Festivals, Reviews

IFFR 2021: ‘The Witches of the Orients’—Champions Defined by Their History

It is the personal that tells the specific moments lived through by an individual. It is the individual that comprises the society. It is the society that dictates one’s history. It is the history that births an individual. It is the individual that tells the personal. It is the personal that is political.

It was Nick Deocampo who taught us world cinema in film school. His approach in tackling a very broad topic was historical. I remember being in awe when he explained why he had chosen this uncommon approach: it is history that defined cinema. Everything made sense; I saw how one event was connected to another. One proof is the emergence of Philippine regional cinema during the rise of digital filmmaking: the mode of production was somewhat democratized by a film movement that isn’t dependent on highly technical devices. 

This very poetic, directly proportional relationship between the past and the present is also manifested in Julien Faraut’s docu-feature The Witches of the Orients. The film historicizes the making of the undefeated volleyball champions from Japan. On the surface, it seems to be another documentary glorifying athletes and the way they train. Yet this sports documentary isn’t just about flexing muscles and numerous achievements. It showed how their success is a result of the different events that happened in the history of the Japanese nation. 

The athletes are all factory workers who are groomed to become the next volleyball champions. They follow a specific routine that requires extreme discipline. They wake up. They work. They train. They sleep. Everything is mechanical. This familiar routine is also seen in the way they train. Balls are thrown at them nonchalantly. Their coach doesn’t care if they’re hurt or injured. Even when they have their monthly period, the male coach doesn’t care. The routine must go on; humans are replaceable. 

What is capitalism if not humans forgetting to become human? It is when we’re told to do things to “exceed” ourselves as naturally limited creatures. It is because capitalism expects us to do illogical things. It teaches us that being great is by doing “extraordinary” things. It introduces us to evil and power until we forget the core of being human and we decide to transform into something else–in their case, they’re witches. We romanticize struggles that make us different and “tougher”.

There are parallels in both training and working for the factory: it’s feudal, fascist, and routinary. This reflects the capitalist nature of sports, which is relevant until now. Instead of benefitting one’s health and well-being, sports has become based on winning and achieving. A successful athlete must be the champion in every competition, and the key to win is suffering. They’re programmed to achieve two main goals: they train to win and they produce to provide. Volleyball now is not just a sport, but a capitalistic idea that generates products–the champions. 

Here, the film isn’t just about these champions, as what’s happening on the macro level is being shown too. They live in a country that still hasn’t recovered from the war. Their eagerness to win is due to the pressure of giving back to their nation, an imagined idea by the people whom they belong to. Maybe Japan can redeem itself with a winning volleyball match during the 1964 Olympics and garnering a world record. It isn’t just about winning. It is about their wanting for world domination.

Volleyball is utilized to reflect a very essential time for Japan. It is the era of retribution and redemption. These issues are projected through an obsession over a sport. They may have the best volleyball champions in history, but at what cost? It is not only these intense training sessions that defined their championship. It is industrialization. It is feudal fascism. It is imperialism. It is the nation. It is Japan. It is the imagined community. It is history.

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