Produced by Japanese director Naomi Kawase, the 120-minute film looks at the Olympics primarily from the point of view of the athletes — but not just the winning athletes.
After Tokyo, the film will be shown on Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival in the Bunuel Theatre, named for Spanish-born iconoclastic filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
“The Olympics are not just about getting prizes, being first and going after a victory that is right before you in the moment,” Kawase said in a recent interview. “I tried also to depict the pursuit of becoming winners in life.”
Kawase has also made another film looking at events away from the athletes, which has been called “Side B.” It will be debut at an unspecified date.
Kawase said she made the film in two parts because, after the Games were postponed by the pandemic, her subject became more complex.
The film looks at refugee athletes, and athletes who have defected. She also touched on gender equality, athletes competing as mothers, and covered the resignation of Yoshiro Mori as president of the local organizing committee.
Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, stepped down five months before the Olympics opened after making derogatory comments about women, saying they “talk too much.”
The documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by Kon Ichikawa, titled “Tokyo Olympiad,” is generally regarded as one of the most important in the genre. Also in that category is Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” from the 1936 Berlin Games.
Kawase said she was honored to follow in the footsteps of Ichikawa and tried to show what was visible, and also what is beyond being seen.
“I was moved by how human beings achieve the pinnacle of physical beauty,” Kawase said. “I felt they were so beautiful watching them; all the athletes, not just the winners. And the time they devoted to get there was also beautiful.”
The Kawase documentary is titled simply the “Official Film of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” She was named in 2018 to produce the film, which looks at the postponement in March of 2020 and the turmoil leading up to the opening — largely without fans — on July 23, 2021 — and the closing on Aug. 8.
In a synopsis, Cannes said the film took 750 days to shoot with 5,000 hours of filming.
It captures “not only the athletes gathered from all over the world, but also their families, people involved in the Games, volunteers, medial personnel, and protesters shouting for the cancellation of the Olympics. The film shows the passion and anguish that came out of these Olympic Games.”
Kawase is highly acclaimed and became the youngest director to receive the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival with her 1997 film “Suzaku.”
Her best known recent films are “Sweet Bean” and “Still the Water.”
The documentary is financed by the International Olympic Committee and the local organizing committee, and is a requirement under the hosting contract.
Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the Tokyo organizing committee, said when Kawase was introduced four years ago that the IOC owns the copyright to the film and “has the right to make key decisions in the creation of the film.”
Kawase said she has been affected by Russia's invasion or Ukraine, asking herself the meaning of entertainment amid the killing in war.
“I hope when people see this film 50 years from now, 100 years from now, they will understand the importance of protecting that bit of happiness — so small it can fit in the palm of your hand.”
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