Top of the Docs #41 – IFFR Special: ‘Les sorcieres de l’Orient’ (2021)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be surveying the best documentaries January’s festival season has to offer, this week we head to IFFR!

One of the highlights of the 2018 London Film Festival was Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection. Mixing more experimental techniques with analysis of one of the most intense sports stars ever gave the film a fresh feel, McEnroe transcended from an iconic tennis player into a symbol of what it means to strive for perfection. This year at IFFR, Faraut returns with his new film, Les sorcieres de l’Orient, a story of triumph, dedication, and perhaps Japan’s most iconic sports team.

Now what immediately struck me about Les sorcieres de l’Orient was its awkward title. The phrase “oriental” is one that has been rightly criticised for its colonial roots. Luckily, this is something Faraut allows the women to discuss themselves, deconstructing what the word meant to them in relation to their moniker as “The Witches of the Orient”. The witches in question are, without a doubt, the greatest volley-ball team of all time, and were so popular in Japan that they led to a massive increase in the sport’s popularity, and numerous anime shows made based either directly on their story, or simply on the game.

Les sorcieres de l’Orient is admittedly not quite as bold as Faraut’s previous feature, however perhaps this is because McEnroe’s story is one more recognisable to western audiences. Regardless, the lack of edge present in Les sorcieres de l’Orient is made up for tenfold by the roundtable interviews with The Witches, now all in their ’70s. They describe their toil, factory workers by day and intense training drills at night; the fact that the team was a factory team makes their achievements all the more impressive.

It is worth noting that no prior knowledge of volleyball is necessary to enjoy this film. Faraut manages to recreate the tension that built around their matches. Increased fame of course led to increased pressure, and the film knows exactly when to lean into this pressure via animation or sound, and when to simply let the intensity of the sport speak for itself. Whether a fan, or new to the sport, the sheer magnetism of the team, and the fluidity with which they play makes for a compelling watch.

Despite lacking the abstract edge that made his previous film so compelling, Les sorcieres de l’Orient brings to light a fascinating story, told by those who experienced it. The roundtable discussions with the team completely dispel any of the rigidness present within a standard talking head interview and replaces it with something much more casual and organic. Faraut continues to prove himself as perhaps the documentarian of sport, be it through raising it above being simply a game, or as he has done with Les sorcieres de l’Orient – bringing a whole new audience to a story that deserves to be heard.

Les sorcieres de l’Orient trailer.

Header image courtesy of IFFR