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“I’ve Always Been Very Frustrated with Sports Films”: Julien Faraut on The Witches of the Orient, Learning from Chris Marker and Volleyball Anime

The Witches of the Orient

In his extraordinary portrait of American tennis champ John McEnroe, In the Realm of Perfection (2018), French filmmaker Julien Faraut engineered a hypnotizing meditation on the intersection between sports, performance and the creation of images—not at all the conventional retread of history one might expect from anything with the “sports movie” label. In his latest, The Witches of the Orient, Faraut returns to the arena of athletic competition in similarly idiosyncratic fashion, profiling the women of Japan’s most famous volleyball team. Made up of former textile workers, team “Nichibo Kaizuka” nabbed gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and inspired a number of popular mangas and anime programs, many of which would play on TV decades later in the homes of Europeans like Faraut.

Weaving anime sequences with archival footage of arduous training sessions led by Coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, Faraut achieves an uncanny, hypnotizing result as the two formats at times rhythmically merge into one—an effect aided by an energizing electronic score by K-Raw and Jason Lytle, as well as Portishead’s “Machine Gun.” Faraut captures the team’s commitment with an intensity that spawns questions about their legacy and their treatment by Western media at the time. Interviews with some of the team’s members, now in their 70s and 80s, are illuminating; they cut through the spectacle and anchor the story in fond memories of collective striving’s joys and hardships. 

Following the film’s premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, I caught up with Faraut to discuss the cross-cultural obstacles he encountered and his distinctive approach to filmmaking. The Witches of the Orient will make its North American premiere as part of MoMA’s virtual Doc Fortnight beginning March 31st.

Filmmaker: I’m curious what prompted you to want to make a movie about this particular women’s volleyball team.

Julien Faraut: I run a small film library here in Paris. About a dozen years ago, a retired French volleyball trainer came to me with a 16mm instructional Japanese film produced after the 1964 Olympic Games. The trainer asked me if I knew [Coach Hirobumi] Daimatsu, who was, for this French trainer, a kind of role model. So, I started from scratch—I had no knowledge of the Witches. But when I watched this footage, I was struck by the speed and intensity of their training. It was so much like the Japanese anime I used to watch when I was a kid. In the ‘80s, in France and in all of Europe, we experienced the first Japanese anime broadcasts. That’s when we discovered a whole world of Japanese culture, and one of the most popular shows was Attacker You! (which is much more recent than the [anime] I used in the film [Attack no. 1], but still possesses some of the same ingredients. So, when I watched the footage I thought, lots of people in France know about anime, but no one really knows that [this popular volleyball anime] was based on a true story about a real squad. 

One of the first things that stood out to me was this very particular Japanese tradition in which sports are closely linked to industries, specifically the textile industry for volleyball. That’s quite unusual, since in the States sports are linked to the university. In France, we have the French ministry in charge of sports. So, when I discovered that the national volleyball team of Japan was not a selection of the best players in the whole country, but rather a group of women who lived, worked and trained together in a small town called Kaizuka in the south of Osaka, my desire to make a film about them increased. 

Filmmaker: Your last film about John McEnroe brings to mind questions of American exceptionalism and individualism, whereas here you’re at the other extreme, with a communal portrait of a group of Japanese women from working-class backgrounds. How’d your approach to filmmaking change?

Faraut: The process was challenging for me as a filmmaker, but also as a spectator and viewer. It’s easier to tell the story of an individual because of the urge you feel to project yourself onto that person. But I was moved by the collective experience of [the Witches], and [taking that approach] was more difficult in terms of storytelling. We don’t have much time to elaborate on each player and their individual paths while keeping it short. So, we opted for a more chronological approach: their start in the textile industry, their first World Championship title, the [increased severity] of their training, the fact that more people were beginning to pay attention to them, their participation in the Olympics and ultimately their gold medal happy ending. I asked each player to explain a piece of the puzzle to achieve a kind of collective perspective, which was a challenge to coordinate. 

Filmmaker: How did you get in contact with the players?

