegal taxi and had to pay forty dollars for just a five-minute ride to the domestic terminal. But I irresistibly handed over the money without any word. If I didn't, I felt that my life could be in danger. I had to wait four hours for the flight at the small terminal and as I sat in the lobby I gazed at the bright orange sun gradually setting beyond the horizon. I was charmed by the sight of a little girl sitting nearby--the way she clung to her mother was so sweet.
When I finally arrived at my hotel, a staff member from the film festival met me in the lobby. He just took the film from my hands and left without saying a word about my schedule. I was left alone in my room not knowing what to expect in the days ahead. Jet-lag forced me to get into bed and I fell asleep. I awoke before dawn, famished, having no choice but to wait until morning.
I went outside to a small bakery on the main street and paid a dollar for bread and milk. The shopkeeper was delighted with the money and excitedly saw me off at the door. I was perplexed with his reaction as I didn't realize what a dollar meant in Russia at the time--it must have been worth quite a lot.
It was June, the season of white nights when the sun barely sets in Russia, and there is a drawbridge on the Neva River that flows beside the State Hermitage Museum; it was beautiful to see the bridge open and close each time a ship passed. I often walked along the river with the couple who had been assigned to assist me while I was there. We sang Japanese and Russian lullabies to each other as we gazed at the lights glittering on the river surface. The boy told me that he wanted to be a photographer and his girlfriend, a small pretty girl, would support him in pursuit of his dream. I told them to visit Japan someday, and I really hoped that they would. But they replied that going to Japan for them was almost unthinkable. They said they couldn't even imagine making that kind of money.
After coming back to Japan, I received a letter with a photo from them. It was a picture of me and the girl, smiling arm in arm. The photo represents a friendship shared across borders by young people still in their 20s. It's been almost 20 years since then; I wonder where they are and what they are doing now. I hope that this message reaches them somehow, and they know that I am well and still making films.
Kawase continues to work out of her hometown Nara. She was awarded the Camera d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1997 for her film Suzaku (1996) as the youngest winner in its history. Her The Mourning Forest was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2007. She has directed many documentary films including Genpin. She lobbied for and is now executive director of the Nara International Film Festival (http://www.nara-iff.jp/en/), which will mark its second year from September 14 to 17, 2012. Nippon Archives series, for which she filmed her beloved Nara and many other sights of Japan, is currently broadcast online. (http://nara.utsukushiki-nippon.jp/)
Official twitter: http://twitter.com/kawasenaomi