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“Driven Beyond Dignity” – Les Sorcières de l’Orient (IFFR 2021 Film Review)

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For many athletes, the dream of Olympic gold is the achievement of a lifetime. Every four-years, these hopeful contestants duel in a high-octane battle of sweat, tears, and spiritual intensity. While the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was unfortunately postponed due to the obvious pandemic that is currently spreading around the globe; the thought of attending the Olympics and being part of international history is what many consider to be the dream of a prosperous sports career. For Nichibo Kaizuka, or better known in the western sphere as ‘Oriental Witches', the dream of competitive sports was a very similar endeavour for the now distinguished team. In the latest sports from Julien Faraut, the up-and-coming French director tackles yet another historic event in world sports history. 

Right off the heels of his John McEnroe documentary from a few years back, Faraut's Les Sorcières de l'Orient describes the legacy of the aforementioned Oriental Witches. For the first time in around 50 years, a select few of the team members of the Oriental Witches team have finally gathered together to discuss upon their rigorous training and eventual Olympic gold success. The irony of it all is that the documented interviews are easily the weakest element throughout the film's organic storytelling. Where the rest of the film combines archival footage, pre-existing anime and manga, on screen text, and a soft techno score there is a jarring disconnect in the assembly and pace of the recently documented footage. 

Perhaps, the case is that Faraut's greatest strong suit is in the assembly of hypnotic montages. Whenever the film cuts back to the present-day footage, the film loses its footing with its high-octane pacing. Where the aforementioned montages add a level of intricacy and detail through cutting that matches perfectly with the beat and rhythm of a grueling Volleyball routine the newly documented footage don't add anything particularly insightful nor nuanced to the climactic buildup. It isn't until the very end where Faraut decides to focus entirely on the montages to depict an emotionally satisfying conclusion. But at that moment, it's a little too late. 

The story and legacy of the Oriental Witches will forever be remembered in the minds and souls of sports fanatics and historians from around the globe. But as a documentary that is specifically meant to demonstrate the versatility and global importance of the Nichibo Kaizuka factory team, Faraut's creative vision ends up slightly middling within its good intentions. If only the film kept its interview-free approach, while commenting on the increase of industrialisation conjoining with the Olympics during a post-war . Sometimes, a lack of dialogue and narration can often lead to more progressive results in creating a refreshing new form of documentary filmmaking. 

Dir: Julien Faraut

Scr: Julien Faraut

DOP: Yamazaki Yutaka

Country: France

Year: 2021

Runtime: 100 minutes

Les Sorcières de l'Orient premiered at this year's historic Rotterdam Film Festival edition, as part of the Big Screen Competition program. The film is currently seeking international distribution.

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