Faraut: It took us almost a year to get in touch with them, because at the time we had no idea. Because I worked in the French Sports Institute, I asked around. My producer got in touch with a Japanese producer he knew to see if [he had any leads]. My interpreter was also instrumental. A year after our first attempts, we finally found someone from the [Japanese Volleyball] Association. It was quite complicated because of Japanese habits and customs. For instance, if you ask someone to introduce you to another person, that first person will stay on as mediator for the duration of the relationship. So, the person you actually want to be in contact with will never reply to you directly, but always through that first person. 

Filmmaker: What was it like working through an interpreter? Can you expand on her role? 

Faraut: One of my first films was about Chris Marker [A New Look at Olympia 52], who is also very popular in Japan. Catherine Cadou, who was friends with Chris, screened my film in Japan, and since then we’ve been in contact. When I started working on this new project, I knew that Catherine would be a very important person, since she used to be the go-to translator for Japanese cinema in France. In the ’80s and ’90s she subtitled just about every Japanese film here. She was close to Akira Kurosawa, and she was very important in the relationship between Japanese and French cinema. Now Catherine is about 74, so she’s about the same age as the youngest member of the witches. The generational gap and cultural gap were two main issues Catherine helped me solve. I’m 42, the players are in their 70s and 80s, and I don’t speak a word of Japanese. They were actually quite surprised that this French filmmaker wanted to talk to them and have them participate. They also belong to a Japanese generation that isn’t comfortable with being in the spotlight, showing off and talking about themselves with pride. Catherine was helpful [in bringing them out of their shells], but we were also very careful and understood that we had to proceed smoothly and gently. 

Filmmaker: In what ways did you proceed more cautiously?

Faraut: We went to Japan [for the film] for the first time in June 2019, and we didn’t bring a camera, just a microphone and recording device. We met four players, had a discussion and decided not to use a [lapel] mic, because we didn’t want to [intrude on their personal spaces] by needing to adjust the wires. So, we just put a microphone on the table and the women answered my questions. Back in France we translated everything and I selected pieces from their testimonies that applied to different moments in the team’s history. 

Filmmaker: Then there are the scenes you shot, which shows the women in their present daily routines. What was your logic behind incorporating these scenes? 

Faraut: For the scenes we shot, I asked each player where they preferred to be filmed. I wanted them to portray themselves, so the voiceover in the film is entirely their voices and testimonies. The first wanted us to film her in the gym— she wanted to show herself as a healthy woman. The first time we shot she showed us her muscles and pointed to [her biceps] saying how strong she was. So, her testimony was about going to the gym and the kind of training she was doing. [The second player] is still involved in volleyball as a trainer, so we filmed her in a training session. It was a bit different with the other two women. Tanida-san is more shy and distant, and when we met her she was living with her daughter and granddaughters. So I proposed that we film her with her family, which she liked. I asked her what they usually did together and she said they play a lot of games. So I brought them this memory game as a gift, which they ended up playing in the film. That worked well with what I was trying to capture—this idea of remembering old stories. Handa-san also didn’t have any ideas, but she talked a lot about [the Witches’] four-month European tour, the people they met on those journeys, the landscape. In the opening sequence we set up this lunch for the women in Kyoto, so we filmed her individual part in the car on her way home from this meeting to match her testimony about the group’s travels. 

Filmmaker: In Tanida-san’s scene, we see her watching the volleyball anime with her family. It’s quite a meta-moment. Did you set that up or were they already familiar with the show?

Faraut: Yes, I set that up. She was actually not familiar with it, but they all knew the song by heart. That opening credits single is really famous in Japan. When you go to karaoke in Tokyo, that song is always on the track list. I really like that segment, because Tanida-san expressed such amusement and surprise with how (mostly Western) journalists and observers nicknamed [Coach] Daimatsu a “demon.” And in that opening scene of Attack no. 1 that she is watching with her granddaughters you see the harshness and roughness of the coach.

Filmmaker: There’s that borderline absurd part in which you have footage that shows the repetitiveness of the training with Daimatsu, and how at a certain point—despite one player’s protests—he continues to throw more balls at her. I thought it was fascinating how the film shows Western magazines saying that’s not training, that’s abuse, which might also even speak to a younger generation’s view. But, of course, the players don’t think so. 

Faraut: For me, personally, the training reminded me a lot of anime. So, I watched the [the training footage] again and again and discovered how much they are indeed alike—the same frame, the same shot—so I said “OK, we have to incorporate some parallel editing and mashup techniques.” From a more general point of view, and as someone that works in a sports institution, the way the Witches feel about sports is very different from normal people who practice sports for pleasure or health reasons. The Witches were so obsessed by their need to be the best that they devoted themselves entirely [to training].

