Kawase Naomi, the Japanese auteur who won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997 and has had films in competition on multiple other occasions, is paying a flying visit to the festival with “Official Film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Side A,” which screens on Wednesday evening.
A feature-length documentary, “Side A” is focused largely on the athletes. “Side B,” Kawase’s next project, casts a wider net and captures what Kawase calls a turning point for Japanese society.
Did the film choose you? Or did you choose it?
The International Olympic Committee hired me to do it. I was elected or nominated by the IOC. They wanted somebody who had a global reach and was an auteur filmmaker of a certain caliber. Thierry Fremaux of the Cannes Film Festival was heavily involved in the decision making.
Why did you want to direct a sports documentary?
From a very young age, I was heavily involved in sports, I was a basketball player in my youth. I’ve always been heavily inspired by sport and the hope, the emotion and the strength that it provides. Whenever I watch a sports match I get very emotional, because I know all the things that are happening behind the performance. That below-the-surface humanity is something I wanted to explore and capture in my film.
The film covers other aspects such as the preparations and build up to the Olympics in Tokyo, the public resistance to it and also the beginnings of the COVID crisis. What’s behind this holistic point of view?
That’s precisely the reasons why there’s two films, each two hours long.
It was an insane time to be filming. It was during the midst of the global health crisis, and the pandemic and a lockdown and to be inviting 20,000 people and athletes from 200 countries.
That was an enormous task for the Japanese Olympic Committee. There were so many questions. And nobody really had the answers. The conundrums, the conflicts and the challenges the JOC had to face was something I wanted to explore. That’s particularly the focus in the second film, “Side B.” The problems of getting to the Olympic opening ceremony.
“Side A” is more about the athletic side. It’s not necessarily a story about winning and losing gold medals, and is more of a story about the athletes and the journeys they embarked on in order to even get onto the Olympic stage.
More specifically, our focus was women athletes. Women who, in the years leading up to the Olympics, might have given birth, their duality of being elite athletes while also taking care of family members and being a mother.
Was that a deliberate recalibration of the traditional male-dominated view of sports?
Yes, there is a predominant focus on these women, but the film is more nuanced. It is not specifically about gender and is more just about the humanity that exists underneath athletics.
And it is an important record of its time. One of the things I wanted to document was the journey of Japanese women in present day Japanese society. Their overcoming challenges and the expectations of being a woman in Japan.
A huge turning point was the decision by the JOC to make more than half of the committee members Japanese women. [Mori Yoshihiro, president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, was also replaced after making outrageously sexist remarks about women athletes.]
I was recently having a conversation with [French filmmaking legend] Claude Lelouch, the filmmaker for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games [and also for the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics]. We agreed that even during times of great negativity and great strife emerges something beautiful, something positive.
These Olympics were a very trying time for Japanese society. They happened at a moment when a lot of things that had been below the surface of Japanese society emerged and surfaced. It may have been a turning point in Japanese society. And that’s what we wanted to document precisely.
The Japanese public was strongly against the games at one point, but by the time they were under way opinion had shifted. What was the turning point?
There was never just one turning point. It was a collectivity of things. I wanted to bring the focus back on the everyday hustle, challenges and the strife, especially of the committee members, issues of feminism. Also, of the government officials who took upon themselves this responsibility having committed Japan to holding these Games.
There’s something incredibly Japanese about this idea of responsibility and commitment. Maybe it cannot be fully understand beyond Japan. The notion of what you’ve decided, you have to see through.
And once the Olympics happened, of course, people were impressed with the athletic performances. I think that another turning point was the way that the Japanese public became emotional towards the athletic performances.
As a filmmaker who has made many films about home, family and so called “women’s subjects,” what do you make of the current #MeToo movement that appears to be emerging within the Japanese Film industry?
The pendulum is swinging in the Japanese film industry. The debate is becoming very emotional. But oftentimes, this current climate is very black and white, very women versus men, very polarized.
Of course, there’s a lot of things that need to be revised, to be changed within the Japanese film industry. There is a necessity for women to be in leadership positions and board members. At film festivals and production companies, as well. There needs to be a sense of diversity.
And just because you’re a woman, you’re expected to think a certain way and because you’re a man, you’re not supposed to be this or that. This polarization of thought is problematic. I wish that we could return to being human beings and talk to one another.
The two films were commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, the Tokyo Olympic Committee and the Kinoshita Group.