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Interview with MJ Di Rocco / Rising Sun Film Festival 2021

Interview by Mark Potter

MJ Di Rocco is the prime mover behind the Rising Sun Film Festival, scheduled this year for Friday, November 5th through Sunday, the 7th. The Fest is now approaching the lift-off of its second season. I, for one, wouldn’t miss it. MJ is a man bent on doing great things for film in Japan and especially Kitakyushu. It was my pleasure to interview him over the final weeks of September 2021.

MLP: I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and assume that since you’re a film festival organizer, you love movies. Can you tell me when you first realized that?

MJ: I’m not sure when my love affair with cinema began. My earliest memories are of sitting in our kitchen as a child and my father getting out his Super8 projector and joining us in an array of HomeMovies. There were also some Disney animated shorts, some Three Stooges, and the moon landing ALL ON SUPER 8!! The distinct sound of the projector, the smell, the darkness. Oh, the memories.

In my first cinema-going memories, I took a trip downtown with my Mom and saw Disney’s Fantasia. I believe it was at the Loews cinema, downtown Montréal. That means nothing to most, but watching a movie was a hell of a first place. It was built in 1917; it had wood carvings, spiral staircases, chandeliers, and red carpet. I loved that theatre—a megaplex doesn’t come close to giving you the feeling that going to a movie was an event. Man! Over my teen and college years, I spent a lot of time in that cinema. I guess the mix of those events and those two venues shaped my love of cinema, which led me to study film and make films. I had moderate success as a filmmaker, and that’s what pushed me to start the fest.

MLP: So, did you have any first-hand experiences dealing with fests at that point?

MJ: Years back, I made a series of short films called Kitakyushu Stories, the first of which had a decent run on the global festival circuit. Things got a bit surreal when dealing with a festival in Japan that touted itself as the Cannes of Japan. I won’t name the fest (I still retain some class), but long story short, its treatment of filmmakers was horrible. And its treatment of moviegoers was equally horrific.

Then I started digging around and found that Japanese film festivals were very different from other festivals worldwide. Nobody knew how to submit to most fests here—and let’s face it, lots of people want to screen here. So then I said, “Why not try to do an international film festival in the style of others I’d been to in North America?” It seems to be working so far. And I’m happy to offer audiences the chance to see films from places they may not otherwise get to discover cinematically.

MLP: You piled on a lot there. Let’s try pulling out a thread or two. Let’s talk venues first. Two vivid venues from your childhood: the intimacy of an old Super8 whirring away in your parents’ house. Then the grandeur of Montréal’s turn of the last century movie palace. So the venue is important to you, and you’ve nabbed a great venue. In Moji, Kitakyushu, right?

MJ: I’d been to Red Brick place and the Kitakyushu Beer and Brick museum for a community book event when I had published a children’s book. I didn’t really know the owner well, but back when we were planning the festival’s first edition, the venue was brought up as a possible location, and I quickly agreed that we should visit. It was the first and last place we saw. I didn’t need to see anywhere else. Brick Hall had the class and feel of the old movie houses I love blended with a modern intimacy. I knew it would work, and it does. Audiences responded well, and the venue floored visiting filmmakers from Tokyo. I think most people have no idea what we are doing. But as soon as they walk in and the movie starts playing, they all get it. Even representatives of the Kitakyushu Film Commission posted on their social media that the films and venue made them feel as though they’d been magically transported out of Japan to some global village.
On top of the architectural ambiance, it’s a wow location—the sea on one side mountains on the other.

When I met the owners of both buildings we use, they were totally cool. Instantly they understood what we wanted the festival to be, fully aboard and supportive. And I’m happy to say the relationship between Rising Sun and the venue is solid and has even grown into a friendship.

MLP: We’ll want to come back to the venue again since it’s so integral to what makes your festival a gem.

Before zeroing in on this year’s festival, a question about the first festival. What’s one film from last year that you’d like to sit down to and watch again?

From last year definitely Small Town Wisconsin. Directed by Niels Mueller (The Assassination of Richard Nixon), it’s my overall favorite film of 2020. I must have seen it eight times between prepping it for the fest, and its official screening, and its “encore” screening in December. We’re fortunate to have Niels as one of the judges of this year’s fest.

As for this year’s films, there are so many gems…
Three docs stand out:

1) From to Hell to Hollywood, the incredible story of Pulitzer-winning photographer Nick Ut.

