By Alonso Aguilar
Intercutting between sharp body movements and intense dramatic sights, French filmmaker Julien Faraut has retooled the sports documentary format to fit his own pursuits. For him, the subjects of his films aren’t just about their unmatched prowess and unthinkable triumphs, but more so a reflection of their own iconography. We see them through the lens of cinematic time. Their actions are repurposed, reframed and recontextualized, while their narratives leave behind the restrictive realms of representation in favor of the limitless possibilities of true expression. Through kaleidoscopic editing techniques and innovative use of archival footage, Faraut creates testaments to modern mythology; sociological inquiries that just happen to be built around sports narratives. We talked to him about his two films, John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection (2017) and The Witches of the Orient (2021), how film theory applies to body motion, and the responsibilities that emerge when portraying historical figures in foreign cultures.
DesistFilm: In both of your films so far you’ve used sports narratives as an opportunity for formal experimentation. How do you approach a world such as the film festival circuit, where these types of topics are sometimes frowned at?
Julien Faraut: I try to fill a void, really. As a viewer, I’m very frustrated with sports documentaries, because they’re basically TV broadcasts. They’re focused on the stories and narration, but don’t really care about form. On the other side, it’s a shame that the festival circuit is so laser-focused on “serious” and miserable subjects. I think it’s challenging to make them see sports as anything more than an event or entertainment. That’s why I started doing this. I had an opportunity while working in a film library to be close to archival footage. I said to myself: “I don’t want to make something that’s already been done”. But I never thought about sports as a restrictive topic.
In the case of The Witches of The Orient, for example, it’s also a portrait of post-WWII Japanese society and how representation reflects on reality. I always enjoy traversing the middle ground between fiction and reality, so this story was the perfect one for me. I mean, here is a group of women literally called witches, a figure from mythology, because of their prowess. I feel like in sports there’s always this relationship with mythology as a reference point. Giving teams nicknames, using biblical allegories, etc.
I guess that what I’m trying to do is to change the prejudices some critics and programmers have about “sports films”, if one were to believe in that label.
Desistfilm: You touch upon that whole mythological layer one always gets when listening to broadcasts. The mentions of David and Goliath, The Odyssey, and the whole spectrum of Greek myths in general. In a way, it seems like these are already ingrained in our ideas of sports narratives. When did you see in them an opportunity for a cinematic exploration?
Julien Faraut: In the case of The Witches… I stumbled upon an old Japanese volleyball instructional video that featured them. I was really struck by the intensity of the sequence. It was really unusual to see that kind of extreme training for women in the 60s. I also thought immediately about the anime Attack No.1, which was very popular all across Europe during the 70s, and was inspired by them. So I began to investigate, and the more I knew about them, the more I felt like I had to do a film around that footage. The whole context was quite amazing: A national team made up of women all working in the same textile factory!
Desistfilm: I also wanted to ask you about the transition from John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection to this new film. In the former, you basically only work with archival footage, but now you’ve expanded to include different layers like the anime and the contemporary interviews with the players.
Julien Faraut: I’m very respectful of my subjects. I think the main difference between documentary and fiction lies in the fact that in the former you don’t get to make all the choices. You can’t force someone to say something just because you want them to. We have a responsibility to show things as they are.
With John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, the main idea was to take advantage of the huge amount of footage available, and try to understand the conflicted relationship between McEnroe and the audience, since they had different understandings of what tennis was. In the case of The Witches of The Orient it was quite the opposite, actually. I had almost no footage. From the start, I knew it wasn’t going to be the same type of film. I read articles and reports from the period, and also read a bunch of academic papers, but every time I felt upset, since the writers seemed to think outside of the high-level sports reality. For me, there was a need to have the testimony of the players, because there’s this whole bunch of stuff written about them, yet we haven’t really heard from them or learned how they see themselves.
There was this whole narrative about them being victims of their coach’s exploits that came from Western circles. It seemed like to some people these women simply couldn’t just be high-level athletes excelling in their field. So I knew that the archival footage wasn’t going to be enough; space for them to express their own perspectives was also important.
The subjects between the films were so different, that I think it warranted the styles to also be different, but it came naturally from my understanding of the material, and the limitations and possibilities of each project. As I said earlier since we’re talking about documentary form, I don’t get to choose beforehand the form and style of my films, circumstance and reality also have a hand at that.
Desistfilm: Talking about those needs that arise, you’ve talked about how the use of some key anime sequences came from the lack of archival footage, but it also amplifies the motions of the players in a way, when seen side by side. You also played with the idea of movement in John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection, when you quote Serge Daney about the use of time and space, so I wanted to ask you about the different ways you frame and represent this in your films.
Julien Faraut: I loved precisely that from the anime: how it emphasized some scenes to the point of hyperbole. I really like this ping-pong theory of how fiction is inspired by reality, and then reality gets distorted by fiction; responding to it, and incorporating some elements from it. I really like these dialogues, so I want these layers to be side-by-side when I do editing; to explore how they play off each other. It’s also a question of having fun. In the case of The Witches… I also found the visual of transitioning between archival footage and cartoons to be pretty cool, so that was enough for me. (laughs)
Desistfilm: What’s your relationship with the images themselves during the editing process? You seem to approach it in a very playful manner, but do you ever think about striking a balance between your input and what’s being represented?
Julien Faraut: I think you can reproduce some material if it works. It’s definitely more convenient. But there are also some intangible aspects of the past that can’t be captured just like that, and that’s when you need to experiment as an editor. It really is an almost never ending process, since you can think you’ve hit the mark with this amazing sequence you’ve just created, and then it doesn’t work in the context of the film, alongside other elements. It’s almost by trial and error, but sometimes, those errors and accidents can also be winners. Sometimes it’s just a case of figuring it out in real time with whatever you have in hand.
Desistfilm: Now you’ve explored different narratives from tennis and volleyball, two well-known sports that aren’t really part of the zeitgeist like football or basketball. Do you have a conscious interest in underrepresented fields? Are these general throughlines something you want to keep exploring in your next projects?
Julien Faraut: My two films have something in common in how they’re not only about great iconic figures but also have something to say about the history of cinematic representation. What I want to explore are new links and dimensions between sports and cinema. I just started to think about visual training in sports and how they use cinematic terms and techniques, even if they’re not fully aware of it. Athletes need to create a frame for what they’re aiming to do. They need to choose between a subjective and objective angle. So it’s all about images. That’s why I’m so drawn to these topics. I’m not a novelist nor a journalist. I don’t think in terms of stories but of images. And I’ve found that sports speak in my same language.