Top of the Docs #3 – ‘Goshogaoka’ and Ambient as a Documentary Genre

When we think of basketball, it’s hard not to think of pace. The game is hardwired to be fast and physically demanding, something obvious from watching even five minutes of a game. This combination of speed, athleticism and strategy is what forms the very core of basketball. And it is exactly those qualities that Goshogaoka lacks.

Filmed in a Japanese middle school’s sports hall, Sharon Lockhart’s documentary consists of six ten-minute-long takes, with the camera fixed in the same position throughout. During these takes, we watch members of a girls’ basketball team conduct drills and exercises, each carefully choreographed with Lockhart. The drills are mesmerising and have a similar effect to synchronised swimming, movements forming patterns with the participants so in sync that it becomes hard to identify singular figures. The film challenges the viewer’s perception of a documentary by presenting its subject matter purely through aesthetics.

This ritualistic approach to documentary, which borders on performance art, is an argument for an ambient cinema somewhat similar to ambient music, a genre made famous by figures such as Brian Eno. The ever-evasive question surrounding the ambient genre is ‘what is it for?’ What purpose does making a film in which we simply watch a team run through drills for an hour serve? Of course, there is no definitive answer, and to understand what is so appealing about Goshogaoka you have to see the film. It has a magnetic appeal and can often feel similar to meditation, following the flow of the drills from the warmup to the cool down has an incredibly calming ability.

Lockhart is somewhat of a specialist at creating ambient documentaries, with Teatro Amazonas (1999) beinga film shot in a single unedited take, following an audience as they watch a live performance by the Choral do Amazonas choir in Brazil. Lunch Break (2008) is a similar experience, this time observing workers in a locker filled corridor at a massive shipbuilding factory on the Kennebec River in Maine. Her documentary vision is singular, it creates an untampered look at community and the peculiarities of the crowd.

What makes Goshogaoka stand out, though, is its precision. Although Teatro Amazonas and Lunch Break both manage to capture the wonder and oddity of a crowd, Goshogaoka remains unique in the way it traces and presents choreographed movement. The film is hypnotic in its ability to draw in an audience and make them feel comfort. What helps is the complete removal of training routine stereotypes; there are no loud coaches, or chaotic games taking place. Everything in the film is soft, including the shyness of the girls in the team. The complete removal of all masculinity from sports is something we don’t often see in sports documentaries, but Goshogaoka does so in such an understated manner that it comes across as a side effect of Lockhart’s practice.

Ambient documentary as a genre, or a technique, is certainly a rarity. Apart from Lockhart, and perhaps James Benning, it is difficult to think of filmmakers that manage to create such minimalistic yet rich works. Goshogaoka strips away everything we know about basketball and reduces it to its purest qualities – precision and movement, and through this the film allows us to explore our own personal relationships with the two.

Goshogaoka excerpt