2) AI: Artificial Immortality, a doc about the future of AI and it will leave your head spinning, and a doc that’s close to home:

3) Who is Lun*na Menoh about an LA-based fashion designer and artist who was born and raised in Moji

As for feature films. I’m excited about the following:

1) Porcupine, the new film by Mike Cahill who previously made King of California with Michael Douglas—we have the Japanese premiere

2) Peace by Chocolate, a wonderful Canadian film about Syrian refugees who opened a chocolate company in Nova Scotia, this film took Tribeca by storm, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win several major awards. Again, we have the Japanese premiere.

3) Sweetie You Won’t Believe is a wild film from Kazakhstan. I can’t explain it other than it’s Fargo meets From Dusk Till Dawn, and it will have its Japanese premiere with us.

4) Dreams on Fire, made by a Canadian director in Tokyo. It’s Japan’s first urban dance movie. We are helping relaunch the film after covid took a bite out of its box office release.

I think our jury members help our reputation and the fact that we don’t bullshit filmmakers and stand true to what we believe. A lot of filmmakers, well known or not, respect that. We are transparent about what we do and why and it’s appreciated.

Filmmakers talk. When guys like filmmaker Niels Mueller talk, people tend to listen. His support generates the right kind of interest.

MLP: I know you won’t badmouth the competition, but can you give us an idea about what kind of BS filmmakers who submit have to put up with in other festivals?

MJ: That’s a slippery slope. But here’s a comment from one of last year’s filmmakers who submitted an entry:

“What I appreciate about the Rising Sun International Film Festival is that they understand movies and respect the filmmakers. They know what goes into producing a project, both large and small, and encourage filmmakers with a personal touch. These days there are many predatory film festivals that are just interested in generating entrance fees and have no respect for or follow-through with filmmakers. I look forward to seeing Rising Sun grow bigger each and every year.”

MLP: So, can you tell us who that’s from?

MJ: His name is Randy Schmidt. He’s an American producer and director based in Tokyo. This year will be his second time to participate in Rising Sun.

We have a number of filmmakers from Kanto and Kansai attending. International guests won’t be allowed into Japan; if they were, we would have a lot more.

MLP: It sounds like love is a strong driver in all this. Labors or love don’t necessarily correlate with banking huge revenues. Are you comfortable talking about finances? Sponsorship?

MJ The city was the big one. We had some local sponsors as well, a sake brewer and liquor store, a real-estate company. Some of it was quid pro quo; with a pandemic, companies are losing money, so we got creative.

MLP: Do you anticipate both and non-submitting filmmakers attending?

MJ: We have a number of filmmakers from Kanto and Kansai attending. International guests won’t be allowed into Japan, if they were, I am certain we would have a lot more.

MLP: How family-friendly is the Fest?

MJ: Our Sunday morning program is specifically for families. We have a number of animated films ending with the Lego film and workshop for kids. Family screening is free for kids with paying adults, and kids all get free popcorn too.

MLP: If It’s OK with you, before getting into more details of this year’s festival, a question for people new to film festival attendance: could you give potential novice attendees an idea about what makes film festival films different? That is, different from what they’ll see from Hollywood, Bollywood, or other mass centers of commercial film production?

MJ: Well, when you think of commercial movies, the big studio franchise movies pop into your head, especially in a pandemic world when cinemas are hurting and need the big movies to survive. Festivals are the territory of tomorrow’s blockbusters- blockbusters by indie or up-and-coming filmmakers. Who was Tarantino or Jarmusch before Cannes? Last year’s surprise, Oscar nominees and winners all got their starts at festivals. What you’ll find at festivals—especially ours— are films you will hear about very soon, films you can see before they’re a big deal on Netflix or Prime Video. It’s also a place to discover films from cinematic regions you may not know. Last year we had great films from Greece and Egypt. This year we have one film from the Faroe Islands, one from Kazakhstan, and a couple from Singapore—and they’ll blow the audience away.

MLP: I like it—exposing films from rarely heard places. A keyhole poking through the monolith of Japanese culture peeking into cultures practically unknown here.

Interesting, you should mention Tarantino and Jarmusch. Tarantino, quirkiness and all, has gone big time, all the while staying true to his art. Jarmusch, likewise true to his art— and himself, has taken a different fork in the road. He’s an independent and, at least in film circles, he’s famous. But he still finds seeking financing for his films troublesome. How do you see your harvest of films and filmmakers sorting on their commercial prospects and creative merit?

MJ: The landscape for film distribution has changed since the start of the pandemic. Not that long ago, Netflix and Amazon, with their original films, were seen as impostors in the world of cinema. In the past two years they’ve both emerged as the top studios. Streaming has become a strong threat to movie theaters. Thanks to the pandemic, the rules of the distribution game have changed.

