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Naomi Kawase's Olympic film promises to be like nothing you've ever seen before

Updated 22nd July 2021
2DBRFXT Tokyo, Japan. 17th Nov 2020. Naomi Kawase, November 17, 2020 : IOC President Thomas Bach visits the National Stadium (Olympic Stadium) for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Yohei Osada/AFLO SPORT/Alamy Live News Credit: Aflo Co. Ltd./Alamy Live News
Credit: Yohei Osada/AFLO SPORT/Alamy Live News
Naomi Kawase's Olympic film promises to be like nothing you've ever seen before
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
Naomi Kawase is on her phone in the back of a taxi, squeezing in this interview on the way to another shoot. For a director known for her lyrical brand of filmmaking, she talks at a clip; time is pressing, understandable as the days edge closer to the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Japanese auteur, the nation's most famous female director, is deep into the production of her official film of the delayed Games. By her count she has recorded over 300 hours of footage already, with at least another 100 ahead. Despite the familiar format of the event, what remains could be the most unpredictable hours yet -- the uncertainty nothing to do with who wins and loses once the Games begin.
Speaking to CNN in early July, before a state of emergency was extended in Tokyo and news broke that spectators will be absent from Olympic venues in the city, she laid out her vision. It is, by Olympic documentary standards, radical, and so steeped in the pandemic already that even this latest twist in the script would likely enrich rather than derail her film. "I'd like it to be a work that remains, even after 50 or 100 years," she said.

"It's very important to keep both negative and positive"

Kawase directs Juliette Binoche in 2018 film "Vision."
Kawase directs Juliette Binoche in 2018 film "Vision." Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
By taking the commission, Kawase joins the likes of Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Milos Forman, Arthur Penn and Leni Riefenstahl as acclaimed directors to answer the Olympic calling. But despite her renown, there was some uncertainty when Kawase was appointed in 2018. How would a fiercely independent director fare not only covering, but working with, such colossal institutions? Would the filmmaker behind intimate award winners "Radiance" and "Suzaku" be forced to adjust her style to accommodate a sprawling commercial event such as the Olympics?
Signs suggest she remains steadfast, even if the pandemic has forced her to change the way she works.
Like directors before her, she is profiling competitors from around the world. It's sharing their backstories, she explained, that set films apart from television broadcasts of the Games. "I'd rather focus on mom athletes, as I am female myself," she said, "and access those athletes who develop their careers as top athletes even after they become mothers." It is, she added, "a relatively unique approach."
To do so required her to tap into a network of young directors outside Japan linked to the Nara International Film Festival (where she is executive director) to conduct shoots abroad, while she interviewed athletes remotely.
Alongside this material she said she has a crew of 100, "running about throughout Japan" recording people preparing for the Games "with such positive and forward-looking feelings."
Kawase shooting her upcoming official film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Kawase shooting her upcoming official film of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: courtesy Tokyo 2020
However, Kawase's lens extends far further than the usual assortment of athletes and organizers we normally find in these films. Circumstances have played a part. So too has curiosity. "What feelings do the medical workers, mainly in Tokyo and all over Japan, working against the coronavirus, have during this period?" she asks. The director has been visiting a hospital and its coronavirus ward to learn more.
She has also been filming quarantine staff at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. During the pandemic, frontline workers have been working "harder than (ever) before -- even without enough sleep and food," she added.
"I believe the figures who are striving day and night to make (the Games) as safe and secure as possible represent a truly important part of this documentary film."
Kawase even sought out those set against holding the Games in the midst of a pandemic, and those distancing themselves from it, including a volunteer who resigned (she does not elaborate on the reason why).
"I think it's very important to keep both negative and positive feelings as the record of this period," she explained. The Olympics may be an outlet for negativity, she suggests, rather than the source of it: "The feelings are anxiety that our life is threatened by the coronavirus, and frustration; frustration with the insufficient amount of information from the government. These lead to (questions about) why such a big event should be held in Japan."
A photograph dated July 17, 2021, shows police officers blocking activists in Tokyo at a protest calling for the cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games.
A photograph dated July 17, 2021, shows police officers blocking activists in Tokyo at a protest calling for the cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

In the footsteps of a legend

This search for truth, however uncomfortable, has the potential to ruffle feathers (the International Olympic Committee commissioned Kawase). She wouldn't be the first Japanese filmmaker involved in an Olympics to do so. The late Kon Ichikawa documented the 1964 Games, only to have his film disliked by the people who commissioned it, who used his footage to make another. While that film, "Sensation of the Century," was received politely, Ichikawa's impressionistic, daring "Tokyo Olympiad" is now hailed as one of the greatest films about sport ever made.
Kon Ichikawa (center) directing a crew at the Tokyo Games of 1964.
Kon Ichikawa (center) directing a crew at the Tokyo Games of 1964. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Kawase, an admirer, describes it as a "very challenging experiment": both a record of the '64 Games and a narrative of the Games told through Ichikawa's eyes. Like Ichikawa, Kawase said she is looking to focus on narrative in her documentary. As inspirations go, you could have worse guiding lights.
The 1964 and 2020 Olympics already have a lot in common: both are billed as "recovery" Games for Japan, the former a nation reborn after World War Two, the latter linked to the reemergence of Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear disaster. Kawase will head to the city before the opening ceremony to document the softball, which starts early and is making a one-off return to the Games. Like Tokyo, Fukushima will be without spectators.
When the Games begin on July 23, she will be backstage at the Japan National Stadium recording some 10,000 athletes enter a near-empty arena, "to capture what cannot be seen on TV." After the ceremony, the lawn will be replaced, ready for the track and field to commence. Naturally, Kawase's cameras will be there through the night.
"This event cannot be turned into reality without the support from those working on such thankless tasks, and I'm ready to film the fact, because that means a lot to me," she explains.
The film is due for completion in early spring 2022, with a Japanese release the same summer. She admits "the schedule will be quite tight," but should all go to plan, it could debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
"The next Olympics will be held in Paris," she said. "I'd very much like to introduce this film at the biggest film festival in France -- of course, should it be accepted by Cannes." She needn't worry; the festival regular has had nine films play there to date.
A Games like no other will have a film like no other. We'll have to wait, but all signs point to Kawase providing an invaluable perspective for the billions who can't be there.
This story has been updated to correct who commissioned Kawase's Olympic film, and the number of films Kawase has had played at the Cannes Film Festival.