As Sheffield Doc Fest wrapped its first online edition, we spoke with one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge from that discipline in recent years. With just two titles released, Parisian director Julien Faraut has become quietly synonymous with finding new and surprising territory in one of documentary cinema’s most hackneyed genres: the sports documentary.
In The Realm of Perfection came like a breath of fresh air in 2018; his latest continues the trend. Again working with footage from the National Institute of Sport, where he continues to work as an archivist, The Witches of the Orient tells the story of the 1964 Japanese Women’s Olympic volleyball team and the television anime they would later inspire–two distinct threads Faraut weaves into something hypnotic. As the film arrives in the U.S. read our conversation below.
The Film Stage: I read a nice line recently from Marc Nemcik. He said, “Julien Faraut has figured out the sweet spot between sport and cinema.” When you began making films, did you consider sports documentaries to be somehow uncinematic?
Julien Faraut: I never thought of it as a limitation. When you have a frame it is a chance, because there are so many subjects, so many things to do. So it was a frame but not a narrow frame. As a spectator, I considered that sports documentaries were formatted and quite the same. They were always focused on the subject; they wanted to take advantage of a true story that was popular. I thought that this was uncharted territory, and it was a true opportunity for me because I have too much respect and love for cinema. I don’t think that the sports source is limited. I really think that I can develop my own cinema from this angle.
Both of your films are connected to your work in the Institut National du Sport. Did you come to that job more through a passion for sport or cinema?
I would say both, actually. I studied history in a French university, Paris Nanterre. I used to play a lot of ice hockey in the best French league when I was a teenager; many of my teammates were selected for the national team. When I started thinking more about my non-sport career, when I started working on my master’s, one of my teachers gave a lecture on Abel Gance. Every student already knew Abel Gance, but he told us that he worked at the French Sport Institute. Some of my best friends were in the Institute because of our team and I was very surprised to find this common link between these parts of my life, the sports and history, and cinema. He told me to come with him to the Institute, and that’s how the connection was made.
At the time I was not thinking of making films myself because I thought it was out of reach. I didn’t study in any film school. I was a cinephile for sure, but I never imagined myself, or have any wish to make films. I remember a special moment that just ignited my desire to start making film, a screening of Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. I didn’t have any training on the making of film, on film theory, on editing, on how film could reveal a state of mind, a social and political context. So it was kind of a revelation. All of a sudden I knew that maybe this desire was hidden deep inside. When I started at the institute I was surrounded by archives; I just had to edit some footage. The difficulty to direct, to raise money, to make a set, it just vanished.
I’ve heard you mention Marker’s influence before. Are there other filmmakers that have inspired you quite as much?
Not necessarily in terms of style, because I really want my own way of making films. In a more general way, I’m inspired by the vision of many filmmakers, by their creativity. I learn from them that I have to do my best to find something personal and new. I love many well-known filmmakers, I read their books or statements—people like Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch, as you are based in Berlin. I really love these filmmakers that manage to make films for everyone but also respect them. Billy Wilder wrote some advice to scriptwriters. He said, the first rule is don’t give the audience the answer to 2+2. You don’t have to say it’s 4. Let the audience do it because they will enjoy this small effort. I think it’s really guided my work.
You started making Witches of the Orient after discovering a film that had been made about the team and their training exercises. What was it about the footage that captured your imagination?
This French volleyball trainer came to me with this 16mm footage. I remember being very impressed by the content, by the training, the speed of their drills, and how modern it looked. It was very far from the standard of that era. And very quickly I was making a connection with the anime. In France in the late ‘80s we all watched an anime called Attack No. 1. It was shown across Europe so everyone knew it; it created a big increase in terms of new players in France. So it had a real social impact yet nobody knew that it was inspired by a true story.
It was a real revelation to discover that this anime was inspired not only by the story but by the footage itself. I found that many of the frames, the composition of the image, looked the same. I really like this back-and-forth between reality and fiction. The true story that inspired a fiction, the fiction that inspired the people to play volleyball and maybe try to look like the fiction and the protagonists. The fact that those players had individual nicknames… it creates something messy but I really like the confusion.
It’s such a different world to McEnroe’s in many ways, in terms of fame but also temperament. I’m curious if these factors changed your approach in any way?
I really felt no need to meet John McEnroe, or to interview him, because I already knew it was useless. He’s not very interesting in interviews and I really wanted to show him playing tennis rather than talking about himself. In this case it was quite the opposite. I read many newspaper articles from the ‘60s, but also more contemporary ones, and I found a lack of testimony. There was no place for the players to speak about themselves and I didn’t agree with many of the commentators and journalists. I really felt a need to give them the opportunity to explain their story by themselves.
It was also a touchy subject, their relationship with the trainer, in our political and social context. Not only with MeToo, there were so many horrible stories, in France and Japan, of harassment and sexual abuse in sports. So it was touchy and I didn’t want to write a voiceover to explain what I thought about it because, in their case, it was very complex. Their trainer pushed them very hard, the fact that he was nicknamed “demon coach,” etc. That’s why it leads me to this very different film, with no voiceover. I was discovering, like a spectator, what the voiceover would be because of their testimony.
I’m curious how you select the music for your films?
When I watched the Olympic footage, at the end of the Olympic final, I was really stunned by a particular moment when Coach Daimatsu is seated on a bench and he does nothing that could be considered a celebration. He’s trying to hide his tears. I thought it was very strange because we are used to watching celebrations after a goal, after a victory. I understood at that time that he knew it was the end of their story. He knew that most of the players would retire. He knew that he would most likely go back to his normal life. It was the end, this mix between happiness and sadness, this nostalgia. I thought that Jason Lytle from Grandaddy was the perfect person, because his music is always very melancholic, but not sad. This nuance is hard to find. For John McEnroe it was obvious that I needed electric guitar with distortion.
When I saw Realm in 2018, the only film I could even slightly find to compare it to was Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Do you know it?
Yes. It was a new way to watch something that we thought was familiar. When you create a new way to look at it, a new angle, everything seems not familiar at all.
The Witches of the Orient screened at Sheffield Docs and is now playing at Film Forum and expands on July 16. Learn more here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.