Netflix and Prime were once seen as the haven for indie filmmakers to get their work out there. However, the streaming platforms are now attracting bigger and bigger stars to make original films for them. Add to that the fact that the streaming game got more populated with studios following Disney’s path, launching their own online platforms. Scary times for classic movie watching!!

That being said, of our lineup this year, I can safely predict that 90% of our feature films will have distribution in play sooner rather than later—I’ll be bold and say a few of them even have major award potential. Rising Sun is in contact with several distributors in Asia and North America. We facilitate introductions with producers or sales agents with the distributors.

I believe in every film we show. It’s important to me that everyone who buys a ticket to a film we show feels what they see was worth the ticket price— and that when they see the film pop up on their Netflix or Prime a few months later, they can say, “hey, I saw that in Kitakyushu before anyone!”

MLP: It sounds like you’re projecting a rosy career picture for 90% of your filmmakers. And then there’s the other 10%. They’re less commercial indie films, still worthwhile, likable even, but at the margins? Not likely to be picked up by Netflix or Amazon, destined to be seen only in blurry YouTubes or by lucky festival attendees?

MJ: Not at all. If I were distributing them, they’d all be out and pushed hard. But I keep that 10% for the great unknown trends of distributors. It’s a messy game these days, so it’s harder to know what will get picked up.

We are in touch with distributors, and they’re interested in most of what we show. But if they can come to terms with producers and sales agents, it’s out of Rising Sun’s hands.

MLP: Let’s turn to the individual titles scheduled for this year. Does that sound OK?

What countries are represented and which have a preponderance of the films?

Let me make that easier on you. I hope not too much slips through. Jumbling all countries together, I get six films from Japan (with one co-Canadian production), six from Canada (including the Japanese co-production), four from the USA, and two from Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore. Does that sound about right?

MJ: Sounds about right. But our third wave of films will be announced on October 8, and we will have a few more from Japan and the USA.

MLP: So what’s behind the strong participation of Japan, Canada, and the USA?

MJ: Your guess is as good as mine. I can check the numbers by submission and see if they match the demographics of the selected films.

Primarily when we select a film, we select based on cinematic merit and avoid the politics of where it’s from etc. First and foremost, we want to show the best possible movies.

MLP: Stop me if the question makes you feel uncomfortable, but along with the documentaries and features you mentioned already, which submissions from those three countries stand out?

MJ: Oh man. That’s a toughie. Here’s my shortlist, sorry if I upset anyone, honestly all the films are brilliant and worth seeing.

USA: I already mentioned Porcupine, directed by M. Cahill—who previously did The King of California with Michael Douglas. Porcupine will increase his legendary status. Then there’s From Hell to Hollywood, the brilliant doc I already mentioned, about famous photographer Nick Ut, directed by Hollywood veteran Jon Kroll. There’s Trees of Peace (we will announce this film in October) directed by first-timer Alanna Brown. Brown is already making a splash as a writer and director. This powerful film will cement her path on a long and brilliant career in cinema.

Japan/Canada: Phil McKie is the director of Dreams on Fire, what a guy and what a film.

Japan: Ruined and Two and On the Edge both will surprise you!

Canada: Peace by Chocolate is an amazing and heartwarming film based on a true story of Syrian Refugees who opened a chocolate shop in Nova Scotia—excellently directed by Jonathan Keijser. Don’t be surprised to see this film as a contender for major awards! And the previously mentioned, AI: Artificial Immortality—an eye-opener of a doc. Then there’s Motherly, a brilliant, shocking and violent suspense film!!

MLP: Then, with two each, there’s India, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Then one each from a number of places. Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands jumped to my mind as seldom heard from. France and Italy were each in there. Any high spots you can point to among all these?

Again, that’s tough. The selection team did a great job picking the best of the best.

Korea: what an amazing and hot film market at the moment. The year’s feature from Korea is A Legendary Fighter, from the same producer as our runaway hit from Korea last year. A Legendary Fighter is a martial arts fight film much like the old school Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee films. Great fight scenes capped off with excellent music. The Korean short Time to Eat is powerful but told delicately and subtly.

India: The feature is The 137 Auditions of Avrahaam Yaakob, the story of one man’s quest to be the perfect actor. Most people have been exposed only to musicals and big dance routine films from Bollywood. This film has no singing, no dancing: just superb acting and a great story—worth discovering deeper roots to Indian cinema. The Indian short, The Grasshoppers Live Here is so sweet and beautiful. It’s one of our shortest films this year but with big impact.