With regard to abuse, it’s not just a younger generation that might look negatively on the training. Sports Illustrated and Life magazine at the time were shocked by Daimatsu. I felt that the players’ point of view was missing, because I know women who do high level sports and they’re not afraid to train hard. It’s also part of why I wanted to meet them so badly. I think sometimes taking a gender studies [approach] might lead to misunderstandings. For example, there’s this American academic who discovered that Daimatsu was a prisoner of war and that his British [detainors] decided to have him watched over by female officers, because they considered that more humiliating. So, this academic concluded this was the reason he was so harsh to the Witches—his training was a kind of revenge. But then I thought, okay if Daimatsu was so humiliated by these female officers why did he agree to train the Witches? And if Daimatsu was training men, does this mean he’d treat them more gently? 

There’s also the Japanese dimension, this idea of bushido has been key in Japanese sports training, even for non-Japanese sports like baseball. Bushido is a way of training that’s quite harsh, for sure. But both men and women are tough and they’re delighted to train hard. But I also had to be sure. I told people that the Witches did not consider Daimatsu a demon and that they enjoyed their training. But I also had to consider, sometimes when you look at the past you only remember the good things. I suppose my greatest proof is that all the Witches are involved in and play volleyball today. I feel that’s very uncommon. I know a lot of retired professional athletes who, once they retire, stop playing. They become almost disgusted by the sport. But the Witches still love volleyball. So, I feel that this positive attitude doesn’t make sense if they actually considered their training so traumatic and terrible. And when I met them, they talked about how proud they were to have trained so hard and done everything possible to become champions. 

Filmmaker: My mother was actually a former Olympian in Peru and expresses a similar attitude. It would pretty much be disrespectful for these women to be treated less intensely simply because they are women. It really complicates this idea of gendered abuse and the way it’s spoken about today.

Faraut: Exactly. I wanted to show the complexity of such a situation while centering these female players’ perspectives. The relationships between men and women can be very complex, and we can’t judge everything by one standard. In France, where we’re supposed to be more open-minded, we see Japan as a very patriarchal society. We suppose we are more respectful of women. Back then in France a woman could do anything, but only in moderation. This applied to sports as well: a woman could train, but she shouldn’t hurt herself. These French and American journalists were shocked by the fact that these women were not training in moderation. 

Filmmaker: That almost ties in to the fact that they were labeled “Witches” in the first place, and how abnormal it must’ve seemed to see women so totally committed. 

Faraut: The nickname actually came from the Russians. Japanese women are much smaller, so Daimatsu had the team work on their speed, which impressed the Russians a lot. [The Witches’] reception was so fast because of their training. 

Filmmaker: Obviously you have special access to sports documentary footage given your background, but do you imagine this always being your specialty, this kind of experimental sports documentary? 

Faraut: When I was growing up I was a cinephile but never really thought of making movies myself. I had no expectation or wish to do so, mainly because it felt so out of reach. I never attended film school and my parents weren’t involved in the field. In university I started watching more documentaries and started realizing maybe I can do this, but I always felt like I was coming from a more theoretical and academic background. And editing has always been more fascinating to me than shooting the film. So, when I had the opportunity to be in charge of a film library at the Institut National du Sport (INSEP), they asked me to make productions from the footage available in the archive. I thought, “this is great, I don’t have to shoot myself, I just use footage.” I also learned a lot from Chris Marker, someone who means a lot to me and who helped me believe I could be a filmmaker myself. So, when you have footage, you have to digitize it, then you write a voiceover, and that’s how I did my first film, which was not out of reach at all.

As a young cinephile I mostly watched American classics which were all very far from the world of sports. But I think as a filmmaker, you don’t really choose what you do or even your style. I’ve always been very frustrated with sports films—they’re usually not films at all. They’re just interesting for their content, not for form or narration. They’re just reports. So, I thought, “Here is an opportunity to fill a void. The subject is not always the whole thing, you can do the same topic but in different ways.” But I also really love sports: I love to see people that practically have supernatural powers, because they are the only people in the world that can achieve such moves and creativity in their sport. 

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