Documentary Maker

Monday, January 11, 2016
This article appeared recently in the Aiki Kai Australia Newsletter.

Rob Castiglione approached me to talk about making an Aikido film. Not a film to be watched by existing students and then archived but something that could bring the heart of our Aikido to a wider audience. A man of diverse talents – lawyer, lecturer, Aikido student and passionate filmmaker - Rob has made several award winning documentaries and dramas through his production company, New Editions. Rob wanted to make his next film centred on our unique style of movement, on the people that love Aikido and the legacy of Sugano Sensei. Filming began in 2012

Interview with Robert Castiglione - Aikido documentary maker
How do you think Aikido is seen by the general public?
I think Aikido deserves a better reputation. It has been shy to promote itself. This shyness probably has complex roots to do with the fact that Aikido regards itself as a “way” and not say a sport I had an Aikido photograph up on my editing screen and some film students immediately asked – ‘what’s that’? Seriously, not one of them had heard of Aikido, whereas everyone knows what Karate, Judo, Tae Kwon Do are. I showed them some footage and they were just blown away. They couldn’t understand how people were being thrown, couldn’t interpret the movement. I guess the film is partly to introduce people to Aikido and Aikido movement.

Young people?
Well I think a lot of young people want to know about the martial side of the art, how effective it is physically, for example, but my interests lean towards more spiritual aspects. That won’t suit everybody.· My first recollection of Aikido was grainy black and white images I saw when I was about twelve. It made a powerful and lasting impact on me. What impressed me was the effortless way in which nage threw his partner, such an enormous distance with apparent ease, I was so amazed.· I guess you have to find people and attract them at the level where they’re at. If you only gave a very sophisticated spiritual account of Aikido you are going to lose some people completely.

Do you see the film as being a way to promote Aikido?
Every person we’ve spoken for the film to date has given us quite a significantly different account of what Aikido means to them and where it’s going to take them. I’m a bit shy about giving grandiose philosophical explanations, or a pedagogic notion of what Aikido is. I certainly have an agenda to be honest about it. Someone once said to me that Aikido is like the Ganges, a mighty river, you can dip your toe in and get it wet and that’s enjoyable or you can immerse yourself in something so enormous it will overwhelm you. No single person is ever going to be big enough for Aikido or to dominate Aikido or to control or define it, no matter how great a practitioner they are. Our aim in the film is obviously not to explain Aikido but if you can impart something of that sense. If you’re looking at the spiritual side of Aikido, will you be looking at Shinto ideas? Broadly speaking the film will explore the spiritual dimensions of Aikido. However, it is not going to try and explore O Sensei’s religious tradition. He had a very specific spiritual tradition that Western Aikido practitioners don’t usually subscribe to. What I am interested in are notions of breath, the power of breath, linking heaven and earth, misogi, being centred and relaxed. It might sound a bit harsh but there is no point getting on the mat unless you’re willing to invest in those notions. I don’t think you have to be an adherent of Shinto to believe those things. The film explores some of those notions

So you’ve now interviewed a number of people, including our three Australian shihans, and you are hoping to film students in Melbourne later this year – do you take a particular approach to the interviews?
I use a pretty intuitive approach. Aikido principles are not just about the mat. Everyone knows that. Trying to apply Aikido principles, for example spontaneity, to filmmaking are of great interest to me. I try to be responsive to someone’s particular atmosphere. With the shihans, for example, you can be absolutely confident that there is something substantial there, something deep to explore. It is just so interesting to see how the three Australian shihans are so fundamentally different as people and how their Aikido is so different as well. I have specific questions, of course. We have a spot interview segment in the film where we ask people ‘where did your interest in Aikido originate?’ – everyone has a different story. For our senior teachers, I have been asking what techniques or ideas they are exploring at the moment.· We’re all interested in how these people became inspired to train in Aikido, how they continued and endured for such a long time. It’s tremendously impressive for any martial artist to get to those levels. People maybe don’t fully appreciate how difficult it really is. It’s well beyond what people might imagine, compared to, say, getting a PhD. It’s really important to have people at that level in this country teaching. It’s a great resource for people wanting to learn Aikido.

So there will be a number of themes throughout the film?
I see the structure of the film being very much like a rope, not a modern synthetic rope maybe, an ancient rope made of natural strands of fibre – there are a number of strands that will come together, appearing and reappearing in the film. An important strand is about this great teacher – Sugano Sensei who has a great story. Obviously he was a magnetic influence on his students, particularly on his core students. And that’s great story to tell, especially with the archival material, showing Sugano Sensei and these senior people in their early stages of development.· We’ll look at the beginner’s perspective and where they find a place in the Aikido community, Sugano Sensei’s community and tradition in Australia, and also technique. We’ll look at commitment in a number of contexts, for example, Clifton Hill dojo - something like our Australian hombu – as well as more recently established dojos -· the Leederville dojo in Perth, Martin and Bodhi’s new dojo in Tasmania.

What about visually, technically – is the film going to be different from other Aikido films?
This is not a technical film. It’s important to stress that. At the same time, in order to make Aikido accessible and to show core underlying principles, for example irimi, it’s important to examine a number of core Aikido techniques. It’s hard to find good Aikido films. The movement is beautiful but it’s very hard to capture those things on film. It’s extremely challenging. There’s a tendency to have a rather dull wide shot to bring out the technical aspects but we want to go beyond that. O Sensei has a poem which is a paean to ‘the beautiful forms of Aikido’ and that’s what I’d like to show, something deeper than the merely technical. If we can bring across the beauty, some of the formal beauty and the structure, it would be wonderful.

With funding from the Aikido Foundation and with Rob providing his time and state-of-the-art equipment gratis, we began filming early in 2012. We grabbed shihans as they came to Perth, conducting interviews and filming their seminars, experimenting with lighting and techniques at the Leederville dojo. Rob then travelled to Tasmania to film extensively with Tony Smibert Shihan, Linton Tuleja and Martin Bratzel Sensei both in the dojo and in the lake and mountain areas around Deloraine. We’ve been selecting archival footage of Sugano Sensei and early Australian students to splice into the film. In July, Rob spent three days at the Winter School in Sydney, filming the Shihans teaching, the dawn training and pulling various students off the mat for a twenty second take (sweating, breathless, no makeup!) on what it was about Aikido that inspired them. This was followed by a whirlwind shoot in Melbourne, where with the help of Victorian students Rob interviewed Robert Botterill Sensei both at home and at Glen Waverley dojo as well as Ray Oldman Sensei, Felicia Birman Sensei, John Watson Sensei and other senior students. We followed up with one last big shoot at the Hanami Geiko in Tasmania including a seminar at the new dojo at Tenchi Farm. Rob is working hard now on post-production and we’ll be releasing snippets of film and more stills as it draws closer to completion.

The film is now complete and being promoted to film festivals around the world. It will be released for general showing early in 2017. Ed

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