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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Soul on Screen

Minori Takao

Jun. 8, 2016

Naomi Kawase has become the first Japanese jury president at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Cannes, in southern France, is known for glamour and flash. Every May, it hosts one of the biggest film festivals in the world.

One of the many famous filmmakers that attend is Naomi Kawase. Taking center stage at Cannes comes naturally to the Japanese director. Executives welcome her like family, actors and fellow directors greet her with respect.

"This is my hometown, the hometown of my life in cinema," Kawase says.

At 27, she became the youngest winner of the Camera d'Or award for her first feature film. She awed the jury and critics with her expressions of human relationships and the beauty of nature.

Then, with "Mogari -- the Mourning Forest," Kawase won the Grand Prize, and her name spread across the world.

This year, she was asked by festival officials to take on a new role -- jury president for a competition for young directors trying to breathe new life into the world of cinema.

Kawase is renowned for creating independent movies that feature the fragility of human relations and the harsh realities of life.

Her own complicated upbringing has influenced her work. That experience and perspective is what festival organizers wanted, to help them find new talent.

Kawase's career began with documentaries of her life. One of her first records her search for her father, whom she had never met. Her parents separated before Kawase was born, and she was raised by a relative. In the film, she musters the courage to call her father for the first time.

Kawase always wondered why she was born. Film helped fill the void in her life. When her father died, she documented herself getting a tattoo resembling one that her he had. She wanted something that would bond them.

"I revealed so much because my actual life was even tougher," Kawase says. "I was hoping that if someone understood me, it would help me move forward."

And then, her foster mother developed dementia, and Kawase became a caregiver for the person that raised her. At the same time, she also experienced a joy she'd never had before -- the birth of her son.

As one life was fading away, another life was budding.

She turned that duality into a film, the one that won her the Grand Prize. A young mother tries to help a man with dementia, and together they overcome the pain of losing loved ones.

"Winning at Cannes made me realize that the loneliness I had felt all my life was something other people could relate to," Kawase says. "I was so grateful that people shared my feelings, and that they noticed me."

Since then, France is where Kawase gets the most support for her work. Some critics have said her films are "too personal" or are "self-indulging fantasies." But others say that's what sets her apart from others.

"Both in documentary and fiction, there is her presence and this very original way to look at things, to look at people," says cinema journalist Jean-Michel Frodon. "We in France or the Western world, we have a different background or culture, but nevertheless we can relate to them."

Cannes discovered Kawase and this year, her role was to make her own discovery, of a promising new generation of filmmakers.

She was given the mission by the man who has nurtured the festival for almost 40 years -- Gilles Jacob. He's watched Kawase since her debut, and believed she would make the right decisions.

"As a person, and as a filmmaker, Kawase has a delicate sensitivity, a firm view of the world and she's very human," Jacob says. "With her minimalist touch and her embrace of the world, she creates extremely original, unparalleled and coherent films, which strike a deep chord with people. That's why I chose her as the president of the jury."

More than 2,300 entries were made by student directors around the world, including one from the United Kingdom that portrayed the loneliness of a young immigrant. The director is originally from Iran.

"If this director had gotten used to living in the UK, this film would not have been made," Kawase says. "He expressed the reality of his life. That's extremely powerful. Only now can he make such a film."

A female director from Israel presented a story of a woman searching for her identity, as she roams the streets of her deserted town.

Kawase and jury members spent hours screening and listening to the directors present their work.

One from Venezuela caught her attention.

"When I was a child, my father and the woman he loved took some decisions. And this movie is my way to understand them," says Venezuelan director Michael Labarca.

In his film, a man goes to see his lover in the darkness of night. But it's a reflection of the director's own childhood, from his father's point of view, during an affair.

Kawase helped choose 4 winners, who will be given financial support to make a feature film.

"I really pushed for you, your own situation," Kawase says. "You still have a lot to learn but there's something about your work that really draws people in."

"This kind of opinion, or comments, keep me following my intuition as a director and motivates me," Labarca says.

The raw emotions these young directors expressed reminded Kawase of what drew her to film in the first place.

"The films of these young directors possess a power that can break the hardest of rocks," Kawase says. "The directors have made something only they can make, at this time in their lives. That's inspired me, to make more films. I will make films till the day I die."

Kawase is hoping to continue the relationship she's developed with these young directors. She plans to invite them to her hometown of Nara, and arrange for their films to be shown there.