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IDFA 2018: My Soul Drifts Light Upon a Sea of Trees

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IDFA 2018: My Soul Drifts

17 November 2018

Sometimes, when life becomes overwhelming and stressful, a bit of Zen is what is needed to restore the proper balance. That is what director Heinrich Dahms has always felt. A few years ago, he read an article in the New Yorker about Buddhist Itettsu Nemoto and was intrigued by the Japanese monk's work in providing comfort to distressed and even suicidal patients.

"I thought this sounds like a really interesting story," the veteran South African-born, Dutch-based filmmaker recalls. In 2015, he and a team visited Japan for the first time to meet the mysterious and inspirational monk. They didn't speak Japanese and Nemoto didn't speak English (nor Dutch) but they developed an immediate rapport.

"I was impressed by his unpretentiousness and his no bullshit approach both to his official position as the priest of the civil temple up in the mountains and the whole Zen experience in general," Dahms recalls. Nemoto didn't wear flowing white robes. He was "a real guy" with a good sense of humour. "He really cares about the people he deals with and does what he can to help them. My impression was that he was a pretty dedicated person." The director adds that Nemoto also enjoys partying and is quite capable of dancing all night. "Then, he comes home, sleeps and meditates."

Dahms himself has a long-standing interest in meditation. He studied philosophy after, as a youngster, being very taken with Robert M. Pirsig's cult book ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.' "I got into the whole Zen thing then and I have meditated ever since. I still meditate every day...I've been doing Tai Chi for 35 years as well."

The film, supported by the Netherland Production Incentive, has three main protagonists other than Nemoto - Mocca, Kana and Mizuno, all of whom had come to the monk for help in dealing with feelings of despair about their lives. Dahms has experience making fiction as well as documentary. He has written several screenplays. This helped him when it came to providing the documentary with a narrative structure. The film shows us the dark side of the protagonists' lives but then follows them as things change.

The director and his team shot 150 hours of material. "I work like a madman," the director sighs. "I become a little obsessive-compulsive when I shoot a story." He wasn't shooting randomly but wanted to make sure he was flexible enough to go "where the story takes me."

Editing was protracted. There was a huge amount of material and the director was working in a language he didn't understand. Nonetheless, the film as it finally turned out was (he believes) tightly constructed and with a meditative quality of its own. "I really tried to maintain that Zenlike concept."

Dahms is proud of the title, My Soul Drifts Light Upon A Sea Of Trees . The ‘sea of trees" is the beautiful forest around Mount Fuji which has become a suicide hot spot. When Dahms was researching the project, they visited the forest ("a pretty interesting place with an interesting atmosphere," he says with evident understatement.)

Nemoto himself is due in Amsterdam for the IDFA premiere which Mocca and Kana will also attend. "We're really looking forward to seeing them again," the director looks forward to the reunion.

Filmmaking clearly runs in the Dahms family. Son Alexander, who lives in Amsterdam, was the cinema tographer on My Soul Drifts. There have been disappointments along the way. For example, Heinrich tried for many years to make a film based on the life and work of the brilliant Polish reporter, author and poet, Ryszard Kapuściński. He sounds philosophical (and Zen-like) about the setbacks - and doesn't boast too much either about the numerous successes his company has had over the years. Geoffrey Macnab

SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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