Taiwan: We had so many great submissions from there it was very hard for our team to choose. Last year we opened with a film from Taiwan that got a standing ovation. This year we bring No. 76 Horror Bookstore, a top-shelf horror movie from the same studio as last year’s opening film. It’s scary… if you’re a horror fan, you’ll devour this movie. If you’re not a horror fan and you watch this, you may have a hard time sleeping. The LGBT-themed short from Taiwan, Swingin’ is brilliant—nothing short other than the run time.

Singapore: Two shorts this year. Henchmen will show Saturday night, it’s a funny and gory play on traditional action movie clichés. Next is called After Noon, a sensitive look and a young man discovering his sexuality.

Kazakhstan: I’m so pleased to have a film from Kazakhstan. Like most people, my knowledge of the country isn’t vast- even less their cinema. But Sweetie You Won’t Believe It is such a zany and hilarious mix of genres that the audience won’t believe it either. It’s like a cross between early Coen Brothers and From Dusk Till Dawn. A perfect Saturday night movie- shocks you one minute, makes you laugh the next. I want to discover more films from the region.

Italy and France: Rarely have I seen a film from either place that didn’t right away identify the origin and leave me cinematically enthusiastic. These films both live up to those expectations.

MLP: With CoVid restrictions, how’s the guest list shaping up?

MJ: We have few interesting guests this year too. A number of filmmakers from Japan. More overseas guests would attend if the Japanese border were open. We are showing a film called Meguru Goes Around Comes Around, a film made in Japan by a filmmaker from Myanmar who has since been arrested. He is being held in Myanmar. After the film, a journalist will be on hand to talk about his situation.

We will also have Lun*na Menoh, an LA-based fashion designer and artist who was born and raised in Moji! She’ll be allowed into Japan because she still carries a Japanese passport. We are showing a documentary about her — she’s excited to premiere here in her native hometown. She’s going to speak after the movie. A fun and awesome lady— I’m looking forward to meeting her.

As I mentioned, Sunday morning, we will have our family movies. This year we have an added feature, our last film in that block will be a stop motion Lego movie. The director will be here and will have a workshop after the screening where kids of all ages can make a stop-action movie with him on stage. It’ll be so fun for anyone who wants to participate or has an interest in animation.

MLP: For the foreign language challenged, can viewers expect Japanese and English subtitles?

MJ: Yes. That’s correct. Most non-English language and non-Japanese films will be subtitled in both English and Japanese. Most English movies will be sub-titled in Japanese, and all Japanese movies will be subtitled in English. I say “most” because we make the Japanese subtitles in house at Rising Sun. However, we require some files from the filmmakers to translate the film correctly. If the assets from the filmmaker are in order and received in time, we can add the Japanese subtitles.

It’s a two-way street. Kitakyushu isn’t a huge city and doesn’t have the demographics of a place like Tokyo. Most festivals in Japan don’t burden themselves with the expense of translating subtitles into Japanese. But I feel we can reach the widest audience possible with the subtitle options we offer. I think we open up to a bigger audience by adding Japanese subtitles to films and English subs to Japanese films. Also, since our jury is scattered over three countries (including Japan), if any film wants a chance to compete at Rising Sun, it has to have subtitles.

MLP: So how much will it cost the public to attend?

MJ: To see a film at Rising Sun will cost ¥1,000 for a few shorts followed by a feature film. Some films include workshops or on-stage talks with filmmakers for no extra cost. JR high-aged kids and younger are free with a paying adult, and on Sunday at the family film block and animation workshop, all kids get free popcorn.

A side note… there will be on-site food vendors in the courtyard to complement the amazing menu and full bar of Brick Hall.

Suppose someone is interested in attending more than a couple of screenings. In that case, they can buy a festival pass for ¥5000, giving them access to attend any films they want, after parties, and any additional workshops.

Tickets and passes will be on sale on our website through Peatix and also available on-site at the festival.

The price is reflective of wanting to reach the widest audience possible. I’m excited about the movies, and I want people to discover them and be a comfortable and memorable experience. The venue is so accessible, has parking. For those who prefer the train, it’s a 4 or 5-minute walk from Moji station, which is 1 stop away from Kokura. Mix that convenience in with its comfortable and classy atmosphere and reasonable price, and it becomes open to anyone. That’s what cinema should be. It’s for everyone.

Off the record, you need to try the pizza at brick hall you’ll love it.

MLP: I’ll be there! Do you think maybe we have a wrap?

MJ: I believe so. Thanks!

MLP: The pleasure is all mine!

The festival runs between November 5 ~ 7, 2021


Event listing on Fukuoka Now

Rising Sun International Film Festival


Published: Oct 19, 2021 / Last Updated: Oct 20, 2021

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