IndieLisboa: Delving into Les Sorcières de L’Orient by Julien Faraut
IndieLisboa ended on September 6. The 18th edition featured 12 sections: International Competition, National Competition, Silvestre, Brand New, IndieJunior, IndieMusic, Director’s Cut, Mouth of Madness, Special Sessions, 5L Program, Retrospective of Sarah Maldoror and LisbonTalks.
Part of the International Competition, Julien Faraut presented Les Sorcières de L’Orient. The French director, who works at the Institut National du Sport in Paris, is responsible for a collection of 16 mm films. Therefore, his entire filmography is dedicated to sports, in particular the sports archive. In that path, there were two feature films prior to the one he now premiered, Regard neuf sur Olympia from 2013 and John McEnroe: L’empire de la perfection from 2018.
In a year of Olympic Games, the filmmaker presented a story about a Japanese volleyball team that made history at the 1964 Games, also in Tokyo. But in this 100-minute feature film, there is much more than Olympic glory. Three-dimensionality is given to the athletes who, during the 60s, surprised the world by achieving a record of 258 consecutive victories, still unbeaten today.
During the film, we are invited to meet some of the athletes. Now septuagenarians, we accompany them in their routines, in their homes with their families, remembering the times when they played together. These interviews are the first images that the filmmaker uses in his film that do not belong to the archive. In a Q&A at IndieLisboa, he justified his decision: during his research, he came across several international press articles, which conveyed the idea that only in a misogynistic society like Japan’s could women train hard enough, sacrificing so much to attain such feats. Julien proposes another narrative: a Western society which, in the 60s, promoted the idea of women’s sport as something contained, which did not allow women to become too muscular, strong or calloused, characteristics contrary to the social canons of beauty. Those women, freed from patriarchal values, could train with a dedication and freedom forbidden to western women. It was essential to give them a voice and invite them to tell their own story. When each of them introduces themselves, they mention the nickname they had at the time: “I was Witch #5”, the number on her jersey.
The attempt to humanise these women is a parallel process to the construction of the icon that each of them has become. When we see their resilience and determination, we also see the exhaustion and despair that a high-performance sport causes. When we see how incredible they were, we also notice how mundane they are. They are flesh and blood heroines and it is that earthly essence that makes them extraordinary. The fast-paced, rhythmic editing throughout the film combines archive footage of training and games with footage from the Attack No. 1 anime inspired by their story.
The layers of the film are many. It is remarkable how the director has managed to get us up and down the stairs without us getting lost. The depth of the personal and sporting narrative combines with the historical contextualisation, helping to build a growing narrative tension. The highlight of the film is the 1964 Olympic Games. Olympic gold is the ultimate recognition for any athlete, but these Games also had enormous importance for Japan. After World War II and the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagazaki, the country wanted to present itself to the world as reborn, renewed power for the future.
In this feature film, Julien Faraut has captured the complexity of life and, combined with an extraordinary soundtrack, it is a magnetising film from start to finish. From the history of Japan to the story of each of these women, from the madness of high-level sport to the achievement of something impossible, from misogynistic condescension and Eurocentric vision to the vindication of a narrative told in the first person. This revisiting of the past is a cinematic celebration of several lives, which are much more than Olympic glory and 258 victories with a flag on the chest.
Les Sorcières de L’Orient was only one of the 12 feature films in the International Competition. During the seventeen days of the Festival, the programme included over 250 films, debates, workshops and masterclasses, at São Jorge Cinema, Culturgest, Cinemateca Portuguesa, Ideal Cinema and Galveias Library.
IndieLisboa ended on September 6. The full program